by Angela Miller
When you lose a child so many people tell you how strong you are. For those of us who have lost a child “strong” is usually the exact opposite of how we feel. It often shuts down the conversation, inhibits us from taking off our mask and being honest about how we’re really feeling. It stops us from asking for help when we need it. It stops us from saying, “Hey, I’m drowning here.” Or I’m a mess. Or I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the next five minutes, the next hour, the next day.
People often say “you’re so strong!!!” to those who are suffering— which usually results in that person feeling even more isolated, alone and misunderstood. When “you’re so strong” is offered like a cliche, it can be really off-putting. It may be intended as a compliment, or encouragement, but it often doesn’t come across that way to the person receiving it. I’d throw it right in the pile of other cliches and platitudes.
People in pain need a safe space to speak their truth, without judgment.
Please, for the love of everyone who is hurting, let’s stop telling people in pain how STRONG they are, and instead let’s ask how they’re really doing. Let’s ask more open-ended questions. Those who are struggling and hurting need more safe spaces, places of refuge, havens of support and unconditional love. More soft places to land.
Over the years I’ve always cringed inside whenever someone would tell me how strong I was. Honestly I can’t stand that phrase. I find it so painfully unhelpful and untrue. The truth is, I didn’t feel strong then. And honestly, I wasn’t strong. I was barely making it. I was struggling to survive. I was wishing I wouldn’t. I’d never felt more alone and broken in my life. The weight of grief and pain was unbearable. I wanted the pain to end. Most days in the early years of grief post-loss the thought of not waking up in the morning would have been a welcome relief from the horrific pain I was experiencing. I wasn’t suicidal, I just didn’t care if I woke up in the morning or not. I just wanted to be with my son. I didn’t want to live without him. I didn’t think I could. Being separated from him was unbearable, like torture. I felt I had nothing to live for after he was taken from me. I didn’t want a “new normal.” I wanted the real normal I’d had with my son. I honestly didn’t know if I’d survive the pain of living without him. It felt like much TOO MUCH all the time. There was no reprieve. No roadmap. No guarantee I would make it to the other side, if there was one.
How was I supposed to keep living after the death of my son? How could I live without my flesh and blood, without the very beat of my heart? I didn’t know. And I really didn’t care to find out. I didn’t want this life and I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t want to be a bereaved mother. I wanted to be the normal mom I was before my life became impossible to want.
Here I am a decade later. I’m still standing. I still don’t feel strong. I haven’t reached the other side of grief. I now know there isn’t one. (Grief feels more like an ocean or a spiral, instead of something linear— start here, end there, done.) Still when someone says how strong I am I feel thrown off balance, disoriented. I can’t relate. Surviving and getting through this doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with strength. I’ve gotten through this because I’ve had no other choice but to get through it. I’m no more or less strong than anyone else. I didn’t have a choice, and I still don’t have one. I (kicking and screaming) took the hand that was dealt to me. I did what I had to do to survive. I keep doing what I have to do to survive… to keep living and loving and honoring my son.
The people who seem the “strongest” are often struggling the most. We usually don’t feel strong… we often feel like we’re barely making it, frantically treading water to keep our head above water. Trying our best to survive and put one one foot in front of the other in this version of life we didn’t ask for… one that is often impossible to want. Those who seem the strongest often feel the most alone. We often wish we had someone— anyone— we could really talk to… someone who gets it.
No matter the cause of heartache and suffering, it can feel extremely isolating and lonely. The pain is unbearable. Overwhelming. You wonder how much more you can take. It often feels like you are the only one bearing this burden. Finding a village to help carry the burden is crucial. Finding one person who cares can make ALL the difference in the world. Be the one who asks. Be a safe place.
Yesterday I saw a graphic that read, “Check on your strong friend.” I thought, yes. YES. We need more of that, please.
That friend who you think is “so strong,” going through what you “could never imagine” and “doing so well”— or so you think— please check on him or her and ask how are you really doing? Then listen— really listen— with all your heart.
It matters more than you know. It could save a LIFE.
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If you’re struggling, please know you are loved and you’re never alone.
Angela Miller is an internationally known writer and speaker on grief and loss. She is the author of You Are the Mother of All Mothers and founder of the award-winning online community ABedForMyHeart.com. Angela’s piece 7 Things I’ve Learned Since the Loss of My Child has been shared almost 1 million times. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, CBS News, The Huffington Post, MPR, BlogTalk Radio, The Gottman Institute, and FaithIt, to name a few. To date Angela’s writing and her book have comforted the hearts of millions of grieving parents around the world.
Join her compassionate village at A Bed For My Heart.
Text and images © Angela Miller A Bed For My Heart 2012-2018. All rights reserved.