Have you ever told someone, with the best of intentions, “You’ve got to look at all the positives and try to move on”?
Sure you have. I have, too. But not since I lost my husband and realized the toxicity that lives within both of those phrases.
As Dr. Michael Lerner asserts in “The Difference Between Healing and Curing,” telling people who are hurting to focus on the right/positive things in life is extremely unhelpful. He writes: “It is much healthier, much more healing, to allow yourself to feel whatever is coming up in you, and allow yourself to work with that anxiety, depression, grief.” The result of not fearing your emotions is discovering authentic ways to live, forming alliances with your feelings.
Alliances? Yes, connections, relationships, patterns. When we stop fighting and “should-ing” ourselves to be a certain way (like just focusing on the good memories), we’re letting ourselves be truthful. Angry. Sad. We’re letting ourselves realize that Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief are fluid, and we will experience them all — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — repeatedly and out of order for a very long time. It’s not weakness to fall back into anger or depression after making great strides. In fact, one of the most powerful signs of healing is being able to label your difficult emotions and realize that they will again change, that “this too shall pass.”
Is that the same as “moving on”? No. Let me explain.
A truly lovely song came out in 2001 by the American country group, Rascal Flatts. Written by Phillip White and D. Vincent Williams, the song was called “I’m Movin’ On” and probably brought millions of people to tears. This is the first verse:
I’ve dealt with my ghosts and I’ve faced all my demons
Finally content with a past I regret
I’ve found you find strength in your moments of weakness
For once I’m at peace with myself
I’ve been burdened with blame, trapped in the past for too long
I’m movin’ on.
It’s such an effective piece because we all know how awful and isolating it is to live with pain, regret, and blame. Our past actions when emotions ran high left many of us with broken relationships and expectations. We’ve stayed up late at night, rethinking our words, wondering what we should have said or what could’ve made a difference. And then, after enough of those late nights, we somehow realize that what’s done is done. Maybe the future will bring a new opportunity to fix it, but right now, we have to go back to work and keep trying our best with other relationships. This is acknowledging that we should “move on” from the unfortunate situation.
The reason this phrase is toxic to people in grief is because it implies that death is just another unfortunate situation that needs the same rules and responses. As our culture is uncomfortable, to put it mildly, with prolonged suffering and mental instability, we are advised to get out of it by living in the present and making new dreams for the future.
Unfortunately, few people tell us how we can do that with someone who has died. They are in the past, a place we cannot live. However, there is a way to bring our beloveds with us: It’s called honoring them, and when we do this, we’re “moving forward.”
Honoring means sharing stories: the ones that make us laugh, the ones that end in disappointment, the ones that whether happy or sad leave us in tears because of yearning. Sharing James’ empathy, passion for potatoes, romantic Post-it Notes, and geeky existentialism always make me look at the world with renewed optimism. And I can tell that when I speak about our dance to others, they strive harder to see the good in people…being reminded of the little things that matter when a loved one is gone.
That said, it took me years to also acknowledge that every day wasn’t a perfect sunset with my husband, and those stories were okay too. We lived vivaciously, but worked with troubles in family and finances like most others. When I allowed myself to speak that truth, I felt more acceptance of life’s roller-coaster and how telling my story authentically would help others relate.
Honoring means deciding to live. This is not something you tell someone in the first year (or maybe two), because what they need most is to let themselves deeply grieve and find a way to live in relationship with Kübler-Ross’s stages. When we are ready to make a choice about the rest of our lives, to pick up the fragments of our hearts and find new patterns for them (visualize a kaleidoscope!), we acknowledge that there is still purpose and meaningfulness possible. Perhaps it’s validating despair for another, talking about loss and resilience with kids, giving people the benefit of the doubt, standing up for a cause, or just appreciating what’s still beautiful in this world. For me, that includes where I see my late husband’s influence and his energy around me.
Honoring means you don’t “move on.” Don’t refuse to talk about them. Don’t suppress your emotions. Don’t hide every picture or object they touched. We are who we are because of influences like death and the decisions we make as a result. Realize that the pain you now feel is because of the love you shared, and you would not give that up for the world. You can carry the pain and not be destroyed by it. It will not always plague you or be as strong as your worst days; it can simmer, not boil.
I leave you with my favorite words from White and Williams, words I believe are more about “moving forward”:
At last I can see life has been patiently waiting for me
And I know there’s no guarantees, but I’m not alone
There comes a time in everyone’s life
When all you can see are the years passing by
And I have made up my mind that those days are gone.