Don’t Speak: The “Censorship” of Grief
I know what you’re saying
So please stop explaining
Don’t tell me cause it hurts”
“Don’t Speak”, song and lyrics by Eric Stefani and Gwen Stefani
When advising the bereaved (be it in-person or in writing), one of my most oft-repeated teachings is encouraging them to talk about their loss – their feelings, their fears, their anger, their uncertainties. I believe that continuing to express oneself throughout the grieving process (no matter how long that process may be) is a healthy, productive, and proactive way of coping.
However and unfortunately, a bereaved person can inadvertently choose the “wrong” set of ears with which to share their deepest, most intimate feelings surrounding their loss – and worse, they may not realize that this is a “wrong” person until that person makes the very insensitive attempt to shut off and shut down someone who is obviously in pain and looking for any number of things – solace, encouragement, strength, advice, hope…or perhaps just someone to hold a hand, wipe away a tear and gently say, “I understand”.
Susan A. recalls trying to talk about her late husband, only to be met by resistance from of all people, his own family. Susan shares, “[His family] continually asked me, ‘When are you going to get over it and get on with your life?’ I was surprised when friends did [the same thing]. Some went through his entire illness with us, but after his death, they did not want to even hear his name. They would tell me, ‘You talk about him too much – you need to get over it’. When this happens you are numb and in shock. It is like being stabbed in the heart. Even after [many] years, it takes your breath away.”
I have long taught that every person in the world can be categorized into one of two columns: Energy Givers and Energy Drainers. Energy Givers are fantastic; they are the people for whom you are better for having spent time in their space. Conversely, if you spend enough time with an Energy Drainer, you will feel like someone let all of the air out of your tires. When you ask them how they are, they will tell you… and it’s never good. Are you familiar with the half full/half empty glass observation? An Energy Drainer’s glass is not just half-empty – the glass has a lipstick stain, an old cigarette butt in the bottom and it’s full of dribble holes.
Anyone who tries to shut you down in any way when you attempt to discuss your loss is an Energy Drainer; someone who is more concerned with their own feelings than they are with your healing. Let’s put it another way – if you have a beautiful 16×20 picture, would you go out and buy a 3×5 frame for it? Of course not. So why would you share a 16×20 picture of your wounded heart, your devastating loss, and your roller-coaster emotions with someone who has a 3×5 mind?
Sharlene was facing what would have been her 25th wedding anniversary and facing the date for the third year after her husband’s death left her feeling apprehensive, She knew that the day would be difficult. Shortly before the now-dreaded anniversary date, Sharlene was lunching with a friend whom she once thought of as a member of her family and brought up the fact that she was feeling a bit down; a feeling that most reasonable people would understand. She shares, “As we were waiting for our food to arrive, [my friend] said, ‘You know what? [He] probably would have lived if you had loved him enough. He’s gone and there’s nothing you can do about it It’s time to flush the toilet and move on already.’
I felt as though whatever was left of my heart just imploded. When he died, I constantly asked myself what more I could have done to keep him alive. I felt so guilty because I couldn’t be with him more than I already had been and she was well aware of this.
Aside from the horror of someone being told to metaphorically “flush the toilet” in reference to a person’s life, legacies and memories, as well as inferring that loving someone “enough” would have somehow magically rid them of whatever illness or infirmity took their life, this particular person actually transcends the concept of Energy Drainer. People like these are downright toxic to a Healing Journey. Fortunately, Sharlene was wise to quickly realize this fact. She also understood that this person had no business playing any part in either her Healing Journey or in her life; stating, “She was completely oblivious, spending the remainder of our time together whining about how horrible her husband was. Later that day, I posted what happened [on Facebook] and announced that she was being eradicated from my life. Looking back, I now realize what an emotional vampire she was; feeding off of the misery of others.”
Another issue that sadly walks hand-in-hand with grief censorship is that of abandonment. Susan says, “I have lost friends. You are a reminder of the worst possible nightmare that could happen to them, so they leave…and you are left standing there amongst the rubble of your life.” Sharlene adds, “The couples with whom we were once close have virtually disappeared. My husband was loved by so many people and no doubt his death hit them hard. But once the funeral is over, everyone resumes their lives.”
Loss attacks many aspects of your life, but perhaps somewhat surprisingly, none more than your address book. I personally experienced significant abandonment by other former “friends” (coupled and otherwise); because they either wanted Fun Carole back or they simply did not know what to do now that it was just me. I was also abandoned by certain family members; leaving me alone to look into my young daughter’s confused eyes while trying to answer the question, “Mommy, why don’t they love me anymore?”
It is an unfortunate reality that some of the people who you once believed to be good friends (or even family) might choose to leave your life for a number of reasons. They may be uncomfortable with being around you. Others may criticize the manner in which you choose to conduct your Healing Journey. Relationships may also fracture or self-destruct because of more “tangible” reasons (i.e., anything involving money or property).
Think of your Healing Journey as a train. You are the engineer and the people in your life are the passengers. Your job is to keep that train moving forward. As with any train, people get on board and people hop off. Some are on the train for a short time, some are on it for the long haul and others never get on the train at all.
Especially after loss, it is very easy to focus on who chooses to get off or stay off of your Healing Journey train, rather than keeping your focus where it belongs; on who is climbing aboard your train and on those who have chosen to stay on board throughout your loss experience and your Healing Journey. You cannot properly engineer your Healing Journey train by looking in a rear-view mirror to see who has chosen to abandon your train. Focusing on those who choose to exit your life will bring you down and keep you there. It is negative energy focused on negative people who will never add to your healing way.
Let them leave. They have made their choice.
Now…you make YOUR choice.
Choose to refuse.
Refuse to live your life looking into a rear-view mirror. Refuse to focus on who has willingly left your life for whatever reason. Focus instead on those climbing aboard, sitting down, strapping in and staying on board with you for the ride that is your Healing Journey and beyond.
So how do you face both grief censorship and abandonment? Listen to those who have walked the path:
Susan: “Don’t be afraid of the grief journey; learn to embrace it. It will not be easy. This will be most likely the hardest thing you will ever do [as] your life has changed forever. But one day you will be okay. You will have such a deep understanding of what life truly means and what living it means. I am okay – and you will be one day too. I promise.”
Sharlene: “In many cases, people simply do not know what to say to you and will instead say anything just to feel less awkward. That doesn’t mean you should remain silent. Speaking up is an opportunity to educate and inform the uninitiated about what it truly means to be [bereaved].”
Finally, if you are in a position of potential support to someone who is experiencing or has experienced bereavement, it may be very difficult for you; perhaps to the point of discomfort. No one is saying that you should not be upset or perhaps even moved to tears. By all means, be upset. Have feelings. Let the tears flow. These are all good things. However, remember that it is not about you at that particular moment. It is about the person who is seeking both comfort and hope.
Those in the bereaved community are quite cognizant of the fact that theirs is a sad and depressing situation. Do not pile onto those feelings by shutting them down or otherwise pronouncing that “Grief Time” is officially over or that the imaginary statute of grief limitations has just run out with you. And please do not merely abandon them or choose to forget that they and their sadness both exist. I assure you that you will not catch a severe case of Death by discussing someone’s loss or being a sympathetic ear and a loving source of support. Accept the discussion as the compliment that it is; that someone has chosen you with whom to share. It indicates trust in your heart and, should they be asking advice, your judgment as well. Instead of a being a Sorrow Shut Down, choose instead to be the safe haven.
The kind ear.
The gentle heart.
The understanding soul.
The hand that offers hope.
With gratitude and thanks to Susan A. and Sharlene for sharing
***Name(s) changed in the interest of privacy. Bracketing added in the interest of privacy and clarity
Carole Brody Fleet is the award-winning author of the #1 ranked new release in its genre, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Women…” (Viva Editions). She is also the author of “Happily EVEN After… “(Viva Editions); winner of the prestigious Books for a Better Life Award, one of the top national awards in publishing; as well as the critically praised, national bestseller, “Widows Wear Stilettos…” (New Horizon Press). A two-time contributor to the iconic Chicken Soup for the Soul book series and a veteran of over 1,000 radio shows, Ms. Fleet regularly appears as a media expert on numerous television and radio programs nationally and internationally; as well as in national and international print media. To learn more, please visit www.carolefleetspeaker.com and www.widowswearstilettos.com