“Those who said nothing were trying to not bring on more pain; those who said the wrong thing were trying to comfort, I saw myself in many of these attempts – they were doing exactly what I had done when I was on the other side.”
On June 3, 2015, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, shared her innermost thoughts about grieving her late husband in a Facebook post that most of us should probably read. She also wrote Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, which was co-authored by psychologist Adam Grant. We need more books like these. It’s astonishing to see the lack of literature, information and education on the grieving process.
How we approach those who are grieving is a life skill that we should teach in school. Everyone will eventually experience the uncomfortable feeling of sitting in a room with a bereaved relative, colleague or friend. Every word we utter is crucial to their healing and consequently to our healing as a collective soul.
As I was reading an article entitled Life After Death in Time Magazine by Belinda Luscombe, I quickly realized that a tiny piece of scrap paper for notes wouldn’t do. Sandberg was quoted several times and I did not expect to be so moved by the words of a corporate figure. My throat tightened and I jotted down the thoughts that were flooding my brain. She’s got us. She understands and she has the platform to share her message. Sandberg mentions the void, the emptiness and the feeling that others don’t care. However, she has the ability to express herself eloquently and she calmly explains that when we are grieving, the people around us just don’t know how to address the elephant in the room.
Personally, I didn’t bring up the subject of my mother’s death because I felt ashamed. I could not help but wonder, “Why is this happening to me and not to you?” Don’t get me wrong, I did not want family, friends or acquaintances to lose someone that they cherished. Still, I felt singled out, chosen, guilty.
I briefly discussed this with a friend who had lost her father. She agreed with me and proceeded to tell me that she felt the same way. Does society impose these feelings on us? Are we taught to feel this way or do we sabotage ourselves? Luscombe states “And yet, the bereaved are often treated like those to whom something unnatural or disgraceful has happened.” She is right. Indeed, that is exactly how I felt.
However, nothing could be further than the truth. Death is natural. Dying is just part of being human.
When my mother passed away, I too could sense the tension that my simple existence created. I realize now that I actually contributed to the lack of comfort that I received. I didn’t want to be viewed as weak. I thought I had to be strong and my unwillingness to bring up the subject just deepened the discomfort that friends and family felt.
After going through the process of loss myself and observing others do the same, I now recognize what happens once the confused rush is over. In the days following the death of a loved one, you are expected to take care of the arrangements and everything else that follows. Eventually, the day comes when you have to tend to their belongings. By the time that period has passed, your family and friends have witnessed what they saw as steadfast strength, then they don’t expect you to grieve. They expect you to move on. Unfortunately, that’s when most of us break down. It hits when the logistics have been taken care of and we have nothing left to hold onto. The busyness transforms into silence. The realization that our loved one is gone forever creeps in. That’s when we need a shoulder to cry on.
Nonetheless, we cannot just blame others who do not know how to react to our grief, as we are new to the process too. Even if you are experiencing your second or third loss, it is still a different loss. You are left trying to find your way and sometimes your loved ones are stumped as to how to express empathy; that’s why Sandberg’s message is so important. When people we know face the death of someone that they loved dearly, we are asked to put ourselves in their shoes but we all have a different perspective because we are looking through our unique “glasses”. We view the situation with our past baggage. Our feelings, thoughts, past experiences, opinions, values, aspirations and culture dictate our reaction to grief.
So when are we going to accept that different people have different needs. Dealing with grief should be part of our basic education. We should be taught the stages of grief, the signs that someone is grieving and the many ways that people deal with their loss. For some people, healing can only happen if they have a certain sense of normalcy; others need to delve deep into their soul and may remain inconsolable for a long time.
When I was a teacher, one of my colleagues lost her sister in a car accident. She returned to work only a few days later. To my horror, I noticed that other teachers were criticizing her because she came back so soon. The message? Live, let be, but be there. As Sandberg said, let the grieving know you are there but don’t say that everything will be okay, because their lives will never be the same again. Oprah Winfrey likes to talk about “a new normal” when people are faced with adversity.
The gaping hole that is left behind by the loss of someone dear to you is real and raw. Most of the time, it’s well hidden and tucked away but it’s right there under the surface. Do you pretend as if nothing happened or do acknowledge someone’s painful experience and bring it up? CEO Mark Zuckerberg is right when he asks, “Are you reopening a wound or something?” He then replies to his own question. He thinks Sandberg would exclaim, “You’re not reopening the wound, I mean, it’s, like, open and gaping.” Many times, it’s screaming to be uncovered because it needs to be exposed in order to heal. Still, the majority of us would rather tiptoe around the subject. Grief should not be taboo. We just need the right tools to discuss it the correct way and be able to discern whether or not the grieving want to address it publicly. Perhaps they just need our mere presence to cope.
We have all experienced some form of grief but everybody grieves in their own way, some more privately than others. Yet, every one of us needs a certain level of validation, such as a pat on the back, a thoughtful gift or a sweet whisper saying, “I got you, I know it hurts”. Despite the fact that the mourner’s immediate reaction may be to weep and it seems like we are making it worse, in the end, being surrounded by people that show that they care, heals. It fills the gap. It will never go away but knowing that you have kindred spirits in your immediate surroundings, builds you up.
Once that someone special is gone, you will never be the same again. I still cry for my mother every now and then. I am an introvert so I like to lock my bedroom door, bury my face into my pillow and sob until it is soaked with tears. On the other hand, it’s reassuring to know that I have people I can trust if the pain becomes unbearable. If you would like to share how you coped with your grief or someone else’s, please do so. Did you get the support that you needed? Did you provide encouragement to loved ones in despair?