“I’m sorry.” That’s the line you’re supposed to say when someone else is having a hard time, and they’re supposed to say “thank you” or something and kind of move the conversation on. Comforting people is something that I’ve always found awkward because in moments when I should be empathizing, or even just sympathizing, my brain was a television with snow on it. No signal would be coming through, and surely my lack of sincerity in the tired phrase must be loud and clear. I should clarify that my bewilderment at how I should handle a grieving person never stemmed from apathy, but rather it came from awareness that I didn’t know the first thing about how all of those hard feelings felt or what is useful to a person going through it.
I want to say that I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid being confronted with grief head on until recently, but I’m not so sure that fortunate is the right word anymore. I’ve dealt with grief in small enough doses that I could suppress and avoid it, and I never learned how to give the hard feelings life. I could simply carry on after smaller struggles, and tell myself that I didn’t need anyone, and that I would be fine. I could ignore the fact that I didn’t have many people that I felt I could safely be vulnerable around, and that I couldn’t be emotionally available for even just myself. I am thankful that my life hasn’t been full of tragedy, but nothing forces you to evaluate yourself and the support system that you have allowed to form around you quite like loss. So when my turn came to lose someone so dear to me and so integral to my sense of comfort and peace that I could not hide from grief, I was woefully unprepared because I had cheated myself out of the tools required to handle the hard feelings.
I’m going to expose myself for a moment and tell you that the death that shattered my world was of a horse, but any animal person will tell you that some of the special ones can affect you as deeply as a human can, and Al was a special one. Al was a quirky horse, but he was with me through some of the best days of my life, and some of the worst. He was there through college, career changes, starting a business, fallouts with my parents, fallouts with friends, and the ending of a very long term relationship. He was constant while people shuffled in and out of my life, and while I did a lot of maturing. If something hurtful or stressful happened, I would go to Al, so when he died, I had nowhere else to go.
I grieved this loss twice. I grieved when it happened of course, because that was it, that was the end of our story. No more memories could be made, no more hugs or snuggles or kisses could be shared. But a couple of months later, unexpectedly, I grieved the loss of Al all over again. This time I grieved for myself, because I realized that being with him was cathartic and offered me a feeling of safety that I had nowhere else. I learned that rationalizing feelings is not feeling feelings. My old habit of explaining away and downplaying emotions only served to stow them away in a box until a later date. I had all of these terrible, raw emotions eating me from the inside because I didn’t know where or how to process them. So this time I was saddened that I had done such a poor job of taking care of myself and trying to meet my own basic needs. Grief exposed all the work I had never done to build a proper support system for myself, and how much work I had ahead of me. I’m still sorting exactly how I’m going to go about making sure I have places and people I can go to when I need a minute to be vulnerable, but for the first time ever, it looks do-able and doesn’t scare the crap out of me.
Thanks to the WhiteFlag App, we all have a safe place to go to where we can be vulnerable and talk about the dark, difficult feelings we’re experiencing. Finding others going through loss and grief has been incredibly life changing for me. I’ve learned about how others process their grief, what helps them, and how my vulnerability can help others feel less alone.
What’s funny is that “I’m sorry” is still all I can really say to a person grieving some type of loss, but it feels different now. Grief is still awkward, but grieving has taught me that the source of the awkwardness is the feeling, not any one person involved. I am not too awkward to offer a grieving person solace, and the list of things I can do to help people feel a little less bad is enormous. Maybe it’s just listening to someone talk for a bit, doing something to get their mind off of the sadness, or picking up a yummy meal. Offering up a few kind words and some snacks will never be wrong and opens the door when a conversation is exactly what’s needed.
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