In the months following my 10-year-old daughter Libby’s death, there was one phrase that I heard over and over again. “You’re SO strong.”
People whispered it in my ear in the midst of teary-eyed hugs. They muttered it as they pityingly patted my back. They surrounded me in groups and proclaimed it like an award. They wrote it in condolence cards and social media comments.
It was a phrase that might elicit extreme pride or snarky disdain, depending on my mood. “You’re SO strong.”
Is ‘You’re So Strong’ a Compliment?
This phrase always baffles me – perhaps because I don’t understand exactly what people mean when they say it. Is it a compliment? Like, “Hey, this grieving thing? You’re knocking it out of the park!”
Or is it a veiled judgment: “How could you possibly be wearing makeup when your daughter just died? I could never do that.”
What, exactly, does it mean to be strong after one’s child has died? Am I strong because I’m getting out of bed in the morning? Because I’m taking showers and trying to smell generally clean?
I Don’t Feel So Strong
Maybe it’s because I’m already back to work, or because I venture out of the house to drive my still-living teenage sons to their events? Am I strong because I’m not breaking down into a sobbing mess when I’m out in public?
Why do I hear this phrase so often? Because here’s the thing. I don’t feel strong.
I feel numb, and on most days I spend at least part of my evening with my face in my hands, tears pouring down my cheeks, and my breaths coming in heaving gulps alternating with otherworldly wails that I don’t even recognize as my own voice.
No Griever is ‘Weak’
I get up every morning and take a shower and make myself presentable because I have to go to work. I have to go to work because I used up all of my sick and vacation days, and I’m a single mom and I have a mortgage to pay.
I drive my sons to their events and try to spend time with them whenever I can because we are all we have left. They are 19 and 17 and soon I will be alone, so I’m trying to soak in every last second before my family becomes unrecognizable.
People grieve the loss of a child in so many different ways, but none of them should be labeled as “strong” or “weak.” Everyone’s situation is different. Many grievers mask their anguish and save it for private moments. Others shed tears for all the world to see. Some find it difficult to face the day and stay curled in the fetal position watching Netflix. Others frantically bounce around from activity to activity in an effort to distract themselves from their pain.
Moving Forward isn’t Necessarily ‘Strength’
Many times, we grieving parents don’t have a choice but to keep going. Maybe we’d love to melt into a ball of depression, but we don’t have the option. People still depend on us – whether it’s other children in the family that need love and attention, or partners who are also processing the loss, or family members, funeral directors, employers, insurance companies… There are bills to pay and texts to return and forms to fill out and the world just seems to keep moving forward.
We don’t understand HOW it keeps moving forward, exactly, now that our children are gone, but we try to keep up as best as we can.
Sometimes we can’t.
And do you know what? It’s all ok. We are not “strong” or “weak.” We are dealing with the unimaginable in the best ways that we know how. That makes us all survivors and rockstars.
Read more by Brooke Carlock at Grieving Mommy: One Mama’s Journey Through Child Loss/Grieving Mommy: a grieving mom’s journey through child loss