When tragedy strikes most of us don’t know how to release our emotions naturally and safely. Instead, we tend to bottle them up. Afraid of being judged by others we hide the agony of our loss. Quite possibly, we’ll scream when no one hears or sob uncontrollably in the car. I know I did and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And my advice to any loss parent would be: scream if you have to! Get it out!
We may be frightened by the intensity of our feelings or perhaps scared of others’ response to our reactions. So all that anger, hurt and hopelessness will be pushed deep into the pit of our stomach where others can’t see our agony raise its head. There it will remain unless we find a healthy way of expressing it.
But why are we so scared of externalizing what’s inside in a natural way? Whose sensibilities do we think we’re sparing in not showing the world the extent of our feelings?
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Our society doesn’t do strong emotions, not when they’re negative and indicative of great suffering. It’s a society obsessed with success and happiness. Anything that counters that must be hidden or shunned. If you’re sorrowful, you’d better suck it up, go to therapy or medicate. Really? Why are those the only options for the bereaved? Where’s the advice that points a loss parent in the direction of safe, cathartic, expressions for their grief? How about prescribing a daily dose of shouting in the open air, or iron forging, or digging, or kickboxing? Because as far as I can see, all that emotion must out.
To stand any chance of naturally processing what has happened to us as parents, we need to be able to express what’s inside of us now we’re grieving our child. And to express it safely without fear of rejection.
We learn early on that impulsive outbursts bring with them negative reactions from those around us. As children growing up we are told not to cry or to do away with our anger. This obligation to control childhood experiences that are direct, unfiltered reactions to events which would naturally illicit extreme responses, sets us on the path of having to civilize our instinctive, human emotions. Eventually, we leave childhood behind. We become masters of self-control. So what should we do when disaster strikes? When our child dies? What then?
Society applauds those of us who develop a thick skin and rewards us for being contained and dignified in moments of crisis. Hurrah for the stiff upper lip! Three cheers for the elegant, controlled grieving mother who shows poise and is graciously quiet in moments of stress! No matter if your baby died, your toddler drowned, your daughter was strangled as she walked home alone. Few can cope with convulsive crying. Even fewer want to hear the truth.
“You’re so strong!” was a phrase I heard over and over following the homicide of my son.
“You should go out more,” came the suggestion when I stayed in bed for days, literally grief-stricken.
As if the horror of having had my son brutally killed wasn’t enough, I was also having to deal with others’ expectations as to how I should respond to his death. Did they have a manual I forgot to read? Why did they seem to know so much more about homicide loss grief than I did when it wasn’t their child’s skull that had been smashed?
What I needed was comfort, not advice. Yet advice is what I got. Even the therapist thought she knew more than I did about how I should be feeling.
I was inhibited in fully expressing my anger and sorrow because of my fear of others’ reactions. Instead, I internalized the strongest emotions. Keeping those feelings under control took energy, pushed my blood pressure through the roof and made me ill.
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In stressful situations, these suppressed emotions would crash through my armour leaving me and anyone else present in shock by the intensity of my outburst. To this day, my surviving children are able to remember the exact times and places where I totally ‘lost’ it. They laugh about it now, but at the time it was frightening to see their mother have a meltdown in public.
Possibly the most extreme example of my being chastised for not behaving according to polite norms happened when I was faced for the first time with the man who had beaten my son to death. I was expected to follow societal imposed norms, remain impersonal and polite and shake hands. He smirked as he extended his. I refused to touch him. His mere presence made my skin crawl. Afterward, I was told that my refusal to greet him formally could be interpreted by the defence lawyers as antagonistic. To my mind, this is the world turned upside down.
As a society, we justify this civilising of our animal instincts as necessary because we don’t want people punching each other on the street in an uncontrolled rage. These are the norms of our society. We go along with them, even in grief, because if we don’t we risk becoming social outcasts.
But at what cost? What happens to us as individuals if we repeatedly push away what would otherwise be a natural response to a life crisis such as the death of our child? Why should we not scream and cry and share our sorrow in public? Do we not risk worsening the very symptoms that later require medication and therapy?
I don’t claim to have a solution to how we change this restrictive, inhibiting mindset. Yet I do believe that we need to have an honest dialogue about our needs as loss parents. We need to be frank and willing to counter centuries’ old expectations about how we should behave when our child dies. For our mental and physical health, we need to express what’s really happening inside our very broken hearts.
Featured photo courtesy of Pexels (Tatiana)