It has always bothered me that people start discussing what’s for dinner after a funeral service ends. I could never understand how quickly people can move from something horrible to something ordinary. Sure, part of my distaste stems from having experienced a horrific loss myself. I lost my husband, Jim, after less than four years of marriage because of a heart condition he never knew existed. He went to work and collapsed during his lunch hour. His death destroyed my world and the last thing I wanted to do after the funeral was enjoy a meal with others.
But this is about more than my own experience. Funeral repasts anger me because they are emblematic of how our society discourages grieving.
Grieving is painful, and pain is uncomfortable. Nobody enjoys it, so a stigma has developed around it. Since our childhood we have been conditioned to bury or avoid our “negative” feelings. Sports are a good example. “Shake it off” and “Rub some dirt on it” are two lessons children are taught when injured. Social media has made it worse. Rarely do people post their problems on Facebook. Usually they post pretty pictures of their lives — the child who wins a school award, the vacation the family has just returned from, the spouse who earned a promotion, etc … Life on social media is a Norman Rockwell painting. Reality is quite different.
Technology deserves some blame as well. Instant gratification is our mantra, which is why there is an app for everything. Need something and want it ASAP? Type it into your app and you will not only get what you want, you will even have someone deliver it to you. How convenient? Unfortunately, there is no app to cure pain or grief.
Helicopter parenting has inflicted plenty of damage of its own. Well-meaning, but misguided fears have led parents to shelter their children from experiencing failure, pain, and loss. These are essential life lessons for children being denied by parents who would rather satisfy their kids’ every desire and shield them from every possible negative experience.
Is it any wonder people feel an almost pathological need to put on a happy face?
This must end.
Society creates the perception that all that is needed after a loss is for the individual to take a little time to breathe — and then get back to work. It is as if people will only tolerate grieving for a fixed period of time. After that it is time to “shake it off.” No. That is not how it works.
When Jim passed I was devastated. I did not care what others thought or what was expected of me. When you lose someone you can never return to being the person you were beforehand. And what is more — you should not try to! This is incredibly important to grasp because you will continually face the clash between who you have become and who society wants you to be.
What I have learned and what I teach my clients is, “You must feel the feelings before you can let them go.” Too often people put a band-aid on their grief and return to their work lives. This is a dangerous mistake because feelings do not dissipate when ignored. They return with a fury. Here are a few good rules to follow when recovering from the death of a loved one:
Rule #1 – Every person grieves differently, and all ways are acceptable. If you need to lay in bed and cry, then lay in bed and cry. If you need to run a marathon, then go run a marathon. Do whatever you feel is necessary. For me simply getting out of bed on some days was an accomplishment.
We all have a little voice in our head telling us what we need. Listen to it. We are taught to ignore that voice and to follow what society says we should do. Ignore society and listen to your inner voice.
Rule #2 – Every person’s path through grief is unique. Find your path. For me it was nature. When I married my husband I moved from Michigan to Colorado, where I am surrounded by some of the most beautiful natural creations in the world: mountains, lakes, greenery. You name it. The bucolic surroundings helped my healing — in my own time and my own way.
Some find their path through interacting with others socially, or volunteering their time supporting causes. Whatever encourages your healing, do it.
Rule #3 – Rediscover something you enjoyed doing before your loss. It does not matter what it is or when you did it. It could be something you did when you were three years old. The idea is to return to your roots and to recapture a time when you experienced pure, uninhibited joy. During my healing process I did a lot of coloring. It helped. What will return you to those roots of joy?
It has been nearly two and a half years since Jim’s death, and I believe I am still in recovery. The truth is that healing is a lifelong process.
I often tell clients that there should be a class in school where children are taught at a young age that it is okay to feel. Nobody feels great always. It is not normal. Once we remove the stigma around negative feelings and encourage one another to embrace our emotions, we will probably find a world with less mental illness and less need for counselors such as myself.
Wouldn’t that be welcome?