Some time ago, a friend took my breath away with the following words, “I’m single and childless too, so I’m in exactly the same position as you are. I don’t feel the need to talk about grief so why on earth do you need to go on about it so much?”
She really caught me off guard – until that moment I had thought we had the sort of friendship where I could tell her anything that was going on with me and that she would care enough to listen to me. So, I was in a very open and vulnerable place in that moment. I had just shared something deeply personal about my experience of childless grief and I had assumed that she would listen without judgement. Her words hit me so deeply that I couldn’t speak, and simply had to end the conversation. We have never referred to that conversation again; I have never told her how wounded I was by her words. But the result was that I decided, for my own wellbeing, to put up a boundary. I have never spoken to her about my grief again; although she is still a good friend it no longer feels safe to share this part of my life experience with her. Another loss.
I know my friend cares about me, but I have never wanted to revisit this conversation with her, because I don’t think it would lead anywhere good. However, if I did decide to, I would tell her that I think she is wrong – we are not exactly the same, because no two experiences are the same. What was right for her would not have worked for me. She has found a way to accept the circumstances of her life, seemingly without grief, but my path was different. I didn’t know whether I was going to survive my childlessness. My way through has been to explore with curiosity all aspects of my experience, to embrace my grief journey and to fully allow my feelings to come through without shying away from them. Through exploring my grief, I have learnt a huge amount about myself and now feel wiser, stronger, more resilient, and even more joyful than I was before. I am a deeply emotional and sensitive person – my emotions are how I experience and express my relationship with the world, and so this is how I like to communicate with my closest friends.
I probably wouldn’t tell her this, but I can see that my grief frustrates and upsets her, and I wonder whether my open expression of my grief touched something unacknowledged within her own life experience, which was too uncomfortable for her to approach.
I have another friend; we often share deeply personal experiences with each other, in a very open and honest way and I have always felt very safe in sharing with this person. I have been pretty honest about my grief and my life experiences, though I haven’t gone into very much detail. Her life situation is similar to mine, but (like my other friend) she is quite accepting of the cards that life has dealt her and does not really identify with my grief experience. She has, however, experienced some bereavements in her life. Therefore, I was quite surprised recently when she said to me that she felt that I was ‘stuck’ in my grief and that it was time to move on. I was a bit shocked at this unsolicited advice, and the realisation that she has been judging my way of grieving. I do understand, I think – perhaps she feels that my grief is less valid than hers because nobody has died. I wonder if she thinks that grief is like an illness that you have to suffer through and then recover from, and that it is long past time for me to get back to normal.
I don’t think she is right. I don’t feel stuck, but rather I feel that my grief is like a journey that I’m travelling. I’m no longer in the same bleak, raw country that I was stumbling through five years ago, when I didn’t know how to live with the pain. Today I’m in much gentler country, where things are growing and changing around me. I still consider myself to be grieving, although it is probably much less visible to others these days. It feels to me like a flowing, though, rather than a stuckness. So, it does sting, a little, to be misunderstood and judged by a friend like this.
Neither do I agree that this experience is something to get over or move on from. The implication is that I need to go back to normal and return to being who I was before. But that person no longer exists – I am somebody new now and I have been forever changed by my loss. Wishing to be the old me is futile – and I’m actually pretty happy with the person I have become through surviving this experience. ‘Getting over it’ is not on my agenda.
Although these judgements do still sting a little when they happen, they don’t have the power to really shake my foundations, as they once did. I have learnt to accept the limitations of my loved ones, to believe that they care for me and support me as much as they are able. I know now that I need to carefully choose who I share my grief with (and I don’t always get it right), and I need to have firm boundaries in place. I have been very lucky, in recent years; my friendship circle and my wider community is now full of wonderful people who do understand this grief and with whom I feel safe to be open and authentic about my feelings.
I no longer depend just on old friends who may have fully understood and accepted the old ‘me’, but who don’t recognise this new version of me and therefore don’t want to see or hear about the new ‘me’, grief and all. And these days, when acquaintances ask me about my life, I might give them the headline, “I’m childless not by choice”, but I will rarely go further than that. I have experienced judgemental reactions too many times and I frankly can’t be bothered to justify my choices and my grief anymore. So, around the time in the conversation that they say, predictably, “Have you ever thought about adoption”, I will say something like, “I’m sorry, but I cannot talk about this”. And (usually) they accept this with good grace and move on. My strategy works pretty well.
I’ve been pondering, lately, the widespread assumption that grief has an end date. I’m not sure that it ever does, for some losses. I think the raw wound may heal but that there may well be a scar that never fades. Love can go on for ever, so why not grief?
Perhaps ongoing grief is a common aspect of the more intangible losses such as childlessness, or extinction or climate grief. With an intangible loss, there may be no grave to visit, as a focal point for your grief. If you are grieving the non-existence of something or the potential non-existence of something there is often no death date, no start date before which you were not grieving, and after which you began to grieve. Hope may diminish so gradually as to be imperceptible, so you may not even know when your grief began. When does anticipatory grief become grief of something ‘actual’? Only you can decide the end point of your own hope. And only you can decide when, or whether, your grief ends. And if our grief does go on for ever – why is that a problem?
I am a living, functioning, growing, and grieving woman. I do not see grief as incompatible with a full and happy life; indeed, I feel that a truly full life is one which can embrace and welcome all aspects of human experience, without shying away from those which are generally perceived to be less positive.
These experiences and reflections have brought to mind the wise words of Megan Devine, author of the wonderful book, “It’s OK that you’re not OK’. She has coined a phrase, Grief Shaming, which she describes as:
- Dismissing or downplaying another person’s grief experience
- Comparing grief experiences (‘my grief is worse than yours’)
- Judging how someone does their grief.
Megan explains a little about this here.
I recognise this grief shaming from so many interactions I have had with friends and acquaintances over the years, and certainly from the two conversations I’ve described above. It is so helpful to be able to point to this behaviour and to understand it; it stops me from internalising that sense of shame and helps me to stand strong with my boundaries in place, confident that I’m grieving in the way that I know is right for me.
I refuse to allow anyone, no matter how much I love them, to succeed in shaking my faith in what I know is necessary for my own wellbeing.