“You’ve got to be strong now…” I heard my Dad’s voice as if through fog, my sister and her daughter standing behind him as they all looked at me through the computer screen, connected via FaceTime. Before he would say anymore, I knew exactly what had happened.
Just 4.5 month earlier I had given birth. Elation, amazement and deepest despair and sadness only laid days apart. Giving life to my child and having to accept their death in a matter of days, two events that should never be so close together in time. Unspoken rule of time in regards to live and death would expect the parent to die before their children. And even though it ‘shouldn’t’ happen, that children die before their parents, it does. Most likely as you’re reading this it has happened to you too.
I experienced first hand that life has no rule about spreading out challenges in neat 5 year brackets. Dealing with the death of my daughter left me raw. There was no choice of being strong or not – I was overwhelmed at the sheer intensity of early grief’s ups and downs. Dealing with my mother’s decision to end her life revealed just another layer of rawness that left no space to be anything else than ‘in the moment’, to be with any emotions present.
Any of those well-intended messages like ‘be strong’ or ‘you have to keep it together’ are useless. They might bear some resemblance of intellectual truth but on an emotional level they are hopeless, rigid and unattainable. The truth behind those messages is: ‘I can’t deal with the intensity of emotions, yours or mine, so please hide them.’ Yes, emotionality makes most of us feel uncomfortable.
We all have some of those messages internalized to the point that we believe them without any doubt:
- I’ve got to stay strong
- I’ve got keep it together
- If at all, I should cry when I’m alone
- I shouldn’t feel so bad, at least I have…
- If I keep myself busy, I won’t feel it
We actually believe they (or at least some of those) are true. When have you last said to yourself something like: ‘I made it through the day without crying’ or ‘I stayed on top of my emotions’ or ‘I couldn’t keep myself together so I had to leave’? If those strong emotions are there, don’t you think they have their purpose? Why would a human eye have been constructed with a tear duct if the eyes can stay moist without actually crying?
Those messages, those beliefs that ‘we got to be strong in the face of loss’ are myths, they have been told so many times that we accidentally started believing them. We are pushing ourselves to live up to those standards. They make us swallow our true emotions. Did you actually know that the composition of tears of grief are different to other tears? Did you know that expressing your emotions is helping you heal? Did you know that unexpressed emotions can manifest in your physical body and lead to illnesses?
Upon my dad’s helpless plight not to cause any more pain to my already broken heart, a guttural sound escaped my chest, then I sobbed and sobbed – there was no choice but to feel and express. And when those emotions were given room to let go I was ready to organise our trip to attend my mother’s funeral 20.000 km away.
To be clear, those waves of grief came again and again. After some time the tides were less high and more time passed between them. Now, 4 years later, the waves come from time to time. I’ve befriended them, embrace them, express them and let them go.
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You also might like to read related articles by Nathalie:
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(Note: The English book ‘Grieving Parents: Surviving Loss as a Couple’ has been released in its German translation (‘Trauernde Eltern: Wie ein Paar den Verlust eines Kindes überlebt’). This book has been writing in honour and memory of both of my daughters.)
Nathalie Himmelrich the author of a number of resource books for bereaved parents. As a relationship coach, grief recovery expert and bereaved mother herself she believes that relationships (intimate and to other support people) are the foundation for a healthy grieving experience. She is also the founder of the Grieving Parents Support (GPS) Network and the May We All Heal peer support group.