There's a poem that keeps popping up on my newsfeed that really grates on me. It's a widely shared poem, often read at funerals. I have included it below, so that you can see which poem it is, but it’s right at the bottom so that you don’t have to read it. (Another person posted that if each “or” was replaced by an “and” then it would be a better poem and I agree with that, but I still wouldn’t like it). I do recognise that this poem has brought comfort to millions and so these views are very much my own!
This poem, to me, embodies all that is bad about the toxic positivity that grievers face every day - it is a big fat “at least…” followed by a “you should...” and ending with an even bigger fatter “they would want you to…”
(At least they lived, you should cherish your memories, now they would want you to be happy).
Those of you who read this blog will know that I don’t endorse the sackcloth and ashes Miss-Havisham-style-mourning-for-eternity model, but I also passionately reject the school of thought that we should have a little cry and then sustain ourselves on the happy memories and move on as though nothing happened.
I passionately reject the thought that we should have a cry and move on as though nothing happened
Unless you have lost someone close (and particularly for an out of order death) you probably aren’t aware of how many times, as you try to work out how to rebuild your life, incredibly well meaning people come out with incredibly hurtful platitudes, many of which are reflected in this poem.
We are told that we should be glad we had them in our lives, our memories should bring us joy, but we shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about them and looking back. We should think about what they would want, because all these strangers know that they wouldn’t want us to be sad. You’re young and can find someone else. Look to the future with hope.
Maybe these people don’t understand how painful memories are in the early months. I am just 3 years in and it took over a year to be able to recall any memories before his illness. It’s only recently that I have been able to remember memories with more happiness than pain or sadness. Of course I am grateful to have had the love that we had but that doesn’t make it easier that it’s gone forever! In the early days the thought of the whole future - possibly my whole life again - but without Chris was terrifying,. The worst thing I could do was try to look to it!
And of course our loved ones wouldn’t want us to be sad. Chances are they wouldn’t want to be dead either, but we are where we are...
Of course our loved ones wouldn’t want us to be sad. Chances are they wouldn’t want to be dead either, but we are where we are...
The constant pressure to find the positives in our grief and hide our sadness is unhealthy. We all know that if we suppress our negative feelings they will come out in other less healthy ways, anger or even illness, so why are we encouraged to do it with grief?
My theory is that our pain makes onlookers feel uncomfortable. In the early days the rubberneckers come for a good gawp, fascinated by our misery, offering sympathy and then disappearing again. Then we are told how people can’t imagine our pain. The truth is that they can, they just don’t want to. When they tried it was too much, too overwhelming and so they stopped thinking about it. We don’t have that luxury, we don’t imagine it, we wake up and live it every day.
So instead we are asked to put our pain where they don’t have to look at it. We should shrink it so that it becomes more "imaginable" for them. We should reassure them that life does go on, and that it’s enough, better even, to have loved and lost. They look at us being alone and that makes them sad so they tell us that we are young and can start again with somebody new. As if our loved ones were mobile phones and it’s time for an upgrade. (Although I know plenty of people who have found somebody new and have been equally judged for that, so you can’t win!)
I’m not saying we should be sad all the time. Over time, memories can bring a smile. Slowly the desire to try new things becomes stronger. Gradually without noticing it we begin to find joy and hope. Laughter becomes real and not forced, the feel of the sun on your face, the sight of sunflowers, time with friends, or music all bring genuine joy. That’s good. That’s normal. It’s supposed to happen.
But there will be days when you are inconsolably sad. The tears will fall and the memories will hurt. That’s ok. That’s normal. It’s also supposed to happen. And the really deep waves of grief will pass. But the healthy thing to do is to feel it, to let yourself process that grief however painful it is. To talk to people that understand. To grieve your lost love. The fact is that when somebody dies, it is sad for those of us left behind.
As we learn to live and grow around our grief we should have permission to feel our feelings, whether they are happy or sad. We should not be pressured to have to present the image that people (who have not experienced our loss) have decided is what our loved ones would have wanted.
We didn’t deserve to be widowed.
We certainly don’t deserve to be judged for how we grieve.
And we are not in any way letting our dead partners down if we are sad that they are not here anymore.
*Note that the credit here is to Elizabeth Ammons but he original poem was written by David Harkins