The Reality of Loss
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Most of what passes for grief support these days is less than useful. Because we don’t talk about loss, most people—and many professionals—think of grief and loss as aberrations, detours from a normal, happy life.
We believe that the goal of grief support, personal or professional, is to get out of grief, to stop feeling pain. Grief is something to get through as quickly as possible. An unfortunate, but fleeting, experience that is best sorted and put behind you.
It’s that faulty belief that leaves so many grieving people feeling alone and abandoned on top of their grief. There’s so much correction and judgment inside grief; many feel it’s just easier to not talk about what hurts. Because we don’t talk about the reality of loss, many grieving people think that what’s happening to them is strange, or weird, or wrong.
There is nothing wrong with grief. It’s a natural extension of love. It’s a healthy and sane response to loss. That grief feels bad doesn’t make it bad; that you feel crazy doesn’t mean you are crazy.
Grief is part of love. Love for life, love for self, love for others. What you are living, painful as it is, is love. And love is really hard. Excruciating at times.
If you’re going to feel this experience as part of love, we need to start talking about it in real terms, not as pathology, and not with some false hope of everything working out alright in the end.
You are not “OK.” You might not ever be “OK.”
Whatever grief you’re carrying, it’s important to acknowledge how bad this is, how hard. It really is horrendous, horrifying, and unsurvivable.
This book is not about fixing you, or fixing your grief. It’s not about making you “better” or getting you back to “normal.” This book is about how you live inside your loss. How you carry what cannot be fixed. How you survive.
And even though that thought—that you can survive something as horrifying as this—is unsettling and horrifying in its own right, the truth is, you will most likely survive.
Your survival in this life post-loss won’t follow steps or stages, or align with anyone else’s vision of what life might be for you. Survival won’t be found, can’t be found, in easy answers or in putting your lost life behind you, pretending you didn’t really want it anyway.
In order to survive, to find that life that feels authentic and true to you, we have to start with telling the truth. This really is as bad as you think. Everything really is as wrong, and as bizarre, as you know it to be. When we start there, we can begin to talk about living with grief, living inside the love that remains
Why Words of Comfort Feel So Bad
HEY, ME TOO!
When they hear about your loss, many people will try to empathize by telling you their own grief stories. This ranges from the close-but-no-cigar comparison of “My husband died, too,” to “My goldfish died when I was eight, so I know just how you feel.”
We share stories of loss to communicate that we understand where you are: “Hey, look. I’ve walked this road. I understand how you feel.”
Shared loss stories are an attempt to make you feel less alone inside your grief. They don’t usually land that way, though. Comparing one grief with another almost always backfires. One experience of loss does not translate into another. Grief is as individual as love. That someone has experienced a loss—even one similar to yours—does not mean they understand you.
We all want to talk about our pain. We all carry stories that need acknowledgment. But right now? Right now, when you are in pain, when your loss is primary and powerful? That is not the time for a two-way, give-and-take discussion about the losses we all sustain.
Grief comparison and shared grief stories do not bring you comfort. Of course they don’t.
It can feel like your own loss has been eclipsed by the speaker’s need to tell their own story—no matter how long ago it happened, or how irrelevant it is to your loss.
Talking about their own pain is a way the speaker moves the focus off supporting you and onto getting their own needs met. It seems nefarious, but it’s just one of the subtle ways our faulty grief culture impacts your actual grieving process.
There is a time and a place to discuss our shared stories of loss. When your world has just imploded is not one of those times. You feel “mugged” by other people’s grief stories because something has been taken away from you: the central importance of your current reality.
Even without comparison, words of comfort from other people can still feel horribly wrong.
Stepping over some of the more egregious and ridiculously hurtful things people have said (for now), here’s a short list of some of the things grieving people have heard from people intending to offer comfort and support:
- At least you had them for as long as you did.
- You can always have another child/find another partner.
- They’re in a better place now.
- At least now you get to know what’s really important in life.
- This will make you a better person in the end.
- You won’t always feel this bad.
- You’re stronger than you think.
- This is all part of the plan.
- Everything happens for a reason.
Saying something like “He wouldn’t want you to be sad” or “At least you had her for as long as you did” might seem like a comfort. The problem is, there’s an implied second half of the sentence in all those familiar lines. That second half of the sentence unintentionally dismisses or diminishes your pain; it erases what is true now in favor of some alternate experience. That ghost-sentence tells you it’s not OK to feel how you feel.
THE SECOND HALF OF THE SENTENCE
For each of these familiar comforting statements, add the phrase “so stop feeling so bad.”
- At least you had her for as long as you did (so stop feeling so bad).
- He died doing something he loved (so stop feeling so bad).
- You can always have another child (so stop feeling so bad).
If you cringe or feel angry when friends and family try to comfort you, it’s because you hear the second half of that sentence, even when they don’t say it out loud. The implication is always there, speaking louder in its own silence: stop feeling how you feel.
Friends and family want you to feel better. They want to take away your pain. What they don’t understand is that in trying to take your pain away, they’re actually dismissing and minimizing the extent of your grief. They aren’t seeing your reality for what it is. They don’t see you.
Words of comfort that try to erase pain are not a comfort. When you try to take someone’s pain away from them, you don’t make it better. You just tell them it’s not OK to talk about their pain.
To feel truly comforted by someone, you need to feel heard in your pain. You need the reality of your loss reflected back to you—not diminished, not diluted. It seems counterintuitive, but true comfort in grief is in acknowledging the pain, not in trying to make it go away.
EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON
Things like “Everything happens for a reason” and “You’ll become a stronger/kinder/more compassionate person because of this” bring out rage in grieving people. Nothing makes a person angrier than when they know they’re being insulted, but they can’t figure out how.
It’s not just erasing your current pain that makes words of comfort land so badly. There’s a hidden subcontext in those statements about becoming better, kinder, and more compassionate because of your loss, that often-used phrase about knowing what’s “truly important in life” now that you’ve learned how quickly life can change.
The unspoken second half of the sentence in this case says you needed this somehow. It says that you weren’t aware of what was important in life before this happened. It says that you weren’t kind, compassionate, or aware enough in your life before this happened. That you needed this experience in order to develop or grow, that you needed this lesson in order to step into your “true path” in life.
You didn’t need this. You don’t have to grow from it, and you don’t have to put it behind you. Both responses are too narrow and shaming to be of use. Life-changing events do not just slip quietly away, nor are they atonements for past wrongs. They change us. They are part of our foundation as we live forward. What you build atop this loss might be growth. It might be a gesture toward more beauty, more love, more wholeness. But that is due to your choices, your own alignment with who you are and who you want to be. Not because grief is your one-way ticket to becoming a better person.
The New Model of Grief
MASTERY VERSUS MYSTERY
Grief no more needs a solution than love needs a solution. We cannot “triumph” over death, or loss, or grief. They are immovable elements of being alive. If we continue to come at them as though they are problems to be solved, we’ll never get solace or comfort in our deepest pain.
The problem with mastery orientation is that it makes us look at everything as a problem to be solved, or a challenge to be vanquished. Things like birth and death, grief and love, don’t fit well inside that narrative of mastery.
It’s that intention of fixing, of curing, of going back to “normal” that messes with everything. It stops conversation, it stops growth, it stops connection, it stops intimacy. Honestly, if we just changed our orientation to grief as a problem to be solved and instead see it as a mystery to be honored, a lot of our language of support could stay the same.
We can’t wage war on the “problem” of grief without waging war on each other’s hearts. We need to let what is true be true. We need to find ways to share in the shattering experience of loss—in our own lives and in the larger world. Shoving through what hurts will never get any of us what we most want—to feel heard, companioned, and seen for who we are, where we are.
What we need, moving forward, is to replace that mastery approach to grief with a mystery orientation to love: all the parts of love, especially the difficult ones.
Bowing to the mystery of grief and love is such a different response than fixing it. Coming to your own broken heart with a sense of respect and reverence honors your reality. It gives you space to be exactly as you are, without needing to clean it up or rush through it. Something in you can relax. The unbearable becomes just that much easier to survive.
It seems too intangible to be of use, but finding the middle ground of grief happens only when we turn our gaze to face it directly. When we allow the reality of grief to exist, we can focus on helping ourselves—and one another—survive inside pain.
Living in the Reality of Loss
WHEN IS IT TIME TO . . .
Because there’s so much unsolicited advice and opinion floating around the grief world, it’s easy to lose track of what you actually want for yourself. Many people
wondering when is the “right time” to remove their wedding rings, or convert their child’s bedroom into a guest room, or stop referring to their brother in the present tense.
The answer is simple: there is no right time.
You can’t wait for the time to feel right, because it likely never will. None of this is something you would ever choose. When you’re trying to make a decision, you can’t wait until it feels good
If taking off your wedding rings makes you feel sick, it’s not the right time to take them off. If you start to panic at the thought of moving anything in your child’s room, then don’t move anything. If someone has told you it’s time to donate your sister’s clothes and you break out in hives, immortalize her closet.
You don’t have to change anything until you’re ready. There are weird family politics to contend with at times for sure, but for the most part, what you do with things in your home or on your body is up to you. When you make larger life decisions—like when (or whether) to date, sell your house, or change careers—is entirely up to you. No time is the right time. Nothing is too early or too late.
Along these same lines, it’s perfectly normal to leave things exactly as your person left them. Evidence that they were here, that they lived, that they were part of you is important. When your life has evaporated, those touchstones become the whole world.
You will do what you need to do when you need to do it. Not a moment before. It will never feel good. But if it makes you feel sick, now is not the time. Use the vomit metric for any decisions you have to make and for the ones you feel like you’re supposed to make.
The One Thing People Really Don’t Like To Talk About
The reality of anger never gets any positive airtime in our culture. You’re not supposed to be angry. No matter what’s happened, showing anger is . . . unseemly. Much like grief, anger is met with deep discomfort: it’s fine in short doses, but it needs to be moved through quickly, without much noise.
This boycott on anger is ridiculous.
All emotion is a response to something. Anger is a response to a sense of injustice. Of course you’re angry: whatever has happened to you is unjust. It doesn’t matter whether “fairness” is logical, or whether there’s a reason something happened.
Contrary to pop-psychology and the medical model, anger is healthy, normal, and necessary. As with most things, if it isn’t given recognition and support, it gets turned inward, where it can become poisonous. What we don’t listen to (or refuse to listen to) doesn’t go away—it just finds other ways to speak. Shushed anger joins a backlog of disallowed emotion, popping up in health issues, interpersonal challenges, and mental torment. Those negative images we have of rage actually come from anger that isn’t allowed to exist: repression creates pressure, which creates toxic behaviors set atop what used to be a healthy response to injustice.
All of this is to say that your anger surrounding your loss is welcome. It’s healthy. It’s not something to rush through so you can be more “evolved” or acceptable to the people around you. Find ways to give your sense of injustice and anger a voice. When you can say you’re angry, without someone trying to clean it up or rush you through it, it doesn’t have to twist back in on itself.
Touching your anger can be scary. If it feels too big, lean on a trusted friend or therapist. This is one place having an ally is really useful. It’s OK to ask people how they feel about hearing your anger—it lets them be prepared to really listen, and allows you to know whether they can hear what’s true without trying to rush you through your anger before it’s had its say.