“And when he came to the place where the wild things are
they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws
till Max said “BE STILL!”
and tamed them with the magic trick
of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once
and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all”
~ Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
In the days after your loved one’s death, did anyone say to you, “you’re so strong” or another variation on that theme? If so, how did it make you feel? Did you feel empowered and encouraged or unseen and misunderstood?
I ask because this is one of those statements that can go either way. For every person who’s told us they appreciated comments like “I admire your strength,” we’ve probably heard from three others who did not. Why does this comment, meant as a compliment, sometimes feel so off-putting to people who are grieving? It ultimately depends on the person, but we have a few general guesses.
First, grieving people may feel the opposite of strong, so comments about their strength may make them feel patronized and misunderstood.
Second, a person might assume the compliment implies they are especially stoic and consequently feel bad they aren’t showing more emotion for their loved one.
Third, praising strength may imply that stoicism is preferable to emotional expression. Whether consciously or not, a person may internalize the belief that being emotional around you or others will be a disappointment.
Fourth, the statement “you have to be strong” reads like a threat that a person better hold it together or there will be consequences.
Five, if you bypass a person’s pain and assume they have it together, you may be less likely to offer that person compassion and support.
Look, I could go on, but I have a feeling you get the point. Bottom line – statements about strength can land wrong, even though they’re usually well-intentioned. I think where the problem lies is that there is a whole lot of confusion about the role of emotion in grief and what it means to “be strong” in the face of all those feelings.
I think a good majority of people would believe that being strong in grief means being resistant. Like a knight riding high on his stead, he pays no mind to the scary thoughts and feelings nipping at his toes. His armor is so strong that you can throw what you want at him, and it all bounces off. Nothing penetrates. Nothing gets through.
But in the real world, we’re not knights; we’re just vulnerable people. If we’re able to resist distressing thoughts and feelings, it’s because we’re avoiding them. We’re running away from them, day in and day out – and running away seems far less courageous.
What does it mean to be strong in grief?
Strength in the context of grief is much different than most accepted definitions. It’s brave as hell, but it feels like the opposite. It feels like intentionally allowing yourself to be wounded by looking painful thoughts, emotions, and memories in the eye. Then, instead of trying to defeat them, saying, “you’re a part of me now.”
Grieving people often feel they have to put on a mask to the outside world. Outwardly, you may give off the impression you’re doing “fine”, while on the inside your struggling. The struggle is where the strength comes in, but not everyone can see that because moments of strength in grief are personal, and quite often they’re private.
You show strength through the small and humble acts of bravery you take on every day. Things like getting out of bed and walking around in an unfamiliar world filled with sharp edges.
Strength is opening that box of memories, even though you know it will make you cry. It’s saying their name out loud in public for the first time in casual conversation. Strength in grief is acknowledging, feeling, and expressing emotion.
To help people understand how broadly strength in grief can be defined, we want to ask you: what does strength in grief look and feel like to you? Share in the comments below.
And the next time someone says how strong you appear, smile to yourself and think, “they have no idea.”
What does being “strong in grief” mean to you?