I recently attended a memorial celebration at a community hospice for the loved ones of those who had died there. I reflected on the simple words of one of the presenters -- a pastor? palliative caregiver? mental health professional? -- it doesn't matter. What he said does. He said that everyone grieves in their own way; there is no right or wrong way, no timeline, no playbook. He said that however one grieves, and however one expresses that grief, is ok. I wish I had been told that when I grieved my mother's death and expressed it less than graciously. I was so angry. Angry that the world could continue as always when something so very terrible had happened.
Grieving is a necessary process of healing. It is the outward expression of one's loss. The expression of emotions, however, is culturally informed. There are cultures in which dramatic, observable manifestation of grief and suffering is expected, honored even. In others, a stoic masking of one's pain is the acceptable norm. In the United States, and in many other cultures, the expression of emotions is often equated with weakness, and weakness is not permissible in the most powerful country on the planet. It is viewed as undignified, self-defeating, embarrassing, an admission of failure. Too often, we hide our feelings of grief and anguish over loss lest we be deemed weak. One glance at the posts on social media platforms garners an image of a society that is joyous, successful, healthy, and wise. Pain is a dirty secret.
So, we avoid grieving. We may try to, and may be explicitly or implicitly told to, separate ourselves from the pain of our loss and deny or hide it, move on, get over it. Or, we may intrinsically know how we are allowed to grieve and have rituals that put our expression of grief into an admissible framework. The current proliferation of emojis may reflect a cute, allowable form that responds to a
need to express and acknowledge feelings. Yet, suffering and grief are highly individual and unique experiences. The intense feelings that may accompany loss cannot be put into boxes. and they cannot be denied forever; they must be resolved or they may lead to physical and emotional illness, or ineffective ways of navigating life's challenges.
In order to resolve those intense feelings -- which may include guilt, sadness, despair, confusion, shock, denial, and anger -- they must be expressed. To make room for one's emotions, to allow oneself to experience them, is healing. This requires self-compassion. To offer another a safe place to express their grief, in whatever form it may take, is love. It is a selflessness that sets "acceptable norms" aside, that suspends judgment, and that denies one's own needs to feel comfortable so that the person grieving can do so freely and process their pain as a step toward healing.
In my work, a question I often get from people who are suffering is whether it is "normal" for them to feel how they feel. I usually respond that there is no normal, or that all feelings are valid, but if there were a definitive, normal standard for how one should feel, how would that help? We cannot change our feelings. We can only change how we relate to them. We can fear our feelings, numb our feelings, hate and avoid our feelings, suppress and hide our feelings, but ultimately, we can only heal if we are brave enough, strong enough, to feel our feelings. We must "feel it to heal it." If that means we might express our intense grief or suffering in ways considered culturally inappropriate, it might be helpful to know that not being permitted to express pain in a raw, genuine, unfiltered way is far more damaging in the long term.
Let us make room for our feelings -- all of them -- and offer a kind and understanding place for others who are suffering to bring their grief, express it freely, and heal. We will all feel better.