Lately, what has jogged my blog are the conversations I have had with a number of people who are grieving. New losses trigger old losses. That’s what happens. We don’t expect it and we wonder what the heck is going on.
In the process of uncovering layers upon layers of sadness that has been locked away, we becoming sensitive to the connection between the way we handle grief and what we learned about grief as we were growing up.
As we allow ourselves to work through and understand grief that we have held for decades, we can trying to free ourselves from a form of grieving (or not grieving) that is often patterned after our parents and the way grief was handled in our family.
I have always been interested in loss. My own mother and father experienced significant losses when they were very young parents. They were awfully busy with the day to day of raising two very young children and starting a business so from what I gather, there wasn’t much time or energy given over to mourning. I am sure one of the reasons I found my way to my profession was because I learned, at a very young age, that I was pretty good at taking care of people.
And then, early in my career working with families with children who had hearing losses, I saw the powerful way previous losses stay, and how they impact us as we experience new losses. Whether and how we allow ourselves to grieve is very much tied to what we witnessed early in our lives and what we felt was allowed regarding our own processing and expression of grief.
The loss could be the death of someone close to us, a significant breakup, retirement, divorce, or a change in our financial or social status. When we understand the myriad ways that present loss triggers the re-experiencing of previous losses, and spend time exploring the meaning of what we have gone through, we can work through our anxiety, guilt, and sadness. We become freer to go to places that had been “emotionally off limits.”
As part of this process, I believe it is helpful to think about the messages that were attached to grief as we were growing up. Likely what we heard and saw and felt informed the way we do or don’t move through grief. It is hard (impossible?) to grieve when the people around us are so uncomfortable with our grief.
Some of the things people say:
No child should come to a funeral.
Only the good die young.
Just move on.
You’ll find someone else.
Focus on your schoolwork.
Now you are on your own.
It’s for the best.
We know he took his own life but we’ll say he died of cancer.
Don’t ever tell anyone what really happened.
You are a big boy; I don’t want to see you cry.
You have mourned long enough.
Stop talking about her so much. You are stuck.
He is with God, in a much better place.
Don’t celebrate her birthday. She’s dead.
Perhaps your mom lost her mother when she was a child. As a result she became responsible for the younger siblings. It may be that her “not thinking about mama” may have been what got her through. But at what cost? How did that determine the way she dealt with loss throughout her life? And what did she teach you about sitting with grief, forging ahead, not looking back, and so on?
Maybe your dad was a widower who removed the photographs of his deceased wife because it is too tough for him to see her image. You and your siblings got the message that even talking about your mom upset him. And, so you don’t.
If after your parents’ divorce, one of your parents remarried and helped to raise you and your sisters, I am certain it wasn’t long before you and your siblings picked up what is appropriate and inappropriate regarding what you did with your feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, and abandonment.
Think of the messages you heard as a child and try to have compassion for the people who delivered those messages. Given their experience, culture, or any number of factors, they were doing the best they could. Now it is your turn to, if necessary, revisit the losses that you could not approach at the time. You can understand the reasons as you allow yourself to experience the grief and “sit with it and then walk through it” without judgement, and with an open heart for your grieving self…no matter how long ago you experienced the loss.
What we need to do when someone shares their loss with us is to be with them. Even when we do not feel comfortable doing so, that is our role and purpose. As tough as it is, our role is to be with people where they are.