I’m a big believer in fortune cookies. In fact, I’ve long thought that if read very loudly — so that everyone else in the restaurant can hear — the fortunes will come true! I don’t know if there is any way to scientifically prove my theory, but I do like to test it each time we go out for Chinese food. I loudly read the last fortune cookie I opened; however, it offered more of what I’d consider a proverb than an actual fortune: “It is better to have a hen tomorrow than an egg today.”
Hmmm… My first thought was to question whether or not this old adage is true, and I realized that the answer had to be “It depends.” If one is starving and about to expire from hunger, the egg today may be the saving morsel that gives the body strength to carry on, and find more eggs tomorrow. However, if one has the resources to wait until the egg hatches and the chick matures, it offers the potential for exponentially more eggs in the future (if indeed the chick turns out to be female… but, I’m distracting myself!).
As I pondered my fortune, I reflected on how this axiom might apply to the grieving process. Each loss is unique, and each grief journey has its own timeline. I’ve learned that grieving requires a tremendous amount of energy and time. Of course, some folks are forced to drastically shorten their grief journey, for reasons for over which they have no control. However, for me and most others who have survived the death of a spouse, there is no hurrying the grief journey. It is one we must travel at our own pace, despite the pressure from some of those around us, who in their sincere efforts to be helpful, offer quick-fix solutions to end our grief and make the pain end as well:
“Just find a new husband/wife! Then your broken heart will heal!”
Or, “Hey, you’ve been grieving long enough! Time to get on with your life. Close that door and just live in the present!”
Or even better/worse, “When are you going to start acting like yourself again? We’re tired of you being blue all the time!”
Hearing such “advice” makes me surmise that those who offer it are like the writer of my recent fortune. It’s easy for others to think “Oh, it’s been long enough, he/she should just snap out of it.” But they have no idea what we are going through, nor can they comprehend all the thousands of emotions we need to experience and process if we are to truly heal.
Honestly, at times, it is tempting to want to short-step all the pain involved and just act like nothing has happened, to simply paste on a happy face and go on with our lives as if there isn’t a gaping hole where the heart used to be.
But what happens when we do that? The pain doesn’t just miraculously disappear. No, it gets buried, where it stays, but will not allow itself to be ignored. Unfortunately for many of us, when buried and not processed, the pain of grief begins to wreck havoc in other areas of our lives. Backaches, migraine headaches, shoulder spasms, ulcers, heartburn, depression, insomnia… all are stress related and can be directly caused by the pain of unprocessed grief.
How do we process grief? By doing our “grief work.”
By this, I mean really feeling all the feelings we are experiencing, as painful and unfamiliar as they may be. By leaning into the pain, and even wallowing in it at times, so that we are giving our broken heart its due respect. Because the only reason it hurts so much is because we loved so much — there is a direct correlation between the amount of pain experienced in grief and the depth of the love we felt for the person who died. (Does your heart break when someone you don’t like dies? Not really. It is only for those we love that the heart responds in such a profound way.)
It is a true paradox: the more we cry and allow ourselves to feel the pain, the faster and more completely we will heal. Those who say, “You’ve cried enough already,” are mistakenly trying to short-circuit a very necessary healing process. And only we can determine how long we need to cry. (We know when it’s time to stop because we no longer feel like crying.) The tears accompany a cascade of healing hormones that affect every cell in our bodies, and after a good cry, it is amazing how much better we feel.
So, back to my fortune, which declared that it’s preferable to have a hen tomorrow than an egg today. Upon further reflection, I realized that if we equate the egg to the momentary relief we find when prematurely end our grief journey and instead paste on the happy face, and relate the hen to our healed selves who have sacrificed the time and energy to do real grief work, then yes, it is true.
Think about it, the egg offers just one serving. It is short-lived. And even though it may be momentarily satisfying, once eaten, that’s that. On the other hand, the chicken can provide a meal for an entire family, and then the bones can become the stock for the next meal’s soup, and then gravy for chicken pot pie the following night. In other words, the rewards are manifestly more abundant.
And, as an added benefit to waiting for the hen tomorrow, as we do our grief work and begin to heal, we notice that those around us- – especially our children – begin to heal too. We can pass on a legacy of overcoming one of the worst things that can happen, and by example, teach them how to not only survive, but thrive. However, if we sidestep our grief work (and in essence, quickly eat the egg), we transmit an unhealthy coping strategy to our family, which can continue for generations, and the unprocessed pain can manifest itself as physical and mental health problems for the rest of our lives.
Your choice: The chicken or the egg?
What have you experienced along your grief journey? Are there times when you need to “act as if” everything was okay, even though you felt awful inside? We’d love to hear how you handled this. And, we’d love to know what you think is preferable: the egg today, or the hen tomorrow?
Beverly Chantalle McManus lives in Northern California with her two daughters, who have each now graduated from college. She is Vice President and Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the Open to Hope Foundation, a bereavement facilitator and core team member of the Stepping Stones on your Grief Journey Workshops, and a frequent speaker and writer on the topic of loss and grief. In addition to grief support, she is also a marketing executive for professional services firms.