When we are honest, we make it easier for other people to cope with the terrible things that will happen in their lives.
When we are honest, our stories can be healing not only in the way that saying hard things out loud can help us process our emotions and experiences, but in transformative ways for others who watch and listen to the pain that we share.
When we are honest with other people, we can learn from each other, and this helps soften the sharp edges of human suffering.
If only it was cool to be honest with each other.
Instead, we tend to sugarcoat our realities and cling to the facades that help us hide our pain. We are compelled to showcase perfect, happy lives in order to quell the feelings of inadequacy that pool inside of us. We chase a mirage of what we think life should look like, instead of accepting a truth that cannot be altered no matter how many times we paint over it.
If we are always projecting a fake reality, then we grow older with distorted views about being vulnerable. Our pain causes us shame that feels like a heavy anchor around our necks.
The consequence is that we get older thinking vulnerable is abnormal and bad and something to be ashamed of, rather than what it really is, which is part of the human experience.
More importantly, to hide our vulnerabilities is to lose the opportunity to connect with other human beings through our shared experiences. We can’t learn from each other when we shove our pain into the darkest corners of our hearts and minds and pretend that they do not exist.
When we prioritize pretending over being authentic, the worst consequence is that we lie to ourselves. I’m not an expert, but I believe a major source of suffering stems from being dishonest with ourselves, and it causes us tremendous inner turmoil.
How can we trust people in a world where we can’t even be honest with ourselves?
Recently a person told me about the images they had plaguing their mind. They suffered a great loss recently and struggled to live with the gaping hole in their life. This person kept having recurring thoughts and images about the moment they witnessed the death of their loved one. Graphic details. These memories hurt, causing many grievers to retreat further and further inside of themselves as a way to find a buffer between themselves and the pain. We pretend nothing is wrong, but in the process we hurt even more. Our grief festers.
I told this person, “I know what it feels like.”
It seemed like the most basic thing I could offer. Commiseration.
And it was true. I do know.
I have images of finding my late husband on the living room floor, face-down. I remember the words I said to him.
“Stop faking the flu again.”
Who says that to their dying husband? Me, apparently. I have to live with that remorse. A few weeks before I got mad at him and told him that if he didn’t change x, y, and z, that we probably wouldn’t last. After he died, I found his monthly planner, and on the day of that fight he wrote, “Worst day of my life.” I can’t go back and fix it. I felt guilty for months, wondering if I made his heart explode. Literally.
I felt regret about everything, which I would later learn is a normal reaction and way of processing the death of a loved one. I tortured myself with a barrage of regrets. Like, should I have said comforting words to him and held him in the seconds before I witnessed his final exhale, or should I have followed along with the CPR directions that the 9-1-1 operator guided me through?
I remember the operator telling me to turn his body over, and using all of my strength to make it happen so I could do the chest compressions. Later, when the autopsy said he had broken ribs, I felt guilty and wonder if I did it.
I remember the desperation in my voice during the 9-1-1 call.
“It’s not working. It’s not working. He’s not breathing. There’s nothing. Why are they taking so long to get here? He’s not breathing.”
Repeating myself as if that was the only way I could breathe while getting through that moment.
I remember the doctor’s face when I got to the ER, and how he met me at the entrance. I remember how hastily the doctor said, “Nothing we could do” before scurrying away.
I remember pulling the curtain aside and seeing my husband on the hospital bed for the first time, and the way he looked as if he were peacefully asleep.
I remember bursting into tears at the Social Security Office when I got a phone call from the crematorium while I stood in a never-ending line. They told me someone messed up in processing my request to do handprints before cremation. They waited too long. His body was too hard, his hands clenched into tight fists. There would be no handprints. I sobbed while strangers stared at me. I didn’t really need the handprints, but you feel so desperate to cling to any little scrap of memory that can be salvaged, so you do stupid things like cut a piece of his hair in the ER before you leave his body. I remember the desperate things you do when you have nothing left.
I know what it’s like to avoid looking at the part of the living room floor where I found him, because every time I did I saw his body in a pool of his own urine. I remember that gut-wrenching moment when I noticed it, and I knew. I just knew, and it was so incomprehensible that it took all of my collective inner strength to dial 9-1-1 because my hands were shaking so violently.
I know what it’s like to have those images pop into my mind as I’m perusing the aisles of the grocery store, or teaching students in my classroom on an otherwise innocuous day, or when I’m reading a book to my toddler, or driving to work and those thoughts just hit me out of nowhere. There is no rhyme or reason as to when the ghosts will haunt you.
The memories don’t plague my mind like they did in the first year after my husband died. They are infrequent visitors these days, but they still come. I suspect they will always be a part of who I am now. It took time for me to accept this new brain of mine, but now it’s just a part of who I am.
I share these memories with you to normalize the ghosts. To normalize the images. To tell you that I think it’s okay to share what haunts you, because other people are also haunted by similar experiences. It’s part of the grieving process. Normal.
It’s normal to feel shame. It’s normal to feel weird and exiled to a faraway land where nobody understands your life and feelings. It’s normal to feel like a giant green bug that has to exist in a society that does not want to talk about the details that you so intimately live with every second of every painful day that you are alive while the person you loved is dead.
The shame is from hiding your truth. Lying to yourself. Pretending to others. Feeling like you failed in living happily ever after and that you must have done something to deserve this terrible fate, and trying to hide those thoughts from the rest of the world.
Last week’s Terrible Thanks for Asking podcast did a good job of going through very typical experiences for the bereaved. Although that episode dealt with suicide, much of the processing is similar to other general grief. The shame. The depression. Regret. Feeling like you died too.
I can offer more than just “I understand. I see dead people too.” Commiseration is not all that I can offer.
I can also share that one day the intensity of the images and thoughts and feelings will shift. Incremental changes at first, but slowly the ebb and flow of overwhelming grief won’t always be so violent. You can tame the beast. You can ride it out. The waves will become gentle again. They never completely disappear, but maybe you don’t really want them to anyway. They represent what you survived. They are your battle scars, and they made you a better person today precisely because of everything they put you through. You lost a lot, but you gained tenfold.
I’m not an expert, but I can share with you what I’ve done:
Shame can’t exist out in the open. When we air out our pain, it has a way of drying up. It can’t fester in plain view. Shame can only manifest and grow when we allow it to hide inside of us.
Being honest with myself has been the most important thing for me. I keep journals. Lots and lots of journals, and notes, and notebooks with ideas, and other ways that I document my life. I write about myself. My feelings. My struggles. I spend a lot of time observing who I am. My strengths and weaknesses. Where I need to improve. Where I am doing well. I am constantly looking for subtle signs that there may be something shifting inside of me. All parts of me. It could be a physical ache, an emotional pang, what I’m struggling with on a particular day–whatever. If you don’t pay attention to yourself, who will? I want to know everything about myself, even the things I do not understand.
For me, that lack of understanding was about grief. In my prior life, I never felt depressed for more than a few hours or a day max. Feeling numb for weeks and months and for the entire first year was a new ballgame for me. I remember that I took a picture of myself when I came home from the hospital. I wanted a visual reminder of the pain that I felt in the worst moment of my life. I also grabbed my journal and wrote a few scattered thoughts. I knew that I never wanted to forget that pain, and somehow I also knew that I would forget that pain.
I am bossy and stubborn–even with myself. I was incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of surrendering control to foreign emotions that were tangled in my brain and disrupting my life. My solution was to stick to structure and routine and busyness. I never missed a day of work for grief once I went back after my husband’s funeral. I was determined to maintain as much of my life on track as I could. Keeping commitments. Sticking to an exercise routine. None of this happened perfectly. I wasn’t sleeping for months and months and finally had to be self-reflective about this and work to address the problem. I drank too much coffee and didn’t eat enough. But in other ways, I was extremely self-controlled, deliberately avoiding alcohol and other unhealthy coping mechanisms. I am not perfect, but I do work hard to keep my observing ego active and always on high alert for the subtle shifts within me that may lead to deeper issues and potential problems. I’m a big believer in not digging myself into deep holes that I will have to find my way out of.
It’s important that we understand that as subtle are the ways that our behaviors can deteriorate into unhealthy behaviors and habits, it is at that same incremental pace that we have to enact positive changes. One step at a time. Little by little. Expecting anything more is setting yourself up for failure.
I am obsessed with tracking daily habits. Setting goals. Reading books. Striving to be better. I want to die in my 90s with a list of goals and things I still want to learn. I don’t want to project a perfect life, because to me perfect is a sign that you aren’t living anymore.
I also listen to and read a ton of sad stories. Seriously. The Terrible Thanks for Asking podcast. Any sad memoir I can get my hands on. Tear-jerker news stories. Sad songs. Sad images. Sad poems and quotes. I literally seek out sadness.
Well, this is what I think. I like the perspective I gain from other people’s stories. Which goes back to the beginning of this post: sharing our vulnerability. I’ve been a sadness-seeker my entire life. I’ve mentioned before that I was a nosy child, and I’m a very observant adult (which is a sugar-coated way of saying that I am still pretty damn nosy). But! I like to think of nosy as a propensity to learn from others.
I like having friends of various ages who have different perspectives and life experiences and situations that teach me so much. I’m always observing people, and after 36 years of being nosy I am very good at reading people. That’s because I’ve spent so much time observing. Watching. Noticing.
I like sad stories because they give me perspective. For example, during the year that my husband passed away, there was a family who visited Disney World and had their toddler ripped away from them by an alligator. When I read about the story, I felt that gross feeling in the pit of my stomach that reminded me about the brutal reality of always being one wrong move away from something catastrophic in your life. And those things happen in the most ordinary second. Despite all of my despair over losing my husband the fresh and raw wounds I was still licking at the time, I just kept thinking: at least I’m not the alligator family. I mean, I loved my husband, but I don’t know if I could have stopped myself from flinging my own body into alligator-infested waters if I had to watch my child die in that way.
When terrible things happen to other people, we usually look the other way. We force those images out of our mind. We shush our fears, because we want to believe that terrible things happen to other people and not us. It’s never supposed to happen to us.
But that’s where we go wrong in life.
Closing your eyes to other people’s suffering and dismissing it does not prepare you for the day when you too will deal with something terrible. You can’t escape it. It is the price you pay for being alive.
Before I watched my husband die, I witnessed two elderly people pass away. I also saw the aftermath of a young girl who jumped from a parking structure–I saw her on the sidewalk before the police got there. I still remember her long dark hair soaked in blood. Those three deaths did not affect me as much as my husband’s did, but they did prepare me for death. I knew what that final exhale meant the morning that my husband died because I had seen and heard it before. Although I was in shock, I was able to keep my head above water, because previously experiencing it normalized death for me.
My oldest son sometimes asks me to describe the moment his father died. “Tell me about his eyes,” he will say to me. “Did they roll back? Were they open?”
I tell him to the best of my memory. They were closed. He looked like he was sleeping. His expression was peaceful.
Some people may find these details disturbing, or even inappropriate for a small child.
I think it’s normal.
And I don’t believe in sugarcoating normal.
I think our vulnerabilities are the most beautiful parts about us. The most normal parts of who we are. The only thing more beautiful is to see how people pick up the broken pieces of their lives and keep living. There is no shame in your brokenness. What matters is what you do with your brokenness.
If you are haunted by something that has caused you pain, I hope you know that your ghosts do not define you. They are simply part of your story, and your story is important. You are the only one who can tell your story to the world, and the world needs to hear it.