I’m not sure if I screamed or cried out, but something I did brought my mom rushing to my room as I stared blankly at the cordless phone in my hand. My brain and my heart weren’t processing the news I’d just received, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I had just learned that my friend, the one I’d seen in my dorm room just hours before, was dead.
Now that I’m a mom — and a couple decades older — I can only imagine what my mom thought in that moment. But as I sat in shock, in grief, I knew that she would certainly know what to do next.
And she did. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do, as it turns out. In hindsight, I realize that day was when I began learning that everyone grieves differently.
The blur of that weekend has erased my thought process and my intentions, so I don’t know what I actually wanted to do after my friend died. But I know what I did not want to do and that was to help my mom cook and clean. At nineteen years old, I didn’t understand the logistics involved in opening our home to my college friends who were driving down for the funeral. Pragmatic as I find myself now, as a wife and mom, as a doer and a fixer, casseroles and clean towels simply did not seem important in the face of crying and talking and hugging and sleeping.
I also didn’t understand that people grieve in different ways. Weeping might be the obvious reaction to tragedy, but it’s certainly not the only reaction.
Somehow, that week made room for both reactions — and what I understand now is that both were legitimate (and necessary) ways to respond to grief. Turning to tangible tasks and making the practical a priority doesn’t mean a person is not devastated; it just means she’s grieving differently than the one who can’t stop crying and only wants to take another nap.
Some of us kick into high gear when disaster strikes, baking bread and planning services. Some of us make outlandish comments or outrageous decisions in the heat of the moment. Some of us lay down on the floor or on the bed, determined to never rise again. Some of us start committees or organizations; some of us write letters and sign petitions; and some of us move on like nothing happened, acting as if we’re fine, everything’s fine, it’s JUST FINE.
Some of us find ourselves screaming, “Why?” at the cemetery, only to dissolve into laughter a few minutes later when our friend Clairee suggests hitting Ouiser Boudreaux as a way to channel our anger. (That’s Steel Magnolias I’m talking about, in case you don’t know.)
When our hearts break, when our lives fall apart, when the world seems to be burning, none of us knows what to do next — and then we just do whatever we need to do. We grieve the way we were taught or the way that makes it stop hurting for a minute or two. We grieve the way we grieve, whether that makes sense to anyone else or not.
Grief seems to be the common denominator of these times. Whether it’s personal or global, recent or ancient, we all seem to be grieving the loss of someone, of something. And while our suffering unites us, our methods of reacting and processing and coping sometimes divide us. It’s just one more way expectations trip us up, when we assume others will need what we need and do what we do. In an effort to reassure ourselves that our own reactions are right, we decide that everyone else must fall in line behind us.
But we’re just not wired that way. Each one of us was created unique, and our diversity in experience and personality mean that even when we’re grieving for the same reason, we won’t necessarily go about it the same way.
And that’s okay.
All of this seems harder while we’re isolated and alone, often feeling our emotions escalate in the face of fear and uncertainty. Seizing the moment and choosing joy feel impossible to many of us when grief is in the mix, and our gratitude and positive outlooks feel forced at best and completely false at worst. Then again, leaning into extra family time, finally finishing that project or that book, and getting back to the basics of board games and baking projects might be just the reprieve someone else needs to get through this difficult season. Neither response is the right or wrong way to handle things. Neither one is better or worse, proof of a person’s level of grief (as if that’s a thing that can be measured).
No, see, we all break differently. We all grieve differently. And we all take those differences with us into the most challenging of seasons.
Maybe this year is the moment we can finally remember that, accept that, even embrace that. Maybe we can erase phrases like “moving on” from our vocabulary. Maybe we can remember that a bright smile doesn’t necessarily mean a heart’s no longer broken. Maybe, no matter what or how our loved ones (or we) are missing or resenting or processing or handling what’s going on right now, we can offer grace or the benefit of the doubt or the simple understanding that not one of us is exactly the same.
Maybe we can stop telling each other how to grieve.
Each one of us was created unique, so even when we're grieving for the same reason, we won’t necessarily go about it the same way. And that's okay. -@marycarver: Click To Tweet Leave a Comment
Bev @ Walking Well With God says
I’ve even surprised myself in how I grieve. I was devastated when I got the news that my dad had suddenly passed away. There wasn’t time for me to grieve in the way that suited me…I knew I had to be there for my mom. My grieving would have to wait. Sure there was crying along the way, but it wasn’t until after the funeral, meetings, paperwork, guests, etc. had finally ceased that I could finally cry huge, ugly crocodile tears. This, for me, truly ushered me into a caregiver role instead of a care receiver. I guess it’s called growing up. It’s helped me to appreciate that, depending upon the role they are playing, others may be grieving differently than they might choose. I have learned that I’m no good at faking it, so it’s best to just be myself with my grief and let it come naturally. May we all grant permission to each other to just be real. Mary, I loved reading “Journey to the Cross.” It really accentuated the Lenten season for me and enabled me to be intentional and present in the journey. God bless you!
Mary Carver says
Bev, that is such a great point about people not being able to grieve in the way they choose! Thank you for sharing part of your grief journey here (and the kind words about JTTC!).
Michele Morin says
Thank you, Mary! I’ve gone through life sort of apologizing for my way of managing grief. It’s a great gift to know that God has hard-wired all of us to respond consistently with his unique design of each one of us. This is such a freeing concept!
Mary Carver says
Yes, knowing God has created us all differently IS so freeing!
Thank you for sharing this uplifting message. My dad was a Christian minister. I watched how he comforted people when they were in need. He was solid as a rock, but softly saw to each person differently. I didn’t understand, at first, why he needed to go to his office in the church afterwards. As I grew up, I began to understand the need for him to be strong with his emotions at critical times in other people’s lives. Then deal with them himself,later when he was alone. I guess that’s why everyone thinks I am so strong with my emotions. I tend to not be very emotional whenever lots of people are around. I would rather be alone and praying when I am fully grieving. That doesn’t mean I don’t cry in front of people. That means I would rather turn to the Lord for my deepest comforting. I’ve been raised in a very caring family. So thankful for that! Thank you again for this reminder. We ALL have our own ways to deal with grief.
Mary Carver says
Sounds like you learned a lot by watching your dad process grief, Peggy. Thank you for sharing that part of your story with us!
Beth Williams says
I used to be the one that said cliche things to people grieving. Now I’m more sensitive to others feelings. Always knew people grieved differently. When either of my parents died all my siblings cried lamenting their loss. I was actually “happy” for them. Both had severe dementia . Mom had been bedridden for two years. For me I knew their suffering was over. They were up in Heaven with their right minds & unaching bodies. In this age of corona virus I have been lamenting being in church. Missed my people-especially yesterday (Easter). My heart breaks for our hospital patients. No one is allowed to visit. You can take them to ER , might get to stay some, but then you have to leave. You can only call & check on them. So hard on the families & the patients. There are some exceptions-if the patient is on hospice & not expected to make it, child in NICU or having a baby then you are allowed visitors. Everyone grieves different things & in various ways. God designed us that way. Go ahead & grieve the loss of your normal. Cry, scream, what ever. Let is out it is cathartic.
Mary Carver says
Yes, Beth, it’s so hard for people in the hospital right now. And that in itself is something to grieve. Thank you for reading and sharing with us this morning!
Thank you for this article. One that so many need tor read. I facilitate a bereavement group for widows and widowers and so often people tell me how they feel that they are grieving wrong. It is only when they get to share these thoughts with others that they can see there is no wrong or right, just different. I will be sharing your thoughts with my group. Again, thank you.
Mary Carver says
Oh, what a gift to provide that safe space for widows. Thank you for doing that, Andrea.
Julie Garmon says
Yes! Yes! Yes! Truth.
Dick Edwin says
For future reference, try to find a congregation near you that has a Stephen Ministry group. Stephen Ministries has an excellent series of 4 faith-based booklets called “Journeying Through Grief” that you can send to someone who has lost a loved one, over a period of a year. They are based on the fact that everybody grieves differently. I have been using these for many years, always with positive experiences, and to your point that everyone grieves differently, the one consistent comment that I get back every time, from people dealing with a wide range of experiences, is that “I can see myself on every page”.
Mary Carver says
Thanks for the suggestion, Dick.
Dawn Ferguson-Little says
Mary each of greifs differently. I believe you can’t tell someone time heals. As I don’t believe that at all. I believe we get over it all in our own time depending on how the person died and their age. If they where saved and you yourself where saved. As if you yourself where saved they where not. If they knew you were praying for them. It didn’t make them ask Jesus into there lives when alive. You have then wait until your time then up on earth yourself to know if they said that prayer before they passed away. If you will see the them again. That can be hard on you the saved person. Like me to do with my late Mum. It nice if you our your Love one or Friend are saved. You have not lost all. Yes you will miss them on earth. But you have something nice to look forward too that you will see them again when your time up on earth. They are waiting for you in Glory with Jesus. So we can’t tell someone how to grief over a love one no matter what age they are if family member or friend. All we can do especially at this time of the various. Is phone them up or text that person that has lost that person or send them a card. If it was not this various. Go round if they wanted and see them and if saved pray for them. When they are up for it it not this various take them for lunch or coffee. If the various do it when it over. Just be there for them. In the days that are ahead. Even just if weather nice even when the various over go for walk with them and let them talk if able to walk. Or just sit with them in their homes and be a good friend and listen to them that may be all they need. As they might not like to burden family of how they feel about how they feel to loose their loved one. If saved asked can you say a short prayer with them. All this can mean so much to people at times like this. Thank you for today reading. Dawn Ferguson-Little xxx
Mary Carver says
Thank you for sharing your heart with us today, Dawn.
Theresa Boedeker says
Love this, Mary. Needed to read this. We all do grieve differently and then may judge each other when they are not grieving like us. I remember being about 21 when my grandfather died. My mom came home from being at his beside and said, “Can you believe it? Nana said shortly after grandpa died that it was time to give the house a good cleaning. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I didn’t argue and started wiping out clean kitchen cupboards.” That was my introduction to how people grieve differently. It made no sense to my mom to clean. And I wondered then if I would want to clean or do something else. But for me, cleaning and cooking are some of my go to’s. I can do a mindless routine that brings me comforts, helps others, and gives me time to think, but not to much time to think. I stay busy at first and then take a nap and want alone time.
karyn j says
i LOVED this! it’s so true and is applicable to so many situations…thank you for sharing!
Thank you for sharing these words! This is really insightful to make sense of my own reactions and feelings in the midst of this pandemic. I see others around me responding differently and that can feel confusing and frustrating. Reading your blog helps me begin to make sense of that gap that I’m noticing. Thank you!