Grief -  In the words of others

November 18, 2021

By Ken Barringer

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through”

Grief -  In the words of others

Have you ever noticed that when you’ve suffered a loss your mere presence in a room can change the temperature? Even if you are with friends, family, or other loved ones. In some situations, friendship patterns and relationships can change because those not grieving may be feeling “I’m a bad day from being him/her”. In cases of young widowers this can happen where the couples’ friends find it hard to see you alone as it can strike worry in them. How does this behavior show up in words? Have you ever heard “advice” that has nothing to do with you? “You need to move on”, “It’s been (fill in the number) year(s) already”, “you should (fill in the blank).” Often these comments are more about the deliverer, than the receiver. The feedback might be what they need (although this is a flawed assumption) and not what you need. Yet their view might be imposed upon you. This imposition might lead you to think, “Am I doing grief right?” The answer is “yes” because it is your experience and your process. However, it can be demoralizing to feel, someone important has died and I’m failing at grief.

Perhaps the one I’ve heard reported to me most in my life as a grief therapist is “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”. This is fundamentally correct; you don’t know their experience. My sense is this isn’t what is meant by the statement. What it may mean is some version of, “I’m aware you’ve had a terrible loss but let’s not talk about it.” The statement creates distance. A compassionate follow up statement might naturally go something like, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, could you help me try and understand”. Yes, this is a therapist response, however any lay person who can tolerate emotional pain could generate some version of this reply. My sense is the origin of the statement comes from a place of fear. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through because to try and imagine it scares me beyond belief”. 

What is the fear? Emotional flooding? A need to “get back to normal?” These fears are real and happen. We can experience a flood of emotion, we don’t “get back to normal”. What is also real and happens is that flood waters eventually subside, and the loss of a powerful attachment will always alter who we are from this point forward. These are only problematic concepts if we define them as such.  Generally, the kind of statements detailed here are fear driven. Understandable, makes sense. The concern is how the receiver interprets them. “This is my oldest friend/closest relative saying this, and they’re probably right because I’m not thinking straight.” Grievers can end up disenfranchising themselves.

As we know when grief gets disenfranchised it can end up manifesting in us emotionally, physically, behaviorally, cognitively, and/or spiritually. Further, current losses can trigger previous losses and have a stacking affect which if you get it, then you get it. Many don’t – or can’t tolerate it – and wish for you to just move on.  What you feel is what you feel; your story is your story. Feedback given to you, while maybe well intended, may not be about you. Your story also means different things at different times of your life. Honor it; honor yourself.