There’s no wrong way to grieve.
Or is there?
Here are 6 stumbling blocks I’ve found in my own grief journey. They may not be WRONG — but they certainly will cause more pain and confusion as you navigate through your heartache.
1. Comparison. Just stop it.
Someone once told me, “Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. Comparison did.”
Comparison really is death, isn’t it? If not death, I hope you’ll at least agree it’s a very unfair way of squelching one experience to highlight another.
However you think of it, it’s really not that healthy.
In our pregnancy and infancy loss support group, we often highlight the comparisons others have made about our grief.
“Well, you weren’t as far along as so-and-so . . .
could you imagine how hard THAT must have been for her??”
“At least you have your living son.
Did you hear about Cindy, from high school?
Her 4-year-old died from cancer. Now THAT’s tragic.”
“At least you know you can get pregnant.
I’ve never even been able to do that.”
When you bring it down to the nitty-gritty, comparison is all about judgment. Making one person’s experience worse or better to make you feel either worse or better in contrast.
And as awful as it is when other people compare our experiences, it can be easy to do it ourselves. Here are some comparisons I’ve caught myself trapped in . . .
“I know it’s not the same as a stillbirth, but I’m dreading the pain and bleeding of my miscarriage.”
“I’ve only had one loss.
And she’s had three, and seems to handle it so much better.
What’s wrong with me? Am I not as spiritual as her?”
“She got to see and hold her baby and get to know him.
She got validation for her grief.
I never got to even see mine. It’s not fair.”
Here’s the deal. What’s hard for you, is hard. What is tragic to you, is tragic. Period. Grief is not an Olympic game where you get the prize for having the worst story ever. Nor do you get a consolation prize for “only” having a chemical pregnancy.
Your grief journey will be completely unique to you, and it deserves recognition and validation no matter what Sarah or Becky or Stacy or Beth are going through.
You don’t deserve the comparison. And neither does anyone else.
2. Denial. Who, me? Never.
Alright, I’ll be honest here. This one’s tricky.
First, there’s the whole shock thing that happens with trauma. (And usually grief is a result of trauma.) Shock is the numbing, the denial, the feeling that “this is happening to someone else, and I’m watching it happen. This can’t be happening to me.”
Then, once you get past that, there’s situational denial.
Maybe you have a really big interview or presentation you’ve just got to do. So you box up your grief, store it away on the shelf, and blow through your presentation so well that no one in the audience would have ANY idea that you buried your baby a few months ago.
I think of this as survival denial. We have situations where it’s not appropriate, helpful, or safe to actively grieve. And so we don’t. We pretend for a while that we are our normal selves. (And I’m not talking about our new normal selves.) And that’s ok, even good, to do.
What I’m talking about here is getting STUCK in denial.
This might look like claiming your loss was “no big deal,” when it really was. Or thinking that if you could just ignore your loss, it will go away on it’s own. It looks like burying feelings when it would be healthy, appropriate and safe to express them. It’s about distracting yourself so blindly you don’t have to feel anything.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned.
Grief doesn’t just go away. It HAS to be worked through, expressed, and felt — for better or worse. I know, it hurts. It seriously, seriously hurts. But when it’s been cried through, taken one day at a time, moment by moment, taking that next step — that’s when growth and healing start.
Denial will not spare you pain. It will come back, I promise. It always does. And usually, it will come back way more complicated and difficult than if you had embraced it from the beginning.
But here’s one thing denial WILL spare you: a beautiful legacy that can be created from the darkest of pain.
3. Isolation. (You are NOT an island, I promise.)
Ok, ok, I’ll admit it. I’m not an introvert. So maybe this one is easy for me to write about.
But here’s the thing . . . grief was never supposed to be suffered alone.
Remember that Jesus guy? So, um, He was God . . . and during the time of His deepest grief, He NEEDED (yes, I said God needed something) to be surrounded by support. He craved others around him to just stay with him and pray. He needed to not be alone during his darkest hours.
And when he felt his own Father turn away, that REALLY was his darkest hour. Forsaken. It’s a horrible word, and none of us should be able to apply it to our grief journey.
But a lot of people feel that way in grief.
So here are my disclaimers before I totally jump in to this topic with both feet.
I get that most people don’t know the right things to say to comfort you. I get that our society is getting away from bringing casseroles and just sitting and crying with you. I understand that right now, maybe the VERY LAST THING you want is to see another living, breathing soul . . . whether they bring a casserole or not.
I get that you might be an extremely private person and don’t want ANYONE to know how you feel. (Ok, I don’t really GET that. I’m like, 100% the opposite. BUT I can at least appreciate that you might feel that way.)
But here’s the thing. You need support. And not just the support you can give yourself when you tell yourself to take one more breath, endure one more day, and survive to see tomorrow. You need real, live, human-being support. (And again, by that I mean OTHER human beings’ support. Just in case you introverts are still confused.)
So if someone offers to bring a casserole, take them up on it. (Even if you just ask them to set it by the door and “Knock and walk.”) Join an online support group, even if you sign in as “anonymous” and never post, and just read what other people write. Find one or two friends you can call when it’s really, really bad, even if the majority of your friends don’t know what’s going on.
Maybe your support network doesn’t need to be huge. But you do need one. I promise.
You are NOT an island.
4. Guilt. Don’t let it consume you.
This one is the hardest one for me, I think. So I’m really preaching to the choir here.
Guilt in grief is normal. Just like denial. At some point, it will happen.
I remember thinking with Olivia (our ectopic baby), “Did I just not drink enough water that day that she got stuck in my tube?” With Sophie, our latest miscarriage, I can’t help but feel like a massive, massive failure. I failed my husband, myself, and worst of all — my baby.
I’ve wondered if I didn’t just want the baby enough — or maybe I wanted them too much. I’ve wondered if I didn’t start my prenatals or progesterone soon enough. I’ve wondered if I had just abstained from THIS activity or seen THAT doctor, if my baby would have lived.
Guilt is trying to answer the answerless question: Why?
Then there is the guilt of actual things. Maybe you really weren’t ready for the baby, and you had an abortion, and now you’re grieving. Maybe the old-you made a decision that the new-you really doesn’t agree with, and you’re full of grief (and feelings of guilt).
Here’s what I want you to know.
Guilt — whether imagined or real — is not our burden to bear.
Our pastor explained that God’s forgiveness is like the Niagra Falls, and when we come to Him with our biggest burden — it’s like coming to God with a Nalgene bottle, wondering if God could actually fill our little water bottles with his waterfall.
The answer of course is obvious. Yes. Absolutely he can.
Sometimes we are quick to accept God’s forgiveness, but can’t forgive ourselves. But that’s the same as walking away from the Niagra with an empty water bottle, determined to fill it ourselves. God’s forgiveness is big enough that we can forgive ourselves too — for all our real or imagined faults.
Guilt is not a burden we need to bear. Lay it at the cross, my friend. He’s big enough to take it all.
5. Judgment. Stop with the verdicts.
If guilt is trying to answer the answerless question — then judgment is the wrong answer to that question.
“I’m a bad person, and I deserve this.”
“Someone else deserves this, not me.”
“I must not be spiritual enough to receive God’s blessing.”
“I must be super-spiritual, and God trusts me with a loss this big.”
“She said the wrong thing to me, and I don’t think I can ever forgive her.”
“I said the wrong thing to my friend, and I can never forgive myself.”
“I’m grieving all wrong.”
“She’s grieving all wrong.”
The blame game is not a fun game. It’s not a healthy game. And no matter how you answer, chances are you’re wrong.
I think the person we are the quickest to judge is ourselves. “I should be over this by now.” “I want to name my baby, but that seems weird. What will people think?” “I must be doing this all wrong because it still hurts.” These are all thoughts I’ve had, but instead of helping me heal and deal . . . they just make me feel bad.
Have you ever thought . . .
“Why me? Why this baby? Why now? Why then? Why not them? Why why why???”
The only answer I can give you is this.
Only God knows these answers. I know it sucks, I know it’s so hard to watch others get what you want. I know it’s so easy to want to judge ourselves to just answer that obnoxious, never-ending question of why. I know how easy it is to judge others on their journey.
But judgment does not heal grief. It only causes more.
6. Stifle your feelings. (I’ll give you a hint. It doesn’t really work.)
Ok, imagine a huge volcano, like Pompeii.
And imagine that volcano is boiling, and churning, and spewing, and right about to erupt. (Is this image clear in your brain? Good.)
Now, imagine you have a sheet of notebook paper. Take that paper, and mentally put it over the mouth of the volcano. Now, sit back, and watch how well that sheet of paper will keep a lid on an erupting volcano.
Ok, silly word picture, I’ll admit it.
But grief is like an angry, active volcano. And it NEEDS to find a way out. And it will find a way out, in spite of any of our feeble attempts to stifle our feelings.
There’s not really a right way to express grief. I suppose there are a few unhealthy ways to do it. (Burning a house down, for instance. I’m sure my therapist would agree that’s an unhealthy expression of grief. Although I admit it works pretty well with our volcano analogy.)
I think it’s pretty safe to say that however you need to let your volcano erupt, that is the right way for you (provided that it is safe for you and for others). But it really does need to erupt.
I remember days with Olivia when I let my feelings build. I flat-out refused to let them out because I judged them. I felt like sadness was OK, but anger wasn’t. So I let it build, and build, and build with disastrous results. Not good.
Maybe you need to go to the shooting range and let off a few shots. Maybe you need to break something. Maybe you need to write out pages in a tear-stained journal. Maybe you need to blog. Maybe you need to yell at God and tell Him why you are so mad. Maybe you need to go for a jog, or paint, or write a song. Maybe you need to write a letter to the person who said all the wrong things, then tear it up.
You can’t deal with something if you don’t let it out. So let that volcano erupt.
Or else, it really will start to burn.
One last thing . . . this is really not about making yourself or your experience wrong. This is about making your journey about you. This is about letting you grieve the way YOU NEED to grieve. No matter whether you’ve stumbled or fallen on this journey (haven’t we ALL????), you need to know this:
You are doing the best you can. And that IS enough.
Did you have any other stumbling blocks you’ve experienced on your journey in grief? Which stumbling block has been the hardest for you to walk through?