One Way to Normalize Grief: Just Be Present

My husband died over 20 months ago, a fact that strikes me as unfathomable. On the one hand, the loss still feels hard and raw. On the other, my life has changed so dramatically in the time. Part of me feels like, “What?! Only 20 months?! It feels like a lifetime!” and another part of me can’t believe I’ve been a widow for this long.

For the first year after he died, I didn’t worry about anyone getting tired of hearing me talk about him or my loss. I figured everyone would give me a one-year grace period—and they pretty much did. But now that it’s closer to two years than one year, I am starting to wonder if people are tired of hearing about my late husband and my widowing. To be clear, no one has told me they are tired of it; the pressure I’m feeling to “move on” is internalized messaging.

Yes, I did just admit that I am putting pressure on myself to “move on,” after saying, just last week, that the distinction between moving on and moving forward is important to me and that I’m a proponent of moving forward.  It is important to me, but having been socialized in a culture that wants people to move on means I have internalized that messaging.

I spent most of yesterday morning crying, alternately curled up on the couch and wandering around the house picking up photos of my late husband, his harmonica, his life jacket, and other mementos of his. I realized at some point that I needed to talk to someone who would understand and that’s when my self-consciousness kicked in. “He’s been dead for 20 months,” I thought to myself. “Everyone is tired of you moping.”

Luckily, I recognized this self-talk as inaccurate and called my wonderful brother-in-law, who didn’t seem one bit tired of me moping. We told stories about Tom, joked about his ability to spend money, and were just sad together. He encouraged me to call any time.

I did not feel less sad after talking to my brother-in-law, but I did feel less alone. I will never stop feeling sad about my husband’s death, but I am in general having fewer days like this. I’ve heard other widows say that the time between the hard days gets longer but the hard days never go away. I am experiencing that.

What I appreciate most about my call with my brother-in-law is that he didn’t try to cheer me up and he didn’t tell me I need to do anything differently. He just let me be sad and he joined me in that sadness. He normalized my sadness, and when I said, “I feel like I shouldn’t be like this after 20 months,” he reminded me that there’s no timeline for grief.

I just listened to an interview with Megan Devine on Jameela Jamil’s podcast about why so many people don’t support others in grief this way. I’ve mentioned Megan Devine before—she created the only grief journal I liked, in contrast to several others I looked at which enraged me to the point where I threw one across the room. Devine is the psychoanalyst, grief advocate, and widow behind Refuge in Grief, an online grief resource that stands out for its gentle accepting attitude toward grievers.

In the interview, Devine says our own fear of losing a loved one gets in the way of us supporting folks who are grieving. “We don’t like to think about the people we love dying or disappearing,” she explains, so instead of listening and being open to the pain our friend is experiencing, we try to fix things for them. Devine says, “It’s easier to look at someone who’s in pain if you can fix that for them, you feel more powerful, you don’t feel helpless.” She goes on to say, “We haven’t learned what our role is in someone else’s pain.”

I am learning through my own grief experience about the value of being present for someone else’s pain. When we listen to someone without trying to fix their pain or cover it up with cheeriness, we are being present. When my brother-in-law let me be sad and shared his own sadness, he was being present for me. By being present and not judging me for the depth of sadness I am feeling, he helped me pull back from judging myself.

When we try to fix the pain or distract from it, we imply that it is wrong or unhealthy, when in fact, the opposite is true. Maybe we can think of our role in someone else’s pain as one of witnessing. By witnessing and being present for someone else’s pain, we show that it is normal, that the person feeling it is normal.

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