I’ve been thinking a lot about grief the past two weeks. Grief is a sticky feeling. You can try and try to shake it off, but it usually is still stuck in some crevice in your skin, or under your fingernails. In some place that is hard to reach – making it all the more frustrating. To me grief isn’t one feeling. Grief is many competing feelings that send a person into a whirlwind of cognitive dissonance.
I’ve always been a highly empathic person. I’m what a therapist would describe as an, “emotional sponge.” I can easily sense the feelings of those around me. But I take it one step further – absorbing them to such a degree that I feel them as my own. Sometimes I feel so connected to an individual’s emotive state that I am psychologically affected by it. It’s like yawning. I can’t help but feel the emotion that I am confronted with in another person.
Last week, two humans that are close to me experienced loss in various forms. One experienced the death of a loved one, the other lost all of their belongings and their pet cat in a house fire. I struggled a lot with finding the appropriate way to support them. Like I said, grief is complicated and nuanced in a way that is both easy and difficult to empathize with. We can metaphorically put ourselves in their “shoes,” but we also can’t claim to know exactly what they are feeling. There are many things that can elicit grief, and no one person grieves the same.
Grief for Grief
Any sort of loss can cause one to enter what we call grief. This can include divorce, the end of a relationship, declining health, a loved one’s illness, or the loss of belongings or safety. Loss is personal to the individual, and there is no comparing apples to oranges. I have heard the opinion that grief is only something that you experience after someone you love dies. But, the same neuro-chemical pathways are activated across a multitude of situations. Though, bereavement of a loved one usually elicits the most severe grief response.
That brings me to my friend’s loss of her mother to cancer. Even just that sentence sends a blow to the gut that can leave you with the need to gasp for a little more air. To grab onto yourself or something around you to steady yourself. Hours before she told myself and our friends, she had posted an image of herself as a child with her mother to Instagram. It’s eerie, and gut-wrenching to say but when I saw that picture I felt a profound sense of loss.
I had this flashing montage of my life with my own mother pass before my eyes, and could feel what it felt like to have my small little hand within hers. I had a sudden fear of not feeling that hand anymore. And I had a deep urge to run somewhere, and not stop running because of this burning rage within my chest.
What do you say when someone tells you that they’ve lost someone so monumental in their life? Another human whose life led up to the creation of their own. A life that you love and are grateful for.
We all have this pre-written script of what you “should” say. And we say it, we say it because we know no words can suffice – but we cannot bear saying nothing. Similarly, living practically paycheck to paycheck there was no money I could offer to my friend who lost his belongings, but I offered the clothes off my back and blankets and essentials from my own things to him. I didn’t know what else to do, what else to say. I was so grateful that he and his partner were unharmed, but I couldn’t imagine the feeling of losing all the artifacts of one’s life. The things that we use to make meaning and keep record of our memories. Or the faithful companion that offered us unconditional love when everything in life is terribly conditional.
I thought for a moment about what I would grab from my apartment if I found myself in the situation of a house-fire. What I would try to save. Just the thought of having to prioritize the things that bring me joy or that mean something was difficult. It felt like either way I would lose some part of myself that I would never get back.
And though now in reflection I am thinking about what these kinds of losses would mean to me, what I am really affected by is a feeling of paralysis. Of not knowing how I can ease the pain of people that I care about. This feeling of helplessness is only exacerbated by my natural tendency to be a more “emotional” person. And all of this only serves to make me wonder if it is appropriate for me to feel this sad at all? But nevertheless, I know that I need to be supportive in any way that I can.
That is why some part of me is always nervous when it comes to funerals. Not out of fear or discomfort, but out of that absorption of the emotions of those around me. It can be overwhelming, and even if I did not know the deceased very well – I have a hard time containing my emotions. I cry. And sometimes I feel inappropriate doing so, as if I don’t have a right to. So I try to swallow the emotion that bubbles up the back of my throat, and instead just let my body shake ever so slightly.
And it’s not in that moment that I am thinking, what if it were my own mother. It is instead feeling that place of home that I feel when I am with my friend. We all find that piece of a person that is just what home means to us, and we place a stake there. We invest in that part of a person, and we love them for it and everything else. That feeling of connection that is so powerful that in that moment, I feel her feelings for her because I wish that I could alleviate the pain if even just a little. Even though I know that there isn’t many a tangible thing that I can do to help.
And so I’ve realized that in those moments, the best thing that I can do is remind the person that the stake I placed to claim them as my person has never left. That I will protect and care for all my pieces of home, as they are pieces of myself.
That may sound terribly abstract, but what I’m saying is just be. Be and feel. Follow your loved one’s lead, and continue to be exactly who you are – because that is what they need. And remember that you don’t need to ask for permission to feel any sort of way. Feelings are natural, and for the most part out of our control. And through allowing yourself to feel what you need to, when you need to, you are displaying a healthy form of processing. And just by doing that, you are being strong for the ones that you love.
What I learned in my own mental health journey is that you can’t selectively numb emotions. Emotions will come and go like waves in the ocean (cheesy? yes), and if you try to avoid one you end up avoiding more than that. You need to experience the less positive emotions to truly appreciate the feelings of happiness and joy.
Don’t be judgemental of your feelings. Our emotions provide us with signals. They give us the heads up that something is important and that we need to pay attention to it. Be an observer of your emotions. Notice them, sit with them, and then let them leave when they’re ready.
Finally, speak to yourself as you would speak to a loved one or friend who is struggling. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling sad or anxious. Be kind to yourself – processing emotion is just another part of having a full and healthy life.