Are you there yet? The pressure to get over grief

Don’t you guys just love taking road trips with little kids?  Without kids, who would make you stop to go to the bathroom every hour?  Who would loudly argue just two feet behind your head as you drive?  Who would eat sticky snacks and get french fries lodged in between your seats?  I’m telling you, you haven’t road tripped until you’ve road tripped with a child.

One universal truth about kids and road trips is that they have absolutely no concept of time and zero appreciation for how long it takes to reach their destination.  At around hour one they begin asking things like “How much loooooonger?” and “Are we there yet?”.  As depicted in the graph below, the number of times a child asks a question like “When are we going to get theeeeere?” doubles with every hour spent in the car.  This pattern continues until the child finally falls asleep, at which point they (mostly) stop asking.

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On longer trips, parents know their tiny passengers are going to start asking these questions early and often. It’s annoying as all heck, but it’s also expected and understood.  Kids only see the end point of a journey and they can’t conceptualize the miles and miles one has to trek to to get there.

If grief we’re a road trip, it would be one driven with a chorus of children in the back seat saying ‘are you theeerrrre yet?’, ‘are you close?’, ‘this is taking too looooong!’.  No matter how fast you go, your passenger’s protestations grow louder and more impatient.

One universal truth about grief is that people will subtly and not-so-subtly pressure you to ‘feel better’ well before you’re ready.  The comments and expectations of others can be confusing. You yourself may wonder whether you’re doing grief right, so other people’s opinions may cause you to question yourself and prevent you from asking for the compassion and understanding you need.  If you feel like you’re being pressured to move on well before you’re ready, we recommend thinking through the situation in the following way.

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1.  Ask yourself, what are my own attitudes about grief?

Explicit attitudes are attitudes that one holds consciously and can be readily described.  These are the attitudes you might believe are socially acceptable, preferable, true, or correct. As someone experiencing grief yourself, your explicit attitudes might include thoughts like…

Grief is emotionally and physically exhausting, grief takes time, grieving people should be patient with themselves

On the other hand, implicit attitudes are attitudes that lie just below the surface of our consciousness and are expressed in more subtle and automatic responses.  These attitudes are learned through past experiences and they hold within them biases, beliefs, and judgments we’ve learned through observing and interacting with the world. To some extent, our implicit attitudes about grief will likely reflect the attitudes of those around us and of society on a whole and so they might include thoughts like…

I am wallowing, I should be coping better, I should pick myself up by my bootstraps, I should be back to normal by now, my loss isn’t important

Although you might strive for the ideals expressed in your explicit attitudes, your implicit attitudes have an effect on how you actually experience grief.  It is important to evaluate how you truly feel about how you’re coping with grief before taking the thoughts of others into consideration.  And by truly, I mean you need to take stock of your negative personal evaluations and how you internalize the pressures of others.   

At the end of the day, how you believe you are coping will mediate how you respond to the pressure of others. If you feel conflicted about how well and how fast you should be coping, you are more likely to respond to the pressures of others with confusion, shame, and self-doubt.  Whereas someone who feels less internalized pressure, may be more patient with oneself and more confident about the way they choose to grieve.

2.  Remember, there is no right way to grieve

Grief is really confusing.  No one tells you what to do ahead of time; all most people have for reference are observations drawn from personal but peripheral death experiences, overdramatized television and movie vignettes, and all the aforementioned attitudes formed from living life for as long as you have. Once in a while, you may need to remind yourself that there is no right way to grieve.  This reality may be frustrating for perfectionists and people who don’t like ambiguity, but it’s just true.  There are no timelines, there are a million different ways to cope, and grief is different for everyone.  If you believe this, then you will be more tolerant of variability and better insulated against the judgements of others.

3.  Take a non-biased view of the situation

Perhaps such-and-so who said whatever they said is just a big jerk.  They’re unkind, unthinking, and self centered…perhaps.

When you feel mad, pushed around, and misunderstood it’s difficult to step back and look at the situation through an unbiased lens, but sometimes you should. Other than this person being a big jerk, how else can you interpret this situation? Try and think through all the possibilities before you decide.

Possibility #1:  As we previously established, no one else could possibly understand the depths of your grief.  Like little children on a road trip, no one can completely understand your journey.  It’s foolish for anyone to make assumptions about your grief, you know that and I know that, but this person who’s upset you doesn’t know that.  They weren’t trying to be mean, they just don’t fully grasp what it means to grieve.

Possibility #2:  The person had good intentions, but they got nervous and stuck their foot in their mouth.

Possibility #3: The person didn’t mean for their comment to come out the way it did.  They did a poor job communicating; their bad.

Possibility #4: You misinterpreted what they said.  The human brain is primed to notice patterns; a tendency which is helpful for learning, but which sometimes leads us astray when interpreting events.

Have you ever noticed that when you get a bee in your bonnet about something you all of a sudden see signs, reminders, and reoccurrences everywhere?  To some of extent this may be because your brain is looking for events to fit a pattern.  When you are feeling hurt or sensitive about the expectations of others, you may be more likely to attend to things that confirm your negative expectations or to assign importance to unremarkable events or comments.  More on seeing the world through the grief lens, here.

Possibility #5: Perhaps the comment was justified, but you aren’t ready or willing to hear it.

Possibility #6: The person is a jerk.

4. Communicate and be honest

Only one of the above scenarios (the scenario in which the person is an inconsiderate and mean jerk) is not worth fixing.  In the other scenarios, it might serve you well to communicate with the person about how they made you feel.  As someone who turns the television channel over even fictional confrontation, I understand that it often feels easier to keep your mouth shut.  However, if you don’t speak up you can’t expect the situation to change.

You don’t need to have a long and drawn out confrontation, you can simply tell the person they are making you feel bad and that it isn’t helpful. If it doesn’t stop and you do need to spend less time around this person, at least you will know you tried.  Bonus, it can also be incredibly empowering to stick up for yourself and to insist that people respect your needs.

How do you handle the pressure to get over grief?  Let us know in the comments below.

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March 28, 2017

8 responses on "Are you there yet? The pressure to get over grief"

  1. I lost both my children thirteen months apart. Jen was taken by diabetes and John was killed by a drunk driver.
    People often say”I can’t imagine how you must feel”. I tell them not to try. Nobody needs to borrow that kind of grief.
    When asked how I’m doing,I reply”I’m alive.
    I don’t invest time in rude people. Someone tells me how I should feel,I cut them loose. How can anyone understand how I feel when I don’t understand myself. All I want to do is be with my kids.

  2. How am I doing I usually answer hanging in there…wth am I suppose to say, the truth? I think I am more selfish now – I don’t care what others think, somedays I feel like doing very little and I don’t go out as much as I use to. I lost my 25 year old daughter to drugs One year and 8 months ago. I had adopted her children prior who are now 8 & 9. Honestly, raising them working and grieving are about all I can do on any given day. I find comfort in my grands, husband and 4 dogs most days. I am also the first to reach out to anyone who has lost a child. I do feel I am suppose to help others with this lose.

  3. RePlying, not relying

    • I just talked to my husband this morning about what does he say when people ask, “How are you?” Not people you know, but when the grocery clerk or another anonymous person asks you that question as you check out. He agreed it hurts every time. No way either one of says “fine” or “good.” We have both retreated to the word, “Okay.” Although even that is really questionable most of the time.
      I agree with you that your old friend is not going to ever understand grief until she experiences a devastating loss of her own. Time to move on.
      We are at 11 months just.. one month shy of my son’s birthday on the 14th and death day on the 26th. I know at 22 months I will still be struggling. I know in 22 years I will still be heartbroken.
      I was going to erase this post because I didn’t know how helpful it was to you. But since I am crying for us both, it is helpful for me.

  4. When I replied to my “favorite” question, ” How are you doing”, I thought I was relying to someone “safe” because in the same email, she apologized for not being in communication more, etc. so, silly me opened up and told her that the past 22 months have been horrible. Well, she threw everything at me, including telling me I’m weak and need to get a grip on reality. My reply to her was honest, heartfelt, and flat out angry. I figured I’d never hear from her again, so why not just say everything, including there’s no time frame for grief nor right or wrong way to do it.

  5. They told me in 2003 I should’ve been over my grief a long time ago bc “that happened clear back in 2001.”
    In 2003 half the time I still didn’t really believe he was dead. There were no remains, no physical evidence to match with the DNA sample we supplied. They never found a match, and the only thing that made me believe it really happened was when they found the main person responsible for doing it and that wasn’t until May 2, 2011. Technically May 1 but it was May 2 here.
    I don’t know why that help so well but it did. Until that day I had dreams every single night about the person who had died. About a month after it happened the dreams stopped on their own and except for a few times have never become regular again.
    Most people would call that closure, even the president called the finding of Osama bin Laden closure when he addressed the families of 9/11 victims directly, but I don’t feel like it’s total closure. If you want to call it that in terms of that one aspect then I guess it was but almost nothing else feels complete.

  6. Hi Bette, believe me you are doing a good job. It is totally rubbish when someone dies. We cannot comprehend it. There seems to be a confusing paradox in someone dying. We, the surviving have to come through it, but the person who died cannot. for them and for us there is a full stop. Most other things we can resolve. This stops us in our tracks. I felt strange still being in love with someone who had died. I tried to stop my grief by marrying quite quickly again. My eldest son told me that he thought, in a way that I had always been unfaithful to my second husband because I was still in love with his Dad (Baba). While this may have been his way of reconciling my marrying again, his thoughts have made me think. With love, Mary

  7. It is really one day at a time, its been three years and two months and I can tell you there are lots of ups and downs, I never did many things around the house and now I stack wood and mow the lawn an snow blow,open and shut the pool. Feeling like I am a third wheel with couples that use to be our friends, it is very hard to do family things without my husband. My adult children try to do things together and it is always very hard as my husband is missing. Weekends are very lonely. I have had to stay busy. Walk the dog and do different things then what we use to do as a couple. 39 1/2 years. Hard to change. But I have to go on and I still wonder what is my purpose. I so wish I could hear his voice. I still talk about him alot.

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