One of the simplest definitions of grief I know comes from John W. James and Russell Friedman, founders of the Grief Recovery Institute. James and Friedman define grief as “the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind.”
Unfortunately, and as many of you have likely experienced, we are not a society particularly skilled at how to handle grief. The concepts of “normal” and “natural” are repeatedly overshadowed by the notion that grief is something to be fixed… and quickly.
Often times, our attempts to help one another are based on a desire to cheer the person up, rather than to acknowledge that person’s pain. This doesn’t make us insensitive or uncaring – our good intentions and well-meaning words are simply the result of years and years of conditioning. In the coming weeks, I will explore in more detail the misinformation associated with grief – including information about how to cope with loss personally and how to help someone else who is grieving.
In the meantime, it is important to understand that when we try to cheer someone’s pain away, we don’t make it better. We just let them know how uncomfortable we are with their pain.
If you are someone who is grieving, please know that your truth matters. Expressing how you feel inside of your loss is key. Telling the truth about what you find helpful and what you find unhelpful – or even hurtful – is a critical step in helping yourself and those around you.
If you are supporting someone who is grieving, you need to be willing to hear that kind of truth. For example, if your friend is grieving the loss of a relationship, and you say something like “You’re better off without her! Plenty of fish in the sea! Cheer up!” you run the risk of your friend hearing “that relationship didn’t matter. Your pain doesn’t matter. You need to get over it because your sadness is making me uncomfortable.” Your friend may react in anger, or in hurt. Unfortunately, this sort of misinformed help leads to grieving people feeling alone and misunderstood.
In my own practice, I regularly hear “this is the first time I have been totally honest about my grief. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” Grieving people often tell me they haven’t found anyone who can really stand to hear what grief is like for them. That it’s too uncomfortable. Having your truth dismissed feels horrible. It leads to isolation and a sense of loneliness that only compounds the pain of a grieving person’s feelings.
Loss of any sort is hard and being alive will break your heart – repeatedly. Author Megan Devine notes “that you hurt when life hurts does not make you wrong. You don’t need to be talked out of your pain. You don’t need to be “cheered up”, you need to be heard.”
It’s that simple. Acknowledgement is everything: sometimes things just hurt.