“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.