Hey, you wanna talk about grief? No? Didn’t think so.
Let’s face it: Nobody wants to talk about the utter misery of losing someone, or something, dear. We don’t want to see other people grieve, and we certainly don’t want to unleash our own sadness on those around us. Better to keep those feelings tucked away until they fizzle out. It’s easier that way, isn’t it?
The trouble with grief is that it accumulates, and even small losses, like a missed promotion, a broken friendship, or an unanticipated change of address can start to take their toll on us. So, please can we talk about why we need to deal with grief, and what happens when we pretend that everything’s okay?
The Messy Swirling Cesspool of Grief
Grief is unpleasant and exhausting, but it’s also an essential part of the healing process. It helps us to keep moving forward, to keep living. And it enables us to come to terms with a new kind of life and find meaning again, even when neither of those things seem possible. It doesn’t force us to get over our loss, but it does help us to get through it.
In many cultures and religions, active mourning and expression of grief are encouraged. Many Middle-Eastern cultures believe that crying cleanses the soul, and wailing and demonstrative weeping is not merely accepted, but expected. In some African countries, it’s not uncommon for communities to send off their dead in a party-like atmosphere of music and dancing. Many religions and cultures observe periods of official mourning, during which the bereaved are expected to be fully engaged in the process of grieving. In Judaism, the grieving “sit Shiva” for seven days; in Islam, the bereaved are never left alone; and in Romani culture, they are forbidden to cook, wash, or shave, so that they can immerse themselves in mourning. These traditions can seem strange when compared to the quiet funerals and controlled grieving many of us have been raised with, but there is great value in an official and socially acceptable period and method of mourning. It creates a container for grief, an outlet for emotions, and the impetus to get out of the container and move on. After a year of enforced and concentrated mourning, I think most of us would be ready to get out into the world and start living again.
We’re Not Good at the Hard Stuff
Unfortunately, many of us live in societies where grief makes people uncomfortable and there is no room for active and demonstrative shows of emotion. This is especially true when you’re mourning an intangible or misunderstood loss, or something that well-meaning people think you ought to easily “get over.” So, instead of expressing our grief, we hold it inside and go about our lives while trying to pretend that everything is okay. We avoid the topic and we don’t tell people who care about us what we’re going through. We stuff grief away and put on brave faces because it’s easier to pretend than to risk letting our sadness show to someone who doesn’t understand.
The problem with stuffing grief into a box and sitting on the lid is that the grief doesn’t just go away. It builds up inside us until it finds an outlet. Then, life offers social events, work obligations, and well-meaning comments from strangers (e.g. “Aren’t you over that yet?”), and our grief takes control over us and erupts in humiliating public breakdowns.
Even when we think we have our feelings under control, it has a tendency to squeeze its way out any way it can. It’s what my friend calls “grieving sideways”. You find yourself picking fights and getting disproportionately upset with people over things that wouldn’t normally faze you. And while a stranger who cuts you off in traffic or a neighbor with a yapping dog might get an unwarranted dose of anger, more often than not it’s those closest to us—family, friends, and partners—who bear the brunt of our outbursts.
What’s more, instead of acting as a pressure relief valve, these outbursts compound our grief. We behave badly and then we add shame and frustration on top of our grief, and before you know it, it’s a hot mess. So, it’s critical to deal with your loss now, even though it’s raw and more painful than anything you could have imagined.
Unfortunately, the only way to the other side of grief is through it. Allowing yourself a period of mourning—whether that’s a day in bed or a week off work—can go a long way to starting the healing process. It’s okay to feel miserable. It’s okay not to be brave or even to have decorum. It’s okay to wallow in sadness, as long as you also commit to a timeframe. After that, you have to get up, take a shower, and take the first step back out into the world again.
Grief is a big, messy jungle of emotion that we’d all sooner avoid, but in the end, going through it makes for a much shorter journey than trying to go around it.