Stop telling people facing loss that they are strong

Grieving people are frequently complimented for being strong. I have been told some variation of “you are strong” hundreds of times since my husband’s stroke. I know people mean it as a compliment or an assurance that I have what it takes to make it through the grief I am experiencing. 

But it gets old. Folks who are grieving get really tired of being strong. A fellow griever recently said to me, “I don’t want to be strong anymore. I want to be weak.” But when I asked what “weak” would look like, my friend said, “I don’t know.” This post on What’s Your Grief captures some of the other problems with telling someone grieving that they are strong, most significantly making them feel like they haven’t really been seen. 

In addition to it getting old and causing the problems What’s Your Grief describes, it’s also just not an accurate assessment of what healthy grieving requires of us. 

It may be true that grieving calls upon us to be strong, but I think we conflate “strength” with other qualities that grievers rely upon, such as the ability to prioritize, flexibility, courage, self-compassion, and mindfulness. I wonder if people recognize these and other qualities in folks who are grieving, but lack the emotional intelligence or emotional vocabulary to articulate them and default to complimenting strength. 

But focusing the compliments on strength implies that strength is the most important quality one needs during a trying time. To be strong is to be firm, immovable, stoic, unbending, powerful. 

When my mother died 41 years ago, I put my head down and barreled through it, an approach that seems to exemplify pure strength. But because that approach led to me having issues with death, mothers, holidays, and more, I very deliberately took a different approach when my husband died.

Since my husband’s death, “strength” is not a character trait I’ve focused on. The compliments I get on my strength don’t feel accurate. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may recall that I’ve talked about my ability to set boundaries, my patience with myself, and my willingness to feel sadness. These qualities have helped me much more than strength has. 

As I reflect back on the conversation with my friend who wanted to be “weak,” I realize that because our minds automatically go to “weak” as the only alternative to “strong,” those very qualities that I just listed as having been crucial to my ability to navigate grief might be seen as “weakness.” 

I was recently reminded of what happens when you focus on strength to the exclusion of other things. After my unexpected brain surgery in the fall, I wasn’t able to do ab work in my workouts for a few months. I was so excited to get back to ab work this winter that I overdid it. I got a massage last week and when I told my massage therapist I was having some lower back pain and general lower body stiffness, she immediately pinpointed my tight psoas muscles as the culprit—a result of my keen focus on my abs. 

The remedy? Backing off of strength training and focusing on flexibility. 

Oh, the irony! That’s exactly what I’ve done emotionally! Now I need to treat my body the way I’ve treated my heart. 

The next time someone suffers a loss and you want to wish them strength, stop. Consider what might be a real struggle for them and offer them that thing. Are they often hard on themselves? Wish them self-compassion. Do they like everything done just so? Wish them flexibility. Are they highly independent? Wish them the freedom to depend on others. 

Our focus on strength as a positive trait minimizes the value of other traits. This quote from the Buddha captures the fallacy: “In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins—not through strength but through persistence.” 

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