Heartbreak

Why We Freak Out Around Raw Grief

Photo: Karolina Grabowska | Canva
Friends comforting each other while grieving

When my little brother died, I wanted the world to stop.

Why wasn’t the weight of my grief shared by the random strangers laughing as they strolled downtown, carefree and unaffected?

Why weren’t my friends weeping with me? Didn’t they know that Matt was the amazing towheaded kid whose short-lived little league career ended because he was petrified of hurting someone with each hit baseball?

Didn’t they comprehend that Matt understood my dreams, talents, and dark, deep depression like no one else could?

Unfair and self-centered, but that’s the nature of grief. Our experiences with raw grief are singular. Exceptional others may sit beside us as we heal and others may empathize, but no one has the same journey we endure.

Unless we’re full-fledged sociopaths, at some point, grief will tear at our hearts.

We all experience painful losses: the death of a dream, the death of a relationship. The death — whether unexpected or long-anticipated — of a loved one.

We can’t escape the raw ache and physical weight of grief, but maybe that’s okay.

Maybe we need to learn to embrace, rather than sprint from, the healing that comes from cauterizing our inner pain. No one can tell us how to heal, or how long we can feel broken.

Processing grief remains elusive

My brother Matt left this world three years ago, and the “it gets easier” promise of others has proven true. The hole in my heart remains, but the unrelenting heartache has diminished.

I can function without bursting into tears at the first notes of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” (a silly and terrible song that Matt and I loved to dance to and stumble through belting out its rap lyrics).

In the months after Matt’s death, I wrote extensively about him and the impact of his death on me and all who loved him. I let myself weep and exhaust my layers of conflicted feelings about his tragic end.

But, when others asked me about him, my torrent of tears embarrassed me. When 2020 melted into 2021, I learned to present a healed front — more than a month of confusion and crippling sorrow felt less than socially acceptable.

Well-intentioned acquaintances slid into my DMs to ask me how my brother died. Others avoided me until time had elapsed, in hopes of avoiding my palpable grief.

In the Western world, we tend to freak out when the raw grief of others touches us. As author John Green puts it in his popular YA tearjerker, The Fault in Our Stars, “Grief does not change you; it reveals you” and how we handle the grief of others reveals us, too.

RELATED: What Grief Means And How To Know What's Normal Or Healthy When You're Grieving

Grieving friends just need a shoulder to lean on

“Empathy says: You and I are made of the same lovely, heartbroken, and screwed-up stuff.”

–Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope

I know loss. Loss sneaks up on me when I least expect it, and its numbers have mounted in the last few years.

Gallows humor has become my most familiar friend, and although he provides momentary relief, he still bails and leaves me to clean up splintered pieces of my heart.

When the sun shines on my perspective, I’m thankful for the pain I’ve experienced — it’s transformed me into someone who takes no relationship for granted, and who doesn’t easily get bothered by the ridiculous details of life.

From 2019 to November 2023, every month brought word of the loss of an old friend or co-worker, the loss of family members who left their footprints in my heart. As a result, fissures in my heart still appear but no longer shatter it completely.

Heartache is covered by a hollow numb.

Photo: MART PRODUCTION/Pexels

Grief scares us

After my sweet little brother’s death, a “friend” expressed their condolences, and then asked, “Wait — don’t you have, like, four other brothers? That’s good, anyway.”

I overcame the urge to launch a karate chop to her throat, yet inexplicably felt compassion and sadness for her. She effectively jammed any situation that could cause pain, sorrow, or growth in her own life into her trailer of baggage.

She didn’t mean anything malicious by her ignorant comment, but when faced with my messy and broken grief, she freaked out. My raw, spinning emotional state prompted the door of her trailer to burst open … how could she cope?

The fact that I do, indeed, have multiple brothers, left her a way out — perhaps Sarah’s heart won’t hurt as much as Matt wasn’t her only brother.

RELATED: Most People Don't Understand What Grief Feels Like

We can’t solve grief

“There is no fixing this setup here. It seems broken and ruined at times, but it isn’t: it’s simply the nature of human life.”

–Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope

I’d like to think that my deep bond with grief means I can sit with others experiencing inexplicable losses. Yet, my tongue tangles, and I trip over the most generalized, meaningless phrases to utter:

“I’m so sorry for your loss. Please, person I haven’t spoken to in five years, let me know if I can do anything to help.”

In the days following Thanksgiving, a friend of over 15 years suddenly lost her dad. *Annie’s dances with grief have mirrored my own. Our friendship — never lost, just placed back on the shelf for a while — reignited when she called me in late October to share news of yet another friend gone far too soon.

When our mutual friend passed in October, Annie mentioned the urge to imbibe and take several shots. After her dad died, I texted the usual trite niceties … and Zelled her $20 (for shots, obviously). “I’m so sorry for your loss. Please buy two shots on me,” isn’t necessarily the profound wisdom and love I longed to share.

I don’t think I bound up her wounds with that stellar gesture.

Even with my own rich experiences and processes of grief, I became an idiot in the wake of Annie’s sorrow. I had no new insights, no words of solace, no ability to sit with her in her loss.

Hope comes in the morning

“We cannot undo grief. Yet we can cling to hope.”

– Philip Yancey, A Time to Weep

As a person of faith, I can attest to the atrocious phrases uttered by well-meaning strangers and friends alike. If you’re experiencing a Dark Night of the Soul, sometimes those who share your faith only plunge you further into the darkness.

Perhaps more so than those who claim no God, the faith-centered want to give loss meaning. We want to understand why horrific things happen to good people, why tragic losses of innocent kids in mass shootings occur, why war crimes and genocides happen, and how the world keeps turning.

The truth is, we have extremely limited perspectives — and, this side of heaven, there’s never a satisfying answer. My favorite living theologian, Philip Yancey, has written extensively on this haunting and hard “why” — and its inability to leave us with a satisfactory answer.

Doesn’t stop people from trying to speak for God, though. Here are some of the worst things I’ve heard said to others, and to me, in the wake of their greatest losses (and not a one is helpful and, at best, is quasi–based on Biblical scripture):

  • “God needed his angel home”
  • “Rejoice because your loved one is home now”
  • “God will create beauty from these ashes”
  • “God never gives us anything we can’t handle”
  • “God will use this loss for a greater purpose”

Love others in their grief. Sit in silence as they thrust their fists and rend their clothes. Wipe their tears. But uttering this clichéd nonsense is akin to strangers who abruptly tell people to smile.

RELATED: Grief Doesn't Only Come With Experiencing Death

Grief doesn’t need rationalization

“ ‘It’s just such a tragedy for me. Emma was, like, my best friend.’

‘Emily.’”

–Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 9

When acquaintances die in an accident, or our hearts grieve with the citizens of Israel and the Gaza Strip, or we rage at the loss of civilian life in Ukraine, we almost feel guilty. After all, these tragedies aren’t happening to us.

It’s tough to process the raw, shredded status of our hearts when the loss isn’t our own. Yet even in our grieving process, we limit the time we need to truly heal.

We understand a week of mourning for a lost loved one, but “time to pick up the pieces and move forward!” If our hearts continue to hurt, if our daily routines come to a screeching halt, we rage against the grief machine. However, some try to rationalize their sorrow by making the grief of others their own.

In 2019, I lost a friend in a horrible, single-car accident. Tommy* was larger than life — handsome, amazing at every job or hobby he tried, a world-class musician, baseball player, and rock climber, and a compassionate, loyal friend. He gave the best bear hugs of anyone I’ve known before or since.

Tommy’s death had ripple effects on a multitude of communities positively impacted by his presence. Yet at his funeral, two people who barely knew him walked to the pulpit to share their feelings. Both attributed greater friendship with Tommy than either had truly shared.

Those close to Tommy laughed bitterly. If either speaker had acknowledged that although they hadn’t truly known Tommy, he’d left an imprint on their souls, no one would’ve minded.

They couldn’t process the grief they felt, and it freaked them out. Thus, they laid claim to the grief of others.

Photo: Min An/Pexels

How to treat grief like a liberating friend

Perhaps, we don’t have to speculate on the reasons tragedies come our way. We can lean into our grief and experience the whirlwind of emotions it causes. We can sit with others in the thick of raw pain, and let them gently share what they need from us.

From ancient cultures through the Middle Ages, death was a public affair. Strangers, friends, and loved ones honored those who passed, and collectively beckoned their bereaved families to lean on the community for support — for as long as they needed.

In a culture keenly fixated on the avoidance of pain or hard situations, we freak out about raw grief. We lose the plot and try to rationalize our suffering, and the suffering of others, through giving it meaning when loss bears a load of meaning all on its own.

I miss my brother every day, and waves of grief occasionally still crash into me. I wish I could avoid another wave of raw grief for the rest of my days.

I often forget that moving through the center of the pain — rather than around or above it — is the only path to healing and growth. The collective inevitability of loss is what allows me to empathize with others.

*names have been changed

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Sarah Paris is a former low-level Hollywood gig worker whose heart beats for creative writing. She is a contributing TV and Film features writer for Looper.com, the current TV editor for Fanfare, and a former humor editor for MuddyUm, both Medium publications. Her work is featured in over 20 Medium publications and 30 Second Friendships, among others.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.