I Know Exactly How You Feel…

Part One – I know exactly how you feel
In this post, my desire is to try to explain why that statement is typically far more hurtful than helpful and how it robs the bereaved of their unique grief.
Let’s start with the obvious – and that is that there is absolutely no way you can know exactly what anyone else is feeling at any precise moment in time, let alone when they are dealing with great loss and sorrow. It’s impossible. You may have had a similar experience, but grief is not so generic that anyone, you included, can conceive of exactly what someone else is thinking, fearing or feeling. My grief is unique to ME, just as your grief is (or will be) to you. We will all face the death of someone we love at some point in our life, but the circumstances that surround each death is diverse, and people’s response to the same loss can be vastly different as well.
Take two siblings who lose a parent. They can each respond in very distinct ways. They may process this death from different perspectives. Perhaps one had cared for the ailing parent and is relieved that their mom or dad is no longer suffering, and the other sibling feels guilty because they couldn’t ‘be there’ for their parent or help their sibling share the enormous load of being the caregiver. Same loss – yet very different reactions and emotions fill each person. This is such a universal reality that I could write a book about it. But suffice it to say that there are a myriad of reasons two people, suffering the same loss, can feel exactly the opposite of one another, and regardless of why, it occurs and an it occurs often. So, doesn’t it make sense that if two people who loved the same person and both had the same relational title can feel so differently in their grieving, that the rest of the world would fit into the same box?
And yet, “I know exactly how you feel” gets said so often it makes my head feel like it’s going to explode. I honestly believe people mean well, but when you are already ragged and hanging onto life by what feels like frayed dental floss, that statement has the ability to set one off like a rocket blasting into space. Unfortunately, most of the time the grieving individual feels forced to stand there, smile and nod politely at the person, instead of expressing the total rage that is brewing inside them. I believe what people are trying to say is that they understand certain aspects of the loss you are experiencing and are trying to reach out and make a connection with you. Perhaps they want you to know that you are not alone in feeling angry or scared, or maybe you aren’t feeling what you think you should, and they can relate to that as well, and don’t want you to feel like you are grieving poorly.

I realize that with shared experiences comes similar emotions – but when you are grieving – it’s just different. You understand that you may share something with this other person, and in time they can be a source of comfort and validation, but right now, what you are feeling is yours, it’s not anyone else’s.
I’ve been widowed twice, and still wouldn’t assume my emotions onto another widow or widower. Yet that is precisely what we do when tell someone we know exactly what they are feeling.
To be blunt and in my opinion, I think it’s an insulting thing to say to someone.
It’s ok to express that you too lost your ________ and that you felt __________________. You can even ask them if they are feeling similarly, but give them the chance to tell you if that is an emotion they are currently dealing with or not. It doesn’t mean they won’t feel that way at some point, but you just can’t assume that because you felt it, someone else will feel it too, and at the same time you did.

That’s why I feel it’s an insult. It’s as if you are telling someone that you can fully comprehend exactly how they loved their deceased person. But you can’t – and why? Because you didn’t know them the way the griever did.
The relationship that they shared is only theirs to know. No other person can or will ever understand it, in its entirety, except the two of them. And now that half of that exclusive pair is gone, they have literally lost a portion of themselves. There is an irreplaceable distinctiveness that existed solely within the context of that relationship, that now exists no more. And for you to say that you know exactly how they are feeling robs them of that intimacy. It’s as if you are stealing something sacred from them and now taking it as your own, and that is a pain and hurt I don’t really know how to fully convey.
Grief is so deeply personal because the one we are grieving is so exceptionally exclusive to us, and to project our feelings onto the one grieving, cheapens not only their sorrow, but the relationship they had when their loved one was alive.
Can you say you know how they smelled to the one with whom you are speaking too? Do you know how their touch felt to the one who is bearing this grief? Do you know the things they laughed about together, the private moments that they shared? Do you understand the brink that they may have fought back from to even have a relationship, now to have it lost forever? Do you understand the guilt they might be feeling for things said or other words that should have been spoken but never were? Did you grow up sharing Christmas Eve with them as you both waited in anticipation for Santa Claus to arrive? Can you know the things they laughed at while they were on family vacations together? Can you recall what they were doing in that picture that now hangs on a memorial board? Do you know what this person was thinking the last time they saw their loved one? The answer is no – because you are not either of those people. While you may have loved them deeply and miss them terribly, your grief is not their grief.

Therefore, don’t cheapen what anyone is feeling by stating that you know exactly how they are feeling, Instead of assuming and projecting our emotions onto others, here are some phrases that might be helpful.

“I can’t imagine what you are currently feeling”
“Even though I’ve lost a ___________, I still don’t know how you are feeling right now”
“I imagine you are aching inside”
“I imagine you hurt more deeply than you believe anyone else can understand”
“I know that your pain is your pain and I would never marginalize it by pretending to say that I know exactly what you are feeling”
“I do understand some of the overall hurt and heartache, but I am just so truly sorry you are going through this and must walk this path”
“If I had any way to take your pain and carry it myself, I would”

 

I still have no idea what to say to another widow. I don’t know if she is in shock, terrified, relived to be rid of a terrible marriage (it happens), numb or just getting by from minute to minute. I don’t know what she fears in the dead of night when she wakes up alone in her bed. I don’t know if she wants people around or to be left alone. What I do know is that I don’t know her pain – precisely. I do understand it. I can relate to certain aspects of her loss. But I am not her and she is not me – and we each deserve to experience our grief in the unique way with which it occurs.
There is a passage from Isaiah 55:8 that says, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. While I in no way mean to appear blasphemous, I think we would do well to recite this passage before we open our mouths to those who are grieving. My thoughts are not their exact thoughts and their ways of coping will not be exactly the same as it was, or is, for me. I must be mature enough to ask questions instead of imply truths I am not certain of. I must seek to know their heart and their hurt, and not project my pain and my grief onto them. I must desire to truly be there for them and I must be willing to keep my mouth shut when I have no idea what to actually say that can be comforting.
I must be capable of understanding that at certain times, the only comfort a grieving person has, comes from a place deep within, and not from the words or deeds of another person. And finally, we need to understand that there are times where there is no comfort to be given that can adequately quench the unspeakable ache the grieving heart is bearing, and it is we, that must learn to be comfortable with the pain and utter despair that often accompanies grief, and allow ourselves to simply sit with this person and mourn quietly alongside them.
The following quote from Henri J.M. Nouwen best conveys this idea.

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Let us go forth and be the friend who truly cares. The friend with no answer, the friend with no quippy prose, and the friend who can understand that they will never fully know the depth of sorrow and the ache that will forever be carried, due to the substantial loss that is being mourned. Let us be a balm to the heart of the wounded and may our words, when offered, be received in the manner that helps and not hurts.

And please – never, ever, ever say, “I know exactly how you feel”….

When words bruise…..

During my grief journey, I’ve come to learn that there are a myriad of words and phrases that can be meant for good, but ultimately end up causing greater heartache to those we intended to help. I almost feel like a certified professional in this area. Having lost two husbands (in addition to experiencing some other traumatic, life altering events) I’ve been on the receiving end of every trite, but well-intentioned cliché and misused passage of scripture, one could imagine. For a while, I just complained to my close friends, but once Don was diagnosed with ALS, my filter was dismantled. In its place, I began honestly sharing how hurtful those well-meaning comments and passages of scripture were.
Since then, several things have transpired. First, I do hear fewer insulting comments – so that’s a win for me – however, I’ve also learned that people are now hesitant to make statements about grief or feelings, for fear of upsetting me. So, it might appear that I’ve unintentionally created a double-edged sword for myself.
Therefore, I’m writing a multi segment piece in an attempt to address some of the more common phrases that get flung at the wounded hearts of many. It’s my hope to shed insight and perspective’s not commonly discussed, and to give those who genuinely want to offer empathy, some information that enables their success. While the statements and sentiments I plan to focus on are fairly universal (amongst the hurting and grieving), they are couched from my perspective.
I know people mean well, but however well intentioned a statement may be, it can still cause a great amount of unnecessary suffering. There also seems to be this unspoken expectation for the person on the receiving end of such comments, to keep their mouth shut, smile and say, “Thank you” – rather than for society, as a whole, to pause and delve into a study of what is and isn’t helpful. What often happens instead, is that someone offers up some cliché banality, that is about as helpful as a hot poker stabbed into one’s soul.
Many of these comments aren’t just hurtful to people who have suffered through death, but for anyone who has experienced a situation that is truly devastating. Perhaps you have a child who has an addiction problem; a family member who is struggling with their marriage; you know a person who has been traumatized by rape or other sexual abuse; someone you know is facing a medical situation that is terrifying or a person or family is staring at a terminal diagnosis …. the list is endless, but I hope you are getting the gist of what I’m trying to say. Pain is pain and sorrow is sorrow. Fear and anxiety grip us all and for every reason under the stars – and in each case – our hearts hurt, we are ragged and worn out, and what we need is fresh authenticity and not stale, overused, phrases.
Words can hurt – we all know this. We’ve all experienced it, but to me, there is no hurt like words that are flippantly tossed my direction the way one tosses a used tissue towards a trash can. If it falls inside, great, and if not, meh. Words spoken with no regard as to how they make me feel not only pain me, they can actually make me furious. When words and statements leave us feeling like a grenade has gone off in our heads and wounds us at our core, something is wrong – especially when we are already holding onto life by the barest of threads. It’s in those times that we need words that soothe, not burn; words that offer sincere compassion, not placated sympathy; words that express our utter lack of understanding and leave us speechless as to how to truly express our sorrow and concern, not ones that just hang in the air, suspended like a balloon on a string. We need words and emotions that are genuine, authentic, vulnerable and raw.
I hope these next series of posts offers some validation to those of you whom may have had the equivalent of verbal vomit spewed all over you, and serve to offer some awareness as to what is soothing and helpful to those whose world feels ripped apart and spinning.
After all, it’s just as easy to say, “I have no words…” than to pelt another person with a slew of utterances that do no more than marginalize their suffering.
Let’s get on the same page. Let’s begin to be willing to say exactly what we are thinking. After all, the person enmeshed in heartache is likely already thinking whatever it is you are not saying. Let’s get on with ‘being there’ instead of talking at the situation. The heart that is in a prison of agony needs a companion, not a visitor. True empathy stays and grieves. It brings a pillow and a blanket and says, “I’m here for you in whatever way you need me to be”. It doesn’t show up for a moment and then leave, and it is often quiet. Don’t get me wrong – we want people to talk to us, but sometimes the words steeped first in silence, can very well be the solace our tender hearts need.
Join me as we discover the unfiltered truth of grieving, and learn what it can feel like to be bruised instead of soothed, and why anger can rise up so easily when this occurs.

 

 

Frozen but Thawing….

As I write this post, it’s freezing cold where I live. It’s the kind of cold that slices through you. The kind that makes it hard to breath because the air is so icy it feels like it’s burning your lungs as you inhale. And yet, it’s also been sunny all day. As I look outside the sun is casting long afternoon shadows across the trees, and if I didn’t know better, I could easily be lulled into thinking it was a much warmer day than it actually is.
Have you ever had days like that? Where you can’t tell what the temperature is really like until you step outside?
My life has many days that are similar to that. I may seem sunny and bright to a passerby, but internally my heart can feel frozen. It’s conceivable to feel fixed in time, seized in pain and it can also feel stuck – making me feel suspended between the past and the future. And on certain days, those feelings are more prevalent. New Year’s Eve is one of those ‘frozen’ days for me. I look at the past and see what was, I look at the present and see what is, and I still hope for the future and what can be.
I miss Greg, and even more so in 2018. Our son will welcome a baby girl into the world in February and our daughter will be a most beautiful and shinning bride in May, and he won’t be here to share in either of those events – and neither will Don. And that hurts. I miss the traditions I shared with each of my husbands and the laughs that no one else understood. But I also dream about the future, and that’s when I find myself stuck. Aching for what was, and hoping for what might be. And New Year’ Eve brings out the eternal romantic in me. I firmly believe that on New Year’s Eve, you should have someone standing right beside you – someone who makes your heart stir and your head spin – and at the exact stroke of midnight – you should be able to turn to one another, smile, close your eyes and kiss each other with a tenderness that conveys a genuine, “I love you” and also with a longing that says, “I want to spend the rest of my life kissing you every single New Year’s Eve” (I’m a sucker for a good love story). I’ve had those type of New Year’s Eve most of my adult life, and I am blessed to have those memories. But I desire to have them again…I have a longing in my heart for something wonderful. Something that is better than anything I’ve had before (and that’s a big expectation!) As I looked back at this day a year ago, I can see how far I have come, and how much my heart has expanded – and that my thawing has begun.

Last New Year’s Eve I made the following post on FB….

“It’s hard to close the year out knowing Don won’t be here to kiss at midnight or to celebrate in this new year (and the ones to come), on earth – with me and all those he loved and treasured. But I know heaven is timeless and one day we will be together again. Until that day, I’ll go forward drawing from the wisdom, life lessons and love he shared with me. So even though he isn’t present in all the new memories I make, his presence will always be with me. My picture represents the past, the present and the future – and the mix of joy and sorrow and elation and heartbreak and overwhelming loss – while still anticipating a future where my heart will smile and laugh again.”

What really stood out as I re-read that post was the line that said, “…. while still anticipating a future where my heart will smile and laugh again”. And I grinned…because while I don’t know what the future holds, I find myself focusing on it more and more as each day passes. I’ve come to the place where thinking about the future doesn’t terrify me or hold me in a prison of tears and heartache, like it has in the past year(s). And as I ponder my future I find myself smiling more than crying, anticipating instead of being afraid, and ready instead of hesitant.

I know I’m healing because when I think about loving again, I don’t feel sick inside. I’m ok. I’m willing to risk, and to be hurt. I still intensely love and miss both Don and Greg, but I know that I desire to love in a deep and profound way – the way I have in the past. To experience knowing that there is someone who will always be there when I need them, and even when I don’t. To be with that person who smiles at just the mention of my name, and who’s look can make my heart leap, and whose kiss can make my entire body feel like’s it on fire. I want someone who will pray with and for me. Someone who holds my heart within their own and will guard and protect it at all cost.

I want the person I can stand with at Midnight on the 31st of each December, and kiss in that same kind of way that only people deeply in love understand. I’ve not ‘gotten over my losses’ (you never get over them), but you are able to move forward with less pain on a daily basis, and I’m finally at a place where I can unashamedly anticipate my tomorrows. That is my heart thawing. That is my heart softening at the edges and the fear melting away. That is my heart making room for a future that includes many wonderful things, and an all-encompassing love is one of them.
So, as I said goodbye to 2017 – which was my year of ‘firsts’ without Don, and look towards 2018, I do it with a heart that is joyful for what this year will bring.
I know it won’t be perfect. I know I will experience great days – euphoric days – but I will also have some very dark and heavy days as well. And to be honest, sometimes, they will be the same day.

When my son holds his daughter for the first time and when my daughter walks down the aisle – I will be overcome with both elation and gratitude as well as profound and resonate grief. My heart will be more ecstatic than ever before, and yet, it will also be splintered into a thousand tiny aching pieces all over again.
But this is life. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It’s not stagnant, and I have to choose daily, whether I will live in the past, or whether I will lovingly and respectfully honor the past, by fully living and being present in each tomorrow I am given.

I choose the later.

So, welcome 2018….and all the changes that will come. The laughter and fun – the tears and sorrows – the uncertainties and the absolutes. I will be there for them all – and I will continue to share my journey with those of you who desire to follow along with me.
To those of you who are hurting in the deepest part of your soul, may you find peace in the midst of heartache and find a way to look forward (not as to anticipate) but to a time where your heart will smile and laugh again…. I promise it will come….in time. And when those days occur, it doesn’t mean you don’t still hurt or grieve. It doesn’t mean that you don’t ache for what was. What is does mean, is that at one time your life was exquisite, and while it may not ever look or feel exactly the same, it doesn’t have to be horrendous either. To hope for grand days and beautiful moments, just means that you have found a way to carry all the rich love you’ve shared, into your future. The person who is gone, will always be a part of you….so let the best of them shine through you – as you bravely move into this new year and the ones to come.
Happy New Year my friends,

With Much Love,

Berkley