Sometimes when I walk into a patient's room I can feel their emotion before they say a word. This morning was one of those times. The grief hung thick in the air and was visible on my patient's face as soon as I entered her room. As if she had a shameful secret that she had been saving for my ears only, she quickly shared with me recurring feelings of guilt and sadness about her daughter, husband and brother - all deceased. Her usual cheerful, bright mood had been replaced this week with irritability, restlessness and a great deal of self-doubt. Casting her eyes down at her hands and sighing loudly she said, "Something's wrong with me. I looked down at my hand at Bingo last week, saw my ring and started crying about my husband. That's not normal. I'm not normal."
I'm willing to bet that, at some point or another, all of us have thought this very same thought: "I'm not normal." You know the feeling, suddenly, out of nowhere, we are reminded of a loss in our lives. A rogue wave of grief, sadness, despair washes over us without warning and suddenly we are drowning in our sorrow. Again. It's as if the loss has happened again. Days, months, years may have passed since the loss but it feels brand new again.
Right behind this wave of grief comes another wave - a wave of embarrassment and shame. What do we often say when this happens in front of someone else? "I'm sorry." We place intense pressure on ourselves to keep our feelings inside and to manage the grieving process in a neat, tidy, orderly and proper manner. It's easy to see where this pressure comes from; just look at what happens when we suffer a loss. Most employers provide their employees with a mere 3 days of bereavement leave after the loss of an immediate relative. 3 days. 3 days? 3 days!! After those 3 days the message begins to creep in from a number of areas that it's time to pull yourself together, stop crying and move on. Guess what? That message is wrong.
Grief doesn't go away. The wave doesn't crest, crash on the shore and disappear. It stays with us. Forever. The hole in our heart never goes away. It never heals. There is no closure. Grief is forever. When we lose someone, that loss stays with us. It changes us. It's always there, just beneath the surface. It doesn't mean it breaks us or ruins us or takes away all hope. It just becomes a part of us and it is certainly not a part of us that should bring us shame. So, sometimes, when we look down at our hand and catch sight of our deceased husband's wedding ring on our finger, we grieve all over again. Nothing is wrong with us. We are normal.
Imagine what would happen if we stopped feeling embarrassed about our grief, stopped apologizing, stopped trying to control and contain it and just acknowledged it honestly and supported each other unconditionally. What if instead of saying, "something's wrong with me" or "I'm not normal" we said "This is grief and it's ok to show it. I'm just like everyone else."
Wouldn't that feel better?
Grief is everywhere for all of us - yet our society does a poor job allowing people to grieve. It is ok to grieve and it is normal to struggle with how to continue living your life while dealing with grief.