- Support groups can help us better understand what we're experiencing in grief.
- While everyone grieves differently, there is no shame in needing the support of others.
- The need to have our grief witnessed is universal and important.
“I am an introvert,” my friend said. “I suffer grief alone.”
Like me, this friend had recently lost his spouse.
Being suddenly widowed is by far the worst thing that has ever happened to me—and that includes losing parents, sibling, friends, and undergoing a stem-cell transplant. Losing Tom has turned my world upside down and inside out. It is a dark cloud over the sun.
One of the first things I did after it happened was find and join a support group for people who had lost spouses, and this is what I’d suggested to the friend who deflected the idea by claiming introversion.
I know and fully respect that grief is very personal and everyone grieves their own way. But I also suffer from a bad case of social comparison, and when my friend cited his introversion as the reason he planned to tough out his grief alone, I immediately felt ashamed—like maybe I was doing introversion, or grief, or both, wrong.
Intellectually I know this is silly. Emotionally—well, I don’t entirely have control of my emotions, although I am learning how to steer my thoughts in less self-defeating directions. And so while I won’t try to persuade my friend to do his grief my way, when I started questioning myself, I started examining all the ways that even for me, an introvert, the support of other people—many complete strangers to me—has been helping me through this unimaginably difficult time.
Actually, I don’t just belong to one online support group. I also belong to a Facebook page for grievers, which is run by the very wise and generous grief expert, David Kessler. And I belong to his website for grievers, called Tender Hearts. And I have a therapist.
Even to myself, this seems a little excessive, and yet I am finding all of it necessary. Am I doing it wrong?
“That’s just a voice in your head,” David Kessler told me in an online Zoom meeting. “What if you’re doing it right?”
OK—what if I’m doing it right? What is it that is necessary for me, despite my introversion, in connecting with other people?
The first thing I did was join David’s Facebook group (it’s called Grief: Releasing Pain, Remembering Love & Finding Meaning, should you need it). Not surprisingly, this is a particularly good outlet for me, since introverts tend to be good at and comfortable with expressing ourselves in writing. (Also, I’m a writer, so there is that.) In this group, we express our pain, share memories, seek guidance.
One of the most common questions I see in posts in this group is “Is this normal?”
“I haven’t been able to get rid of her clothes—is this normal?”
“I talk to him all the time—is this normal?”
“I don’t care about anything anymore—is this normal?”
To these questions, dozens—sometimes tens of dozens—of other grievers are likely to speak up with a resounding Yes! Me too! Yes, I talk to her ashes. Yes, I sometimes hug them. Yes, I wear his clothes. No, I haven’t moved his toothbrush. Yes, yes, yes, it’s all normal, be reassured, you’re OK, get at least that one worry out of your brain. You have enough to cope with already.
And honestly, people who are not in grief may not be so reassuring. “You’re still crying every day after six months? Maybe something is wrong…”
Yes, something is wrong: it’s grief. Experts consider early grief to be two years. At six months, after a major loss, the numbness of shock might just be wearing off. Other people in grief know that.
Sometimes someone else in grief can provide a different way of thinking about something that you're struggling with. In my online support group for people who have lost their spouse, I fretted that I was having trouble parting with Tom’s things. Some people who are bereaved clean out the closets right away, but it’s been more than a year for me, and Tom’s closet is still full of his clothes. In discussing this, one of the women in the group said that she thinks of donating her late husband’s possessions as giving them a new life.
It’s not that I’d never heard that before, but in this context, it was a bit of an aha for me. I still haven’t managed to clear out the closet, but my thoughts are starting to percolate in that direction. All in good time. In my time. My grief, my way.
And finally, these support groups give me someplace to go when grief overwhelms me. I have friends who have been absolutely wonderful and loving and supportive, but it’s not always easy to talk to people about grief if they are not in it. They don’t know what to say, and I often get a deer-in-the-headlights look. I don’t blame them one little bit. There is, in fact, nothing that anyone can say to make me feel better. Time is all that is going to do the job—and a lot of it. Grief comes in waves, some powerful enough to flatten me.
When that happens, sometimes I just need to go somewhere and express it. David Kessler says over and over that “Grief must be witnessed.” I find this to be true. I don’t know why it is, but it very much is. Sometimes my grief is so great, I just need to speak it aloud. In those times, I go to the Facebook group and simply express my pain. Having it witnessed helps, hearing from others who understand helps, having the pain validated helps.
Even so, I always feel a teeny, tiny bit ashamed when I express my grief publicly. Shouldn’t I be able to manage my grief alone? Aren’t I a strong, capable introvert? Is needing to be validated by other people a sign of weakness?
These are questions I struggle with because I am a work in progress and shame is one of my go-to emotions. But I simply cannot deny the strength and wisdom and simple pressure relief I get from my support groups. This is doing grief and introversion my way. I cannot do it alone. In this tumult of emotions, I am learning to allow myself to need other people.