Thursday, May 06, 2021

We’re very good actors

Here’s something that not everyone knows about grieving people: We become very good actors. We learn what to say, how not to say things, and how to present ourselves in a way that the people in our lives expect. We learn, in other words, how not to be real.

The thing about profound grief is that it’s not linear, and it has no timeline. How many times have I said that now? What most grieving people don’t talk about publicly is the extent to which we remain silent, or pretend things are different, because we know that’s what others expect of us. That changes absolutely nothing, that is, nothing except the extent to which we can be honest.

We learn pretty quickly that others have a pre-determined timeline for how long we’re allowed to grieve. Most everyone will give us six months—no real problem there. But folks get twitchy the longer our grief continues: Nine months? Some awkward foot shuffling. A year? Loud and long sighs. Any longer? Subject changes, silence, and/or disapproving frowns if we’re honest about where we’re at.

We see all that, and we learn the message: If we want to be around them, at some point we have to pretend everything’s fine—doesn’t have to be wonderful, just as long as it’s positive. And if we don’t feel positive? Fake it. We hear that, loud and clear.

We all hear your protests! “I’m not like that!” and maybe you’re not. But consider how even detachment and disinterest appears to us. Are we over-sensitive? Why the hell shouldn’t we be?! We’ve had a part of us ripped away, so do forgive us if we can’t read intent: We’re busy trying to deal with being a shadow of our former selves, and that takes up way too much energy to have any left to work out what various people intend.

The thing is, no one has to have to have the answers! They don’t even have to say anything, not really. But if they ask us how we’re doing, they really need to mean it—and if they truly care about us, then they should mean it. They should care about us and hear what we have to say, even if they feel uncomfortable. We can’t have an honest relationship if they can’t accept our reality.

There are some people, of course, who want to “fix” us, like if they don’t approve of how long our grief lasts. Those people don’t matter. We alone get to determine the course, shape, and duration of our grief journey—no one else gets a say. Anyone who can’t accept that should do us the courtesy of saying so and then back out of our lives because the reality is that we don’t really need people like that. Harsh? Nope. Truth.

I recently realised that sooner or later, dealing with profound grief becomes like living in the closet all over again: I feel like I can’t always talk honestly about where I’m at and what I’m feeling or going through, and instead I have to filter everything I say to match what people expect is “normal”. It’s exhausting.

The lesson in this is as simple as it is obvious: Never judge. Never dictate. Always know that you can never know what private war someone else is fighting, so just relax! It’s not your burden or responsibility to “fix” anyone. If someone else’s grief makes you feel uncomfortable, realise that’s about you, not them, and, again, relax. Thing is, most people, most of the time, find their way through and the only thing that matters from you is to make that journey easier. It’s never about being “right”, it’s about being there. That’s it!

People dealing with profound grief become very good actors. We learn what to say, how not to say it, and how to present ourselves in a way that the people in our lives expect. Others’ choices and behaviours can help us make the only real choice: To be real.


Roger Owen Green said...

I've known lots of people who've dealt with grief. I remember saying to someone, at some point after my father died, that grief is not linear, that one doesn't feel 2% better tomorrow and 3% better the day after. Anyone who doesn't get that you should avoid, if at all possible.

Arthur Schenck said...

Completely agree.