When grief hits, we are pummeled by a range of emotions. We never knew we could feel so much, endure so much, or rage for hours until we were exhausted. Grief unleashes a barrage of emotions that short circuits our mind and leaves us sobbing on the floor.
When someone close to us dies, we feel so battered that most of us put a wall up around our hearts that blocks people out.
Many of us think we should be strong enough to handle grief, so we set our feelings aside and operate out of our heads. We try to control grief by forcing it to conform to our schedule, and we bury ourselves in our work. When we realize that stuffing emotions in a drawer doesn’t work, we reluctantly listen to our hearts.
I don’t deal with emotions well, my own or those of other people. I never learned the language when I was growing up. I approach every challenge in life as a problem to solve, thinking that if I can find the right solution, it will work out. You may feel the same way.
I grew up in a German-American community in Wisconsin where strong emotions were not expressed and you didn’t complain when life dumped a load of hurt on you. When death came to someone you loved, you endured it quietly. When someone in the community asked how you were doing, you said, “It’s hard, but I’m fine.” This denial of emotions did not serve me well when my wife died unexpectedly in her 40s.
No matter how well you handle emotions, grief surges in like a tsunami and sweeps everything you understand away. Male or female, if you can’t cry when your spouse, child, or best friend dies, then you are in denial about something.
Grief is an emotional ecosystem that maintains its own weather.
I get a thrill when I accomplish a lot of work, thinking that the more tasks I finish, the happier I will be. Working validates my existence.
Or I used to feel this way. Now, not so much. I’ve come to see that we live from our hearts, not our heads, and tasks are empty boxes if they don’t help others. My wife’s death made this clear. There is never an end to the number of tasks that need to be done, but people don’t live forever.
I worried that my emotions would take me down, so every day I wasn't at work I deliberately sat with friends who invited me over to talk about grief. They patiently listened to me walk up and down the hallways, peering into each room trying to identify which emotion I was feeling. I would talk about despair, anger, and a host of other negative emotions that I thought would drive them away. But they kept inviting me back. Being a newbie, what I thought were really strong emotions, were just emotions to them.
At work, I changed my introverted habits by lingering in conversations with people, letting emotions seep in, and our bonds of community strengthened. In the past, I would say what needed to be said and go back to work.
Life is a river that is always moving and changing. So is grief. It carries us from death back towards life. Sharing our emotions with others is our river.
This post first appeared in The Grief Dialogues.