On Strength and Weakness in Grieving

On Strength

I buried one of my sisters this past week and never had I so frequently heard the words “be strong”; this I heard from everyone. At a private viewing the evening before the funeral, from early in my arrival to my slow, meandering withdrawal, I shed tears; scattered showers so to speak. I had such a release so soon after arrival, by the time the rest of my folks arrived, many a cloud had passed.

My nieces too had themselves a healthy release that night. While they wailed from the other side of the room, I sat silently, periodically shifting my focus from some arbitrary feature of the carpet, to the casket, to a large picture of my sister on an easel beside it. When the eldest sat beside me and asked if I was okay, I nodded and told her that I had my share of tears before they came. At some point nearer the end I had myself a second shower (or third or fourth, who was counting)? My youngest niece approached me as I stood facing the casket, seemingly together (as much as one could be). She asked if I was okay as she hugged and leaned her head against me. I nodded and said yes. The clouds trickled in-sync with my answer and as they did, my niece raised her head to look at me and said, “no you’re not”. I wasn’t fine in her eyes; perhaps she was right. Perhaps I was being “polite”; maybe I was being “strong”.

I continued nodding to signal my okay-ness. A little laughter separated the sobs; teardrops embraced and began to stream. In quick time trickles turned torrential. My niece ushered me to the sofa where I was sitting before. She consoled me and promised to return as she scampered away not too long after. She returned with her mom and two other nieces. My sister (her mom) understood I was okay, my nieces launched into consoling me. Tears gave way to dots of laughter. They lifted my spirit then gave me space.

On Weakness

Is there a relationship between this “being strong” and being void of emotion? Is “strength” unfeeling? Isn’t consoling someone — (literally or figuratively) wiping the tears from their eyes, assuring them all will be fine in time to come… suggesting that where they are is not the place to be — like wiping their emotions from their nervous system — hurrying them out of (what I can only assume from behaviours generally are) dangerously unhealthy feelings?

Is vulnerability weakness? Does feeling pain mean you’re unhealthy?[1]

I’ve repeatedly been flooded with emotions surrounding my sister’s death. Like emotional inceptions I’ve (without thought or trigger) deteriorated from a smile to a bawl. Out-of-body type experiences or deep inner-self experiences perhaps, I mourn not for what I’ve lost, not for what won’t be for me or us but for reasons I can not aptly put into words. I’ve displayed my strength; I’m known for it. Find it in my writings, my work, my resolve, my irreverence, my poise, my power, my way of life. Is its opposite (weakness) the absence of grace in (and this, mind you, in spite of) overwhelming pain? Is poise in pain strength? And if it is, for whom is this “strength”?

Soul-sucking hymns and unbearably dreary funeral services aren’t a thing anyone should be made to endure, but for whose benefit do we insist these be lively? Why are we moved more-so by poignant words on paper or gracefully delivered, rather than by unconcern for who watches-on as one unapologetically observes his feelings? Are we quick to console because it helps the hurting or do we fear their unbridled emotions would provoke our own “weakness”, that is, force us to confront our own feelings?

I see being strong as being 1. Willing and 2. Able to set aside one’s feelings to observe those of another. Where “be strong” was followed by “for your mother”, I totally got that. I had to feel my feelings (and she had to feel hers) separately because we are both (as is everyone) individuals. But I can delay observing my feelings so as to see to the emotional wellness of another (where it does not compromise, compromise too much, or compromise comparatively, my own). Being strong is additionally (and more importantly) having the strength to observe one’s feelings despite the expectation and unspoken insistence we stifle them.

Ironically, while we’re encouraged to release our emotions, the floodgates are heavily guarded by consoling arms that don’t permit such feeling. Barring harm to self… clinging, for instance, to a body in an open casket or climbing into the grave at the burial site, barring also harm to others, we’re to let our grieving be.

At a time where there’s a glossary of buzzwords defining social issues — words that reduce complex social problems to singular (and therefore inaccurate) viewpoints, “toxic masculinity” is one such term. It’s a term that does not consider our generally poor relationship with our own feelings and social pressures we exert on the feelings of other. Our infatuation with “happiness” as a measure of success speaks to this chronic self-abuse — this toxic relationship with self (us all).[2]

When “strength” is a virtue and we define it by emotional deprivation and inobservance of said emotions, there’s little wonder we are the way we are (individually and collectively). We’re emotionally disconnected strangers to empathy, sympathy, understanding and self. We are weak individually and collectively because of how we define strength. It is this and other such conflations that causes help to hurt and interventions to fail and the reason why we never truly come to know or understand ourselves or each other. It is why, though as near as an embrace gets us to others, we are worlds apart and only drifting further.

Notes

  1. In general health, pain is not a problem in itself, it signals that there is a problem in the body. If there were no such signal (in an ailing body) one should both be worried about the disability it represents and the myriad of possible problems going undetected in its absence.
  2. See Wisecrack. (2016, April 16). Inside Out: Is Joy the VILLAIN? – Wisecrack Edition.

Author: Ervin Welsh
Date Written: December 26, 2017
Published: December 26, 2017
Last Updated: December 26, 2017
Location: #9 King Street, Basseterre, St. Kitts, West Indies, Caribbean.
Email: ervin@beyondtimeless.com
Tel: 1 (869) 762-4650


 

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