It’s been two months since Ellis died. This is the week he was supposed to be born—this Saturday, July 21st. Instead of the exciting anticipation of labor, his due date now brings pangs of sadness and longing for what might have been. While grief is always in the background of my thoughts, I also find myself wanting to feel “normal” again. But normalcy is not accomplished by ignoring or distracting myself from grief. Contrary to what you might think, the grief softens when I talk about it—it hurts more when it goes unacknowledged.
I’m reading a book from a dear friend called Getting Grief Right in which the author writes:
“How did suffering become so shameful? I believe a main culprit is our ‘culture of positivity.’ Psychologist Stephen L. Salter defined this culture as the ‘widespread social practice of eliminating any attitude and utterance that doesn’t have an uplifting effect on one’s mood and those around them.’”
I am absolutely a product of our culture of positivity. I’ve always sought happiness for myself and others, often at the sacrifice of my own true feelings. I tend to be a people pleaser. I can always see the bright side.
Now that I am back at work, going to the grocery store, and generally functioning at life, part of me feels like I should be back to “normal”, presenting the cheerful version of myself to those around me. Perhaps I’m even a bit prideful of how “well” I am doing. I’ve realized this is because I don’t want others to be uncomfortable around me. I don’t want them to see me as the sad lady whose baby died.
C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed about life following the loss of his wife:
“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not...perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in a special settlement like lepers.”
I don’t want to be the social leper. But I also want to be authentic to my true experience. I’ve found that when I have an opportunity to share my story with someone and I choose to be vulnerable, a space opens up between us enabling that person to enter into the vulnerability with me and share their own true self. That has been a beautiful gift that Ellis brought.
I love the Pixar movie Inside Out, which personifies human emotions and elucidates that sadness is just as important as happiness. I’ve thought about this movie a lot lately—how the main character has her whole life turned upside down, and how the “islands” that make up her personality crumble away and eventually re-form into something new.
In response to one of my recent posts about how my life is now defined as “before Ellis” and “after Ellis” a friend shared that through grief we have to learn to love our new selves. For the rest of my life I will grieve the fact that my first born son is not here on earth with me. I will also grieve my old “happier” self. But I’m starting to feel more at home in my “new” self—someone who can be present with sadness and finds strength in vulnerability.
We can help combat our culture of positivity by facing death and grief head on. You don’t need to have the “right words” to try to make someone feel better, you just have to show up and acknowledge someone’s pain. It can be as simple as, “I know you’re hurting and I’m here for you.” That’s what grieving people want the most—for their grief to be acknowledged. It takes bravery to hold space with someone who is experiencing sadness, to ask them how they’re feeling today, knowing they might tell you the truth. But that space of vulnerability is where true connection happens.