“I am worried about her,” my aunt said from behind me. “She cried at the hospital when Eileen died. She wouldn’t let her go.”
I sat on the kneeler next to my mother’s casket before and after her wake rather than sitting in a chair across the room from her. I wanted to sit next to her one last time before she was cremated. My aunt thought I couldn’t hear her.
My mother unexpectedly died after open heart surgery. We had two days to digest everything. As my father, my aunt (my mother’s sister), and my mother’s niece and nephew waited for the priest to arrive in my mother’s hospital room to administer last rites, I vocalized my anger at the fact that my mother wouldn’t see me settled in life before she died.
When the time came to remove my mother from life support, I placed a hand on my mother’s head. It was the only part of her not covered with a medical apparatus. When I was upset, my mother always stroked my hair or rubbed my head; I wanted to do the same for her as she passed. I read a prayer to Our Lady of Czestochowa, and, when I finished, the nurse called the time of death.
I put my head down on the mattress and cried, my left hand still on my mother’s forehead. I was probably there for three to five minutes when I felt my aunt’s hand on my back. She said, “You have to let her go.”
Then she walked out of the room. I didn’t see her until the wake.
Before my mother was removed from life support, I called a few family friends so they could say good-bye. They cried over the phone. My mother’s nephew (my aunt’s grandson) broke down before her wake began. Friends and family cried during her funeral.
For some reason, after my mother’s death, I wasn’t allowed to cry or be upset. I had to hurry up and get to the business of being “fixed”–whatever that means. The problem was: I wasn’t broken. I was grieving.
Responses from Grief Supporters during the first several weeks after my mother’s death encouraged repression of my emotions. An emotional upset could exist for about a minute after my mother’s death, but no longer, and certainly not during the mourning period that followed. Grievers, I learned, should remain in perfect comportment at all times; emotional expression in the aftermath of death was verboten.
The message I got from Grief Supporters was that there was something wrong with me because I was emotional after my mother died. By emotional I mean: I cried in phone conversations with close friends, I was upset that pressure was put on me to abandon my life ambitions because my mother died, and I got angry when people phoned to tell me I was living incorrectly.
When it comes to grief, social beliefs dictate that Grievers should remain “strong” in the face of the emotional upheaval that comes with the death of a loved one. We should put on a “brave face” and become a “rock” of emotional stability. Feeling or expressing negative emotions means there is something wrong with you, you are broken, and require fixing. We must swallow unexpressed emotions and hide them from public view. Someone died; suck it up and move on.
I wholeheartedly disagree.
Grief Supporters are there to be rocks of emotional stability for those who have lost someone. Grievers get to fall apart.
Unexpressed emotions do not disappear from lack of attention. They transform into Bitterness, Anger, Depression, or worse; they manifest as Unhealthy Behaviors used to numb and cover negative feelings.
Emotions are meant to be felt and they provide a gauge by which we can measure ourselves: What are we thinking and feeling? What is troubling me and why? Expressing emotions when you feel them is healthy.
Emotions are temporary feeling experiences that constantly change throughout our day. They come to us suddenly, exist for a short time, and dissolve to make room for the next emotional experience. If you sat down and tracked your emotional experience over the course of an hour, or a day, you would find a varied list.
Why does society hold to the belief that negative emotional experiences are indicative of trouble?
My answer is that negative emotions point to the fact that something traumatic has happened; in the case of grief, a death. Death, and the emotional response to it, inspires fear in bystanders (friends or family) who are uncomfortable dealing with negative emotions themselves. Negative emotions are real, and a Griever’s visible expression of a hard-to-digest reality causes Grief Supporters (or Grief Onlookers) to shut down and insist that the Griever has a problem. Our grief disrupts the life of the Grief Supporters: our reality is too much for them.
Negative emotions in the case of grief are recognition of an acute and painful transition. A bad day does not mean that you need to be fixed, a bad day means you are emotionally heavy and need to release what is bringing you down.
If the negative emotions remain inside, they are with us constantly; we have cleaved to them, they will begin to obstruct happiness and joy because when we hold onto negative emotions we create blockages of feelings. These blockages have consequences: we cannot be open and loving to others because we are mired in our negativity. We cannot love ourselves because the negative emotions don’t allow us to believe we are worthy. Retaining negative emotions and refusing to deal with them can sink us into depression. Just because we do not face the bad feelings, doesn’t mean they cease to exist. They become silent influencers that will find some way to express themselves in our lives.
If we expel negative emotions, we are recognizing the negative feelings, observing them as they affect our mood, releasing them, and moving on. We are aware, in this situation of confrontation, observation, and release, that emotions are nothing to fear. Once we release the emotions, we are free, for the time being anyway.
Emotions of grief spiral around us, beginning with more intensity and a lasting for longer duration in the immediate wake of a death. Over time and with proper attention, the negative emotions reduce in intensity and duration, to the point where we can be aware of our sadness and not overwhelmed by it.
There is no right or wrong way to emotionally meet the death of your loved one. There is no playbook by which you can plot your grief experience. You may cry at the immediate death, you may cry later that day when you get home, or that night when you go to sleep. You may not cry for several days. You may not cry at all. Your emotional response depends on how you process the event. The enormity of the event takes time to settle.
When it comes to emotional response to the death of a loved one, you have the right to fall apart when you need to: cry, be angry, be frustrated, be fed up, be overwhelmed. There is nothing wrong with you. Falling apart will help you put yourself back together again. Falling apart enables you to shed the difficult emotions that weigh you down in the aftermath of a difficult and large (and sometimes sudden) life change.
Grief Supporters may criticize you for it, but there is nothing wrong with expressing your emotions. You are not crazy or losing your mind. You are adjusting to an entirely new volume of your life. You are grieving.