I’m probably going to make some people uncomfortable.
I think that’s okay.
Pain denied is pain doubled.
As a woman, I’ve been told (many times) by a stranger to smile. It’s generally on the street and it’s always been from men.
I usually cringe-smile.
Now I’ve heard it said to my grief-stricken dad, a few days after my mom—his wife of 70 years—had passed away.
“Pretend like you’re okay.”
Deep down, I believe it was intended as an encouragement, but oh my gosh, it is anything but. (So, if you’re reading this and you think this might be you, I know your intentions were good. But we have to talk. Honestly.)
After the person walked away, I immediately jumped into damage control: “Dad, you don’t have to smile. You get to do and feel whatever you want.”
The first few times I shared the new information that my mom had just passed away, each person said some version of “I’m sorry for your loss” and then immediately/awkwardly changed the subject. I had whiplash. Sometimes the subject wasn’t completely changed, but they did move from my statement to their story in nothing flat. I think we mostly do that because we think it’s some form of empathy—showing that we can identify. I’ve done it, myself. But, in my opinion, this removes us from the present moment, and away from the person in the current, white-hot pain. We skedaddle to a safer, more comfy place.
It’s so hard to stay in it with someone.
I’ve written about this subject over the years and I write about it as much for myself as for the reader:
“These moments of honest discomfort and pain are maybe some of the very best meeting spots—sacred places—where real heart-action happens. As awful as they can feel, they are gateways to the good stuff. Doors to true intimacy. Treasures to hold dear and near.
David of the Bible—a man after God’s own heart—knew it. Knew that his heavenly Father valued his tears. His Daddy didn’t try to minimize them or whisk them away; He tenderly gathered them up, permitting all and discarding none. Not . . . one . . . drop.
You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in a bottle. You have recorded each one in your book (Psalm 56:8 NLT).
In our humanness, we won’t always know exactly how to honor someone’s grief, but at least we can give them permission to grieve by not rushing past the hard moment. We don’t have to come bearing words either. Usually just our presence, a hug, shedding heartfelt tears of our own, is enough to join them in their sacred place.”
Here’s more real for you: I have felt unspeakable grief since my mom passed away three+ weeks ago. I sometimes feel like I can’t breathe. I know I haven’t been able to be on the phone, like, at all. I’ve cried harder this week than I think I ever have in my life, and that’s saying something. I’m not comparing my loss with any loss you have experienced. I’m just saying:
I wasn’t ready. I’m not ready. I still need my mom.
With my mom’s worsening dementia over the past few years, it’s felt like a long, slow goodbye, losing her a little at a time. There’s been progressive loss and grief all along. I’d already been missing her.
Those years were a long hallway. We could all see she was making her way toward an exit. But then once she was in the vestibule, she didn’t linger at all—she just suddenly opened the door and rushed right through. It was a long, slow—jarring, sudden loss.
Personally, I have a tendency to have pain pain. I feel pain, and then I castigate myself for feeling pain. In my faulty logic, if I’m in pain, I must not be grateful for something. I’m still trying to unlearn so many years of “At least it’s not…”
And I’ve caught myself doing it now that I’ve had some alone time this week.
Today I listened to a podcast that nailed it, far better than I ever have. I think most of us have been socialized under: be grateful, at least it’s not, buck up, pretend like you’re okay, and smile. If you’d like to do some unlearning, give it an open-hearted listen. Someone might be glad—truly glad—you did.