Many people live their entire lives racked by varieties of guilt—the never enough, the too much, the who am I to…these guilt reactions–so knee-jerk as to seem innate and normal, play out in destructive time and energy sucks until we are able to pause, take a step back, and see them for what they are: lies.
The insistent and constant “shoulding” all over oneself prevents us from doing what it is we love–outside influences be damned–and instead locks us into that proverbial prison of our own making.
Guilt reactions, of course, assume many forms–from eating too many peanut M & Ms to opting out of all family gatherings at Christmastime (I claim both). For the purposes of this inquiry, though, I’m referring to what’s commonly known as “Survivor’s Guilt”.
The “I shouldn’t be happy because this person died”.
The “But if I’m happy it means I’ve forgotten the person I mourn.”
The “I wish it had been me…”
Although initially I had flashes of Survivor’s Guilt after my husband Dan died, my go and do disposition soon elicited the opposite response…
Throughout my childhood, I was the clown, the comedic bellows for my family–the one who thought crying and getting angry and being upset was a waste of time…In my observation emoting in such a way didn’t “accomplish” anything–nothing changed, and hey, it’s just going to happen again so why do it in the first place? Sort of akin to making the bed when we’d just be sleeping in it again.
I unconsciously declared myself an “Emotional Bellows”—puffing everyone up as long as I had air to breathe—minimizing the chance for the flames to die out and sadness to set in.
We don’t suddenly grieve in a way that is counter to our First Personalities—the ones we work to improve or disprove or reprove the remainder of our lives, having found our very core—the one that worked to protect us and guide us since its inception—to be always inadequate.
My experience of grief has shown me that we bring ourselves and all of our tools–perceived strengths, inadequacies, and coping mechanisms alike–to the Mourning Table. We bring all of this into the moments which precede the event that caused us to grieve, but also into the process of processing it. For me, it was “easier” to get up and go–do–than it was for me to stay in bed with the covers over my head. This is not because I’m Superwoman or some kind of exceptional being or even an exception to “grief rules”. Quite the contrary–it was simply easier for me to fall back on my old patterns.
The last few days before Dan died, one of the ICU doctors pulled me aside to inform me of as much. In the middle of being asked to make the impossible decisions one must make when death is inevitable, this doctor acknowledged the awfulness of the situation and then added, “But I can see you are going to be ok. I can tell you are resilient.” I hope you’ll understand when I say this made me want to clock the guy between his eyes. Although well-intentioned, of course, this was anti-comfort to a person who longed to break down; who needed a break from being Resilient.
But I knew this doc was correct: I wouldn’t be melting down anytime soon. I would cling to the expectations I perceived others to have of me, as well as those I held onto of myself. Like the kid who enters into a group project, looks at the “C” students in her group, shrugs, and says, “I’ve got this” and proceeds to do the entire thing herself.
My grief reaction was opposite in this way: I felt an obligation to be happy. To live life in a way that made Dan’s death seem somehow seem less like a pointless tragedy. I felt I must be larger than life or admired for my strength or even live a completely different life.
But as I’ve learned—reluctantly and roundabout-ly, you can’t actually escape grief. It will find you. As my coach, mentor, and friend Nancy Levin says, when we don’t acknowledge or admit it to ourselves, “The truth comes out sideways”. In addition to truth, my personal interpretation and application of this is also how it refers to grief. If you don’t allow yourself to “go there” and really feel and experience the truth of your grief, it won’t disappear. It will wait–sometimes patiently; sometimes for many years. It’s clever that way…but, one way or another, it will find you.
I’ve learned that my Grief Reaction–trying to Smile Big and Live Big–while serving me in moving onward, has also prevented me from from, well, grieving. Armed with this realization I take steps back and forward and, yes, still sideways sometimes…all while trying to be patient with myself. Yoda would not approve, but note I said trying.
Setting my personal story aside, I want to challenge you to take a look at your own behavioral tendencies. What’s your default reaction to difficulty (grief or otherwise): Anger? Blame? Sadness? Knock knock jokes? Likely it’s a combination of a bunch of tools you’ve acquired and put into your tool box.
Acknowledge and at first be thankful for these skills; these tools. No need to judge yourself. Just say, “Thank you, tools. You’ve served me well.” And then begin the inquiry of discovering what you need now. And say to yourself, like you would say to someone else (those playing along at home may remember this from Podcast #9),
“I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
And then add, in your quest to find your G-spot, “How do you really feel?”