What is Strength in the Face of Grief?

“You’re so strong.”

If you’ve suffered the devastating loss of a loved one, you’ve probably heard the phrase. I certainly have after the death of my 4-year-old daughter, Margareta, in 2009. But what does it really mean, anyway? What exactly is the definition of strength in the wake of a loved one’s death? Chances are if you ask a griever and a non-griever that question, you’ll get very different perspectives and very different underlying meanings.

When people have told me how strong I am after the death of my daughter – and many people have – they sincerely mean it and mean it in a supportive way. In the early weeks and months after Margareta’s death, it was usually told to me in the context that I’d seemingly reintegrated back into the “normal world”: going to work, taking my other children to activities and events, getting errands done outside the house, etc.

But in their minds, this was opposed to…what? To being so devastated they would surely find me in the fetal position in a corner of my house while hysterically sobbing 24-hours a day? Or maybe it was the relief that I hadn’t succumbed to the continual urges to take my own life – because many parents can’t imagine how they will continue living after the death of a child. I certainly didn’t. Many times I thought the only reason I was still alive was for the sake of my other children – and I’ve heard many bereaved parents say this as well.

Strength, from this perspective, equals stoicism. On the internet, stoicism is defined as, “the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint.”

So when did stoicism become the standard definition of strength? I suppose it is because we see soldiers as stoic. Warriors are stoic. Real men don’t cry – or so we’re told. Women who show their emotions too freely are seen as weak or crazy and subject to ridicule. Real strength is apparently the ability to keep our emotions buried and controlled…or so we’re trained to believe.

When grievers don’t show this type of “strength” and are outwardly emotional and distraught too long after the funeral is over, frustrated former supporters often begin to distance themselves and tell them to, “get over it” and “move on”. It’s only death, after all. They’ve gone to a better place, right? Can’t we just remember that and be happy for them now that they’re at peace with God?

The problem is that most of us can’t. The pain and emotions are just too overwhelming. We are in survival mode. If I had to illustrate what this level of grief was like, it would look like we are standing on a steep hill having to use all our strength just to keep a boulder larger than ourselves from crushing us. That is why grief is just as physically exhausting as it is emotionally.

So when they see us as “strong”, chances are we feel anything but. We feel weak and vulnerable. For many of us, we are barely getting by each day for years after the funeral. We continually don’t know how we manage to get out of bed each morning, but somehow we do. We don’t know how we’re going to get through each day, but somehow we put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. We don’t know how this is done or where we get this supposed strength from. And many of us are sure that at any second, we will lose our tenuous grip on this boulder of grief and it will surely crush us. For a long, long time, that show of strength to those around us feels like a sham.

For many of us, not a day goes by that we aren’t acutely aware that our loved one is missing from our lives. And the constant reminder is painful. But we know that if we continue to show this pain, the negative feedback we hear from those around us will just make it worse. And so we hide it to become “strong” in their eyes. But it creates a distance between us that is not easily undone.

How do we continue to hold that boulder at bay for years on end, or in some cases, for the rest of our lives? For me, and for many people I have come to know who are devastated by grief, we seek out others like us. We do this to find others who have survived this unbearable pain in an effort to learn how for ourselves. We do it to be able to find safe environments where we can express our pain in an effort to process it, and to find the support we need to continue to keep this boulder from crushing us.

I would argue that asking for help in the face of overwhelming pain is one of the strongest things we can do. The act of admitting we are in over our heads and cannot do this alone is sometimes as difficult as losing our loved one. Letting other people in to see our deepest vulnerabilities and fears is not weakness; it is one of the ultimate displays of strength – grieving or not.

Every time we reach out and ask for help or support, that boulder becomes just a little lighter. The supportive hands of others brace us as we push against that boulder. Eventually, these hands of support may even be able to help break down the boulder until it is a more manageable size and weight. It doesn’t matter who you ask for help and support, it only matters that you do.

To those of you who offer, “You’re so strong” as words of comfort, I ask you to consider replacing it with, “I’m here for you” if you want to be truly supportive. For those of you holding that boulder of grief at bay, I hope you continue to reach out for support to help lighten your load. For if I know anything in the wake of my daughter’s death, I know that there are many people who want to help you. You just have to make the effort to find them.

Maria Kubitz

More Articles Written by Maria

Maria Kubitz lost her four year old daughter in a drowning accident in 2009. In her grief journey, Maria continually tries to find ways to learn from the pain, and maintain a loving, healthy environment for her four other children. She volunteers as newsletter editor at a local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, and in 2012, Maria created www.aliveinmemory.org – a blog about learning to live with grief.

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  • Sandi says:

    We lost our son May 18, 2015 and each day seems worse than the day before. I find myself sobbing more often than not. There were people here for the first 3 weeks and then they all seem to have disappeared. No one calls or contacts us as if we have some kind of awful illness. When I do call them or they happen to call, his name is never mentioned unless I bring it into the conversation. It is like he never existed. He had lived with us the last 5 1/2 years and was 51 years old when he died. I can’t get over the fact he doesn’t walk into the house or sit with us to eat. I hate eating at the table because he always sat across from me. He was very good looking and I never told him that. We have a daughter that lives 1100 miles from us and gave up on her brother years ago because he had a drug problem. The coroner told us it was not an overdose and she was going to list it as accidental because the cocaine had 30 times morphine than they used to put in it. The detective told us they had arrested several people around the area they found him and they turned them over to the Feds as they were working across state line. What difference does that make to me?
    He would go weeks without using this stuff and was so kind, do anything for anyone without a thought. He could figure out just about anything. He cooked us meals, did the dishes after each meal, vacuum our home, do his own laundry and etc. He was also an excellent plumber that ran big jobs. His pride and joy was a ’69 Camaro they he rebuilt and painted it in the orange crush color. He has two children and one grandson. He was divorced the last 10 years. He would get together with his son once in a while and go out to eat. His daughter with her young son wanted nothing to do with him. So, he never got to spend holidays or their birthdays around them and this put him deeper into his depression.
    The week he died he had his dad and I sit at the kitchen table to tell us he had a cocaine problem and how horribly depressed he was about his life. All he said was he wanted to find a nice woman to spend time with and be around his children. I told him that if that is what he wanted, he would have to quit the drugs first of all. Then he would be able to find that woman to be a companion to him. He was on social security for his depression and that is how he had the money to use this drug.
    Why am I explaining all this to you? Because my ache is so bad that sometimes I feel like I cannot go on for another minute. I feel I can’t take another breath and have no desire to get out of bed. My husband and I grieve in different ways…we sometimes just hold each other and he lets me cry on his chest as his tears fall on my head. He goes to the garage and sits when he can’t take it any longer where he was last talking with our son. He tells me that is his place he does his real crying. I used to say prayers day, night in the middle of the night while doing just about anything. Today, I no longer can say prayers….have had people tell me that was alright that they were saying mine for me.
    Thank you all if you read this and can relate. Never thought in our golden years would I ever be going through this horrible horrible place we are in. Have never so completely sobbed for hours on end with no hope. I suffer from depression and have a psychiatrist that I have been seeing for 20 years, but he is of no help right now.

    • Wendy Kay says:

      I am in exactly the same place as you, and if you just want to chat, its ok. My son David was almost 41. and I am broken too. no parent should have to bury their own child. Its not the order of things. Bless you, you are in my prayers.

    • Maria Kubitz says:

      Sandi, my heart aches for you. Reading your words brings me back to the devastating horror of that first year after my daughter’s death. There are so many things you said that I have also felt and subsequently written about on my blog, http://www.aliveinmemory.org. You are definitely not alone in how you’re feeling. One of the things that helped me was going to a Compassionate Friends support group near me and talking about my daughter and my grief over and over again. Sitting in a room surrounded and supported by others who have lost a child was very healing for me. I still go six years after her death, and probably will for years to come. You can find if there’s one near you by visiting http://www.compassionatefriends.org/Find_Support/Chapters/Chapter_Locator.aspx. I will be keeping you in my thoughts. Take care of yourself! Maria

    • Love is great while the object of love is alive.

      When the object dies, it’s like our love turns into a sword or meat grinder, threatening to tear us to shreds. We grieve in a dark hole of loss, an ache that feels like an intolerable presence that won’t leave us alone, it keeps tormenting us.

      I had to put my son to sleep yesterday. My dog companion, adopted from a kill shelter in 2009. He was like a real human son to me, and far more, much much more. It’s like we merged into one being. A little minpin terrier. Everyone loved Buddy. But Buddy got sick and had to have a mercy killing.

      The euthanasia did not go well. Instead of instantly expiring, when the anaesthetic was injected, Buddy looked freaked out and angry, like he was thinking, “What in the hell did you just do to me? That hurts like hell.”

      So that’s the last memory of my beloved son. Seeing him being tortured briefly by an inept vet. I want to call that vet and ask why that happened. But I’m too sad to be mad. I’m just exhausted and gloomy and can barely function.

      My wife and I have each other now, but I still feel lost, bewildered, confused. My world has collapsed. I wandered the streets late last night, came home to find I forgot to shut and lock the side door.

  • Wendy Englund says:

    I lost my son in 2012. Your article really hits home for me. Thank you. I would like to share this with my group. Compassionate friends. Maybe our local paper would print it also. Is that ok?
    Thank you
    Wendy Englund
    Andy’s mom