Grief: On Not Knowing What To Say
I just say shit. I mean, why not, right?
I was doing a bread making course last year, and one of the women there mentioned during the day that she was widowed 6 months earlier.
There was something about her, I can’t quite say what, that made me wonder if something big had happened of late.
And when she said it, it was a relief. To understand her in her full context. Because what happens to us and what surrounds us profoundly affects our sense of self and how we present ourselves in the world.
It was a relief to be able to share and sympathise. It would not have felt bad if she spoke about it at length. If she had cried. If she had said more. Despite our being strangers. Death and sadness are a part of life. Why should she hide?
And yet, I feel this way often. Like there is something shameful about me because of the sadness and the loss that I have experienced. As though I ought to hide.
But I just say shit. I say it, because I want to. I say it because my recent experiences have been somewhat sad, and tragic. I can’t really help that. Sometimes life can suck. But despite saying it I feel deep shame about it. I talk about it because it matters to me. Right now, in this moment, the sadness and the loss, they matter to me, and they affect me, and how I present in the world.
But this shame. I’m not sure where it came from. I’m not sure if I imagine the uncomfortable shift in mood if I mention something that has happened. And sometimes I think that grief is more terrifying from the outside than it is on the inside. (Although there are times at which it is really awful).
There are numerous pieces of research into marriage break ups and friendships. I begun my relationship with my husband when I was just eighteen. And we were together for 23 years. So we witnessed every part of each others’ growth and adult life including sharing friendships and connections with other people. Some of those friendships even pre-dated the relationship itself. But the break-up (and this is common according to the research) caused the end of many of those friendships. When my husband left and I looked around for support from the people that we had spent Christmasses and New Years and Birthdays and all kinds of milestones with, they weren’t there. And if they were there, they weren’t reliable in a way that I needed.
So some friendships evaporated immediately, and some floated away later when my stepdaughter died. Whatever the reasons that people have for walking away from friends in need, there is more loss involved in divorce than the loss of that central relationship. And I look back at my behaviour: was I just too needy and demanding? Did I bang on about it too much? Maybe. It’s possible. But that didn’t matter to my good, good friends and my family, who said that I was courageous and resilient and even though it was so painful I could get through. And so I did.
But after that immediate time of crisis, when everything is just about bare survival and coping, the doubt has set in. Was it something that I did? Did I say too much? Did I talk too much?
This doubt makes me second guess myself. I have no reason to feel ashamed either for the things that happened, or for wanting help and support. But I do wonder if I should just be quiet and polite and save other people’s discomfort.
Someone asked me yesterday, a stranger, if I have kids. We were chatting about her toddler and her pregnancy, and she just asked.
I said that I had a stepdaughter who had died in 2018. I didn’t say that it was by suicide. I said that I had two miscarriages shortly afterwards. I apologised, and said that it would feel weird to say no to that question when I’d had had a kid for 20 and more years. But I felt bad, like I was over-sharing. Like I was putting this person in an awful position*. But I felt compelled to share because I don’t want to hide or to feel ashamed. People are left by their partners, people’s friends and relatives commit suicide, couples have miscarriages… and all kinds of sadness and loss befall people. But to understand this, and to know that this is their context for living (and no doubt a context in which they often develop some amazing insight and compassion and empathy), is to be fully present int the world with all its complexity and to engage with other people with full humanity.
The reality for me now is one of rebuilding completely. Every single part of my life has changed dramatically. And change can be hard, it can present many unexpected challenges, even if you choose the change for yourself. In every change there is inevitable loss as you shed how things once were and embrace something new. So even the smallest of changes may be a time for grieving as well as celebrating.
I hope that if you have experienced any kind of loss or sadness or change (and I’m sure that you have) that you know that to talk about it and to be vulnerable is strength.
Before all of these things happened I had been a coach for quite a while and had had lots of good therapy. I don’t think I would have coped without the tools I had learned in those contexts. I also saw a few counsellors (for some reason I didn’t consider that there might be a coach that focused on helping people through change). The counselling was good, because it gave me an outlet. But retrospectively what I wanted was to work out why my husband had left, and to find answers, but what I needed was to focus on me and what I wanted from my new future. Now a person without a family: a dramatic change in circumstance and identity.
Coaching is absolutely invaluable in times of change and flux because it helps you to take action that gets you closer to what you want. So if you are experiencing change (dramatic or not-dramatic) you might just find that coaching provides the insight, the tools and the support to help you to move that change in the direction you want it to go.
*I didn’t feel that frosty shift at all. The woman was absolutely lovely. But the shame still came.