Why hide grief?

Part of the ancient human instinct for survival is to not show weakness or fear. It’s a defense against predators, to appear strong in all ways, to increase the chance of survival by fooling predators into thinking that you are stronger than you really are, hoping the predators choose weaker appearing victims. This process likely predates the evolution of the emotion of love, but it remains with us. This process closes us to others when we grieve, sometimes to destructive effect. 

Society seeks strength and diminishes weakness, so there is immense pressure when grieving loss to appear to be strong. This is one of the most destructive things we do around grief, because it treats love that overwhelms someone as a weakness and promotes the resulting tears are weakness. The process of hiding grief from the public eye is isolating and dangerous. Grieving is not weakness, it is not an affliction, grief is a healthy natural part of life, grief is not a disability.

We need to talk more about love that we shared, we need to shine our love on that and illuminate the memory of a person without fearing that we will appear weak by appearing to others as vulnerable. This is probably the root of males having problems processing and expressing grief, our inability to communicate how we men are feeling. It creates a divide, an isolation within couples, within families and within communities.

The best eulogies are tearful, full of choke points and broken speech. Nothing is worse than a deadpan delivery emotionless eulogy that reads like a historical timeline. Perhaps I am biased, I have written and delivered those emotional eulogies that tapped into my deepest points of love and connected the mourners to them to the point that brought their tears. We are not weak when we cry, we are not vulnerable to harm because we are emotional, we are opening ourselves to share our love and our pain and to share care among the survivors. And we do no damage when our words make others cry from remembering a life. 

People say to me “I don’t know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one”. The simple answer is that saying nothing is always the wrong choice, because it doesn’t open any emotional connections, it doesn’t share your love for the person who died, and most of all it doesn’t share your love for the person who survives the loss and finds themselves grieving.

Too often we dwell on how the person died, the few months, days or minutes at the end of a life full of love. When we focus ourselves on the death, we ignore and push back the entire life of a person. So when we speak of the dead, speak of the life not the death.

I am often criticized because I say that the time for criticism ends when we die. After we die, are no longer available to defend or explain ourselves from personal attacks. If a bad person dies, they can inflict no more damage and we should feel some relief from that, but there is no longer a point in discussing the failings of a person who has died. If this constriction is uncomfortable, then you have no place in the circle of those grieving.  

We are entitled to choose who we will grieve, we are not entitled to push our choices onto others who will have had different life experiences with that person and will want the chance to grieve the loss as they see fit.

The great danger in grief is that grief is emotionally isolating at a time when we are in greatest pain from the loss. The mechanics of mourning, visitation, funeral, burial are meant to provide some structure of reverence and guidance as we start grief. Then a few days, or a few weeks after death, we are left alone with our grief. In my experience, the most difficult time in grief usually begins 4-6 weeks after death, when the friends and community that supports us gets back to their normal lives, and the reality and finality of death of a loved one begins to emerge from the fading flames of pain that starts grief.

We must understand our love for someone well enough to be left alone with it, to find small places of solitude to sort and catalog the memories and lessons from this life. The isolation we feel in the aftermath of the rituals of funerals is purposeful so long as we are strong enough to be alone with our grief.

Our grief, our final responsibility for loving this person.

My advice is to set aside specific times of the day when you will be alone with your grief, and other times when you will be with others who are grieving. The alone times are critical, the together times can be less rigid.

In the weeks and months of the summer and fall after our son’s death, when finding sleep was challenging, I cycled at dawn. I could cry with no one to notice, was it wind or grief causing the tears? The beauty of nature in our semi-rural area was healing. The expending of physical energy removed tension and unwanted weight. I became physically stronger and calmer. I ended each ride along the lake where he died in a water rescue training accident, on a bench at the Yacht Club he grew up at where he had his dream summer job, and I spoke to him.  Without that daily release of grief and physical energy, I might have exploded internally.

In the decades after my brother’s suicide, I called my parents on the anniversaries of his birth and his death. They never fully released their anger, they have both passed with some part of themselves still angry. On those anniversaries, I did my best to gently try to drain the pent-up anger from them, like draining an infected abscess. We shared tears, we shared memories, and we proved that we hadn’t forgotten. But the pain and anger were always just below the surface of their lives. They had never returned to fully loving life.

We parent on basically two ways: We teach how to be. We teach how not to be. In my case, most of the lessons were loving lessons on how to be. But in grief, they provided me with living examples of how I did not want to be after our son’s death. 

When grieving, it’s as important to find that safe place of comfort to process your thoughts alone as it is to share your thoughts with others who grieve this loss.

Always remember that grief is an evolved process. It is strength, not weakness. Grief is honour, not imposition. Grief is the light of the love lost, not empty darkness. We are meant to grieve shamelessly, not to hide or bury our feelings for a false show of strength.

Be well, seek peace and resolve to grieve loss honestly and without shame.

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