I was speaking with a woman whose husband died about a year and a half ago. She was concerned because she was doing so well in her grief and now finds herself frequently quite sad, tears always just at the surface, and really missing him. Initially she was relieved when her husband died because he suffered so much and she was able to find comfort in her spirituality “knowing he was in a better place.” She pretty much engaged in her normal life during the first year after his passing – involved with typical family gatherings, traditional trips with friends, volunteering in the community, back at the job – almost as though her husband didn’t die because “that’s what he would’ve wanted.” Recently, a friend called inviting her to a yearly gathering that she and her husband always enjoyed together. But this time, as hard as it was for her, she just couldn’t accept the invitation. The friend didn’t seem to understand her response even after she tried explaining several times – she ended the conversation with, “I just can’t this year!” and hung up the phone. And then it came, through exhaustion, tears and a huge sigh, “Pete, I’m just so damned tired of pretending! Pretending he’s not gone. Pretending my heart doesn’t ache for him. Pretending I can just go on like usual when my whole world has changed. Pretending if I just had more faith, if I just had more belief, I wouldn’t feel like this. Pretending it doesn’t hurt to be with family and friends without him by my side. Always pretending I’m so strong. I just can’t pretend anymore!”
In subtle, and sometimes in blatant ways, consciously and sometimes completely unaware, we tell ourselves and we tell others, both through our words and our actions that we’re just “fine.” Perhaps the pretense is because of our generation, our history and heritage, our religious beliefs, or our family’s culture. Or, perhaps we pretend because we are just so afraid if we allow ourselves to go to that place of dark emotions (grief, sadness, loneliness, anger) we’ll never surface to experience light again. Whatever the reasons, our grief cannot and will not be denied or ignored or gone around. Eventually our grief, the cries of our hearts, the aches of our souls, will need to be recognized and acknowledged, honored and expressed and witnessed. I’m reminded of a man who once told me, “You either do it (grieve) now or you do it later, but you will do it.” This pretense of “being just fine” is perpetuated in some myths about loss and grief we sometimes subscribe to (consciously or unconsciously). What follows are several of the most common illusions regarding grief and loss I’ve personally experienced and discovered by listening to others:
Illusion #1 has to do with time. Perhaps because we’re convinced we’ll forever feel this way or because others (the world) are pressing us to get on with living as usual, we often get impatient with ourselves or think we are abnormal because our grief is just “taking too long.” The truth is, although changed because of the grief work we do and because of time, the grief we carry for the person who died will always be with us. And for many, the 2nd year is often more difficult than the first partly because we truly recognize the reality of their being gone and partly because our hearts and our souls are fed up with our trying to pretend.
Illusion #2 has to do with expectations. We persuade ourselves that healing in grief means we’re going to get back to normal and our lives will get back to normal – of course, normal means back to the way we were and back to life as we knew it. The truth is, this loss has forever changed us and our world. It isn’t a question of whether or not we and our world will change – every loss changes us. The question is, how will we allow this loss to change us, perhaps transform us, and how will we create our new normal which can include significant changes in things like our identity, values, relationships, spirituality, view of the world?
Illusion #3 has to do with letting go. So, if we let go, if we accept, if we move forward, heck, if we smile or have fun or are happy, OR others are having fun, somehow we are all forgetting or dishonoring or not respecting our loved ones. This is a normal but cruel trick we play on ourselves, and quite frankly on others. It is a trick of guilt – the guilt of moving on with our lives. The truth is, as grievers we need to journey from a relationship of physical presence with our loved ones to a relationship of spirit and memories and heart essence. Certainly not the same relationship because we are tactile, sensual beings – we long to touch, hear, smell, and see them. Forgetting is one of our greatest fears and that fear, if taken to the extreme, can be one of the greatest obstacles in our healing. Our loved ones are always with us – in us – people die, love does not. We remember and honor them by carrying their essence within us and by the lives we now choose to live.
Illusion #4 has to do with doing this right. This illusion refers to comparing how we’re doing in our grief with how others are doing in their grief. It’s an illusion of should’s and oughta’s. We judge our insides based upon what we see on their outsides. The truth is, you are you and they are they, and this truth intersects every person in our lives, including family members. So many different components go into how we grieve and our needs in grieving: our relationship with the person, any unfinished business with the person, our personalities, our spirituality, our age, our health, our support system, our style of grieving and mourning. The list is quite endless. What’s important here is that we honor, respect and embrace how we need to grieve, as well as honor how others need to grieve. It is in this honoring and respecting of the uniqueness of everyone’s grief that we can (and must) journey compassionately and respectfully with each other.
Illusion #5 has to do with staying busy. We most often hear it from others and we certainly hear it in ourselves, “Just keep busy.” The illusion is if we keep busy then it (grief) will magically and miraculously go away. If we can ignore it long enough it will no longer be there because we know “time heals all wounds.” Part of the truth is engaging with things other than grief is important because it gives us a break from our grief – sometimes going back to work or volunteering does exactly that, provides a break and a sense of normalcy and purpose. The problem, of course, is when we become consumed in our busy-ness as a way for us to run from and deny what has happened and what’s going on inside of us. And, part of the truth is that healing doesn’t wait on time, it waits on our welcome. Time provides a distance from the loss, that’s all. What’s important in grief is what we do with our time. Healing takes intention and it takes work and effort on our part. Perhaps that means participating in a support group, reading grief literature, seeing a counselor, creating a memorial, writing a letter to our loved one, being honest with a trusted friend.
Yep, pretending is an option, but not an option that honors you, your loved one, your family, your friends, or your higher power. It may take a year or two or five, however long it takes, in pretending I guarantee that your heart and your soul will eventually exclaim through exhaustion, tears and a huge sigh, “I’m just so damn tired of pretending.”