I cannot tell you how many times someone has said to me, often through tears, “I shouldn’t be so upset about this, it’s not that big of a deal” or “It’s been months, this should not still be bothering me”. “It was a long time ago” or “we weren’t that close” or, and this is a big one, “so many people have been through much worse” – always followed by, “I shouldn’t be so upset”.
Somehow, we’ve come to believe that some things are worth being sad about, and some aren’t. That some amount of time is appropriate for sadness, but once that window ends, the sad feelings should, too. It is a great thing to be aware of and have empathy for the difficulty of others’ situations, and to cultivate a sense of gratitude for the ways in which we are lucky, despite difficult circumstances. However, I don’t think we should be using that gratitude (or what often ends up being faux-gratitude) to stifle whatever real emotions we may be experiencing.
Let’s take a look at these three common lies about grief that we can find ourselves believing:
“I shouldn’t be so upset, because…
…It’s not that big of a deal.”
First of all, who is the one deciding how “big of a deal” something is? If you are upset about something, then that tells me that something about it is a big deal (or maybe that it’s misplaced grief…but that is another post for another time!). All that you experience is going to be somewhat unique to you. If a group of people witness or are affected by the same tragedy, there are still enormous differences in their individual experiences of it. What truly may not be a big deal to one person might be life changing for another. If you’re upset about something, the mere fact that you’re upset speaks to the significance of the event. It may not feel like it makes sense, and there may be more layers to it than you realize, but try to trust your emotions- they are always telling you something. In this case they may be telling you that this loss or event actually is impacting you, whether you feel like it “should” or not.
…It’s been months (or years or weeks, etc).”
Somehow we have unspoken (for the most part) time frames for ourselves and for others, for how long grief should last. I don’t think we need those. There is always a possibility that we can get stuck in our grief, unable to move past or forward from a loss or a tragedy, but for the most part, grief is variable, ambiguous and doesn’t necessarily follow a linear or time-contingent trajectory. There’s no point in rushing grief, and typically the only way to move forward is to move through it. By stifling the feelings (because you feel like you should be over it by now) you may actually be elongating the process. Again, trust your emotions. They may be telling you that you are still feeling the loss, and it makes sense that you’d be sad about that.
…It could have been worse/other people have it worse.”
This is a tricky one for me because I do think it is valuable to practice empathy by acknowledging others’ hardships and to cultivate gratitude by acknowledging your own blessings or good fortune. However, I don’t think this should turn into a comparison, which so often leads to self-deprecation or repression. The truth is, there will always be ways in which your situation could have been worse, and there will always be people whose situations are worse than yours. Always. But at the end of the day, the experiences of others are kind of irrelevant to your own experience. For example, if someone lost 2 family members when you only lost 1, it does show kindness and awareness to empathize with that person, but it in no way needs to impact the pain of the loss you are experiencing. Another’s grief doesn’t need to influence yours- that doesn’t really make sense. Rather than comparing your grief to someone else’s, try just feeling and acknowledging the grief that is there. As I mentioned before, stifling or repressing your sadness probably won’t work anyway. If anything, this will stretch out the grief because it will sit and build since you haven’t allowed it to be experienced or expressed.
I would encourage you to catch yourself when you start invalidating your own grief (or other feelings). When you find yourself minimizing the pain or shutting it down because it doesn’t seem like it “should” be there, catch yourself. Remind yourself that that emotion is there for a reason. It’s signaling you, in this case perhaps, that something is painful or that you are feeling the loss. Trust that the sadness you find yourself stifling is probably exactly what you should be feeling.
If you are struggling with allowing yourself to grieve, finding yourself reacting to things in ways that you feel don’t make sense, or if you feel like you’re stuck in your grief, call one of our therapists today. Grief is complicated, and we would love to work with you through it.