“All your feelings in grief and bereavement are valid. You don’t have to apologise for your emotions”
How very true is this simple statement. Yet how many times do we ourselves, and those we are conversing with, apologise for expressing feelings. And this is nowhere more apparent than when we, or others, are grieving.
End of life and dying matters. As an independent celebrant, I meet many grieving people. The first meeting is usually in the very early days following the death of someone important to them. Feelings at this time often include distress and pain and shock at losing someone significant. Sometimes they may be experiencing very mixed emotions including anger, sadness, wasted opportunities and sometimes even feelings of relief.
Whatever label we give the feelings, they are just that, valid feelings. Our role, whether in a professional capacity working in the industry of death and dying as a funeral celebrant, or as a friend, work colleague, or family member of someone who is experiencing a bereavement, is to hold space for that person and acknowledge the validity of those feelings.
For me that often entails, not reprimanding (because that is too strong a word), but actively rejecting any apology and giving permission for feelings to be felt. When I am listening and seeking to have a vivid picture painted for me of the person whose life we are commemorating, and someone reaches for the handkerchief or tissues as the tears flow, recollecting poignant, funny, sad, joyous, or even hurtful events, I always internally acknowledge to myself that it is good when emotion is expressed. Often though, I experience the person immediately apologising for showing their emotion either in tears or their voice cracking or not being able to talk about something.
I was reflecting after a recent family meeting to plan a celebration of life ceremony when this occurred yet again (If you want to find out more about what I do as an independent funeral celebrant follow this link). What is it our society has done that tells people to hide their emotions and apologise for them when they come out? Is it the British stiff upper lip?
In a society where we have sequestered death and dying away so much (sequestration means to hide away or to isolate and that will be another topic of a future blog) it is no surprise really that people are unprepared for the emotions that accompany death. We rarely talk about death and dying and bereavement or about integrating bereavement into our lives with our families, friends, or in our schools. Is it not about time we did? (Note I do not say “getting over bereavement” as I believe that healing means we learn to integrate our losses and bereavements into our lives.)
I often hear people say” “I should be able to cope better”, “I ought to pull myself together”, “You don’t need to see me like this”. I fear when I hear these words and when people talk in terms of what time is the right time for grieving, when it should be completed and what they should be feeling or how they should be acting at any given time. There are no “rights” or “wrongs” in a person’s individual journey of grief.
I believe we need to prepare ourselves and each other more for what may happen, and what may not happen, in the grief and bereavement process, an inevitable part of the human experience. The detail of that is something for another blog.
My message for today, for when you catch someone using “ought” or “should” and apologising for having emotions around grief, is to acknowledge their apology but tell them there is no need for it and affirm that all their feelings are valid. Being alongside someone and bearing witness to their feelings, not offering solutions or platitudes, is an incredibly valuable way to support and give empathy. We don’t have to be “experts” just be willing to give the gift of our time and listen and hear.