Grief is isolating and the way we (don’t) deal with it in our culture—glossing over it, minimizing it, focusing on “the bright side” and “the blessings” and pushing the negative feelings aside—makes grief even more isolating because it can make us think we are the only ones who feel the way we do.
Being in multiple widow support groups has shown me that there are lots of people who can relate to the pain and sadness I feel. I have learned that I am not the only person to wonder about how long to wear my wedding band, how to deal with unwanted questions or advice, and how to cope with holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays. The particular nuances of my marriage, caregiving experience, and widowing are unique but not nearly as different from the experiences of others as I had expected. For me, connecting with others who have experienced a similar loss has made me realize that although I am alone in being widowed from my amazing husband, I am not at all alone in being widowed from an amazing husband. Understanding that I am actually surrounded by people who are also grieving, even if they are grieving very differently from me, helps me feel normal about my process and also makes it more possible for me to extend compassion to myself and others. The support groups have given me a chance to see a wide range of responses to grief and a wide range of ways to offer support.
I wrote last month about resources for grieving that I’ve found, and now, 11 weeks out from my loss, I want to emphasize how learning about grief through blogs, podcasts, TED Talks, and support groups has helped me feel at peace with my grief. I don’t mean I’ve felt less sadness or cried less or experienced any less of negative emotions than before I learned about grief. What I mean is I have felt normal about my grieving. I have not judged myself when I have started crying in person, been triggered by something completely random, been unable to dump out the now-11-weeks-old glass of juice in the fridge that was my husband’s last glass of juice, or done any of the many, many illogical things I have done since becoming a widow. While my grief experience has been challenging, I have not had the extra challenge on top of it of feeling like I’m “doing it wrong” or I “shouldn’t be feeling/acting this way.” Nope—I’ve known because of what I’ve learned about grief by joining formal and informal communities of people grieving that I am doing it exactly right and there are an infinite number of ways of doing it right.
I’ve been speaking specifically of grief, but I think what I’ve said about grief can also be applied to trauma. Like grief, trauma is isolating. Just as people seem to feel free to judge the grieving others do, people seem to feel justified in judging how others process their trauma. As a sexual assault survivor, I have often felt the judgment of others about my process of working through the trauma I experienced. My participation in sexual assault survivor support groups helped normalize the pace at which I was processing my trauma and many of the confusing emotions I felt.
Grief and trauma are isolating; when you think you are the only one feeling what you’re feeling and that nobody else can relate, you may further isolate yourself. Finding a grief or trauma community, even if you participate minimally or only as a lurker, can be powerful. It can make you feel less self-conscious. It can help you stand up to those who judge the way you are grieving as wrong or going on too long. It can help you stop comparing yourself and your grieving to others and their grieving.
As an introvert, I understand that the idea of being in a support group could be really uncomfortable. There are many grief and trauma communities that you can passively participate in, such as online support groups and Facebook groups. I joined six different widow support groups on Facebook and only participate actively in two of them, but I find value in reading the posts in the other four groups even if I don’t post or comment. I think for some folks, listening to podcasts and reading memoirs by people who have experienced similar losses or traumas could be as effective as participating in a support group. The point is to connect, whether passively or actively, with others experiencing something similar.