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.
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.
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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