Last year I walked into a restaurant with my family to meet a friend. My friend came up and gave me a hug, but I didn’t get a greeting, I was informed with a whisper in my ear that my friend’s mother had died only the night before. I was shocked. The cancer battle had been lost much sooner than expected. My friend left. I sat down at the table, tears building, my family looking worried at my sudden countenance change. I looked around the restaurant and realized that many of the people knew my friend’s mother, and there was a good chance very few, if any, of them knew she had died.
I was in a dilemma: One option was that I could show my authentic tears, cry as I felt I needed to, and be quite a spectacle in this small-town restaurant. Option two was to swallow it, “pull myself together” and put on a fake smile, pretend I hadn’t just received devastating news.
Does either of those sound like a good option? I know that many of us pick Option Two.
I chose a third option: I struggled to tell my family, I let them see I was upset, and I excused myself to the bathroom for about 5 minutes. With the old fan running loudly, I let myself cry. I acknowledge the shock, pain and loss of a person who was very influential in my life. I chose to do it privately, authentically, because it was not my place to announce this death to the whole restaurant. I wasn’t grieving alone because I knew I had my family’s support. It was not a safe situation to share my feelings so publicly, but I needed to allow myself to express my sorrow. I also hurt for my friend who didn’t know about Grief Recovery and the tools Aspen’s Angels has for losses.
I did gather myself, dry my tears and return to my table. I didn’t plaster on a fake smile, but I wasn’t unpleasant. I chose how to deal with my feelings, I didn’t let my feelings run me. Once we were finished eating and we had retreated to the safety of the car, I allowed the tears to roll as needed while I shared with my family why this loss was deep for me. It only took a few minutes, and we were able to continue our day, though I was definitely less enthusiastic. Allowing myself to express my grief in that moment was key to being able to continue with the scheduled events of that day.
We talk a lot about being authentic with our emotions, especially in grief. The challenge is it’s often not pretty, it’s vulnerable, even uncomfortable. When we are in the midst of that pain, we need to surround ourselves with safe people.
The challenge is knowing who the “SAFE” people are.
A safe person is going to sit with us in our grief, even if it’s uncomfortable. They will listen, not compare or compete, with our grief, and will not try to give platitudes and “fix” it by telling us to look on the bright side.
Hear this next part: Unsafe does NOT mean bad. Some of the best, most caring people in our lives simply don’t know how to support us in our grief.
Sometimes losses illuminate that some of our inner circle may not be safe in grief. That doesn’t mean we push them out of our circle. They may not have had the opportunity to learn how to support someone in grief. This is where we must be the teachers. If we trust them in other areas, they are likely to be teachable and become trustworthy in this area. They didn’t make the inner circle with destructive behavior. So tell them what you need. They love you, they want to help you in the best way possible.
With those who aren’t safe in your grief, we must now learn how to put up appropriate boundaries so that we don’t allow further injury in our grief journey. For example, it is ok when someone unsafe asks us how we are doing to simply say, “Not great, but I don’t want to talk about that right now.” And if necessary, walk away. We don’t pretend we are happy when we are sad, we choose a safe place to express that. We do get to be in charge of our response to our feelings.
And again, we must be the teacher. We must tell people what we want and need.
This will never be easy, but tools make these challenges navigable.
Remember, to Live well, we must Grieve well.