On Grieving, Part 3: “But You’re So Strong!”

“But you’re so strong!”

I used to want to punch people really hard in the face whenever they said this to me. These days I have made my peace with it. I understand now that it’s true. I am strong. I’m one of the strongest people I know. And I am not just strong, I am pretty fucking strong. And I’m proud of it. To be honest, I’ve always known that. The reason I wanted to cause physical harm to be people who repeated this information to me after my dad died is not that I didn’t believe them, it’s that it was not something I wanted or needed to hear.

so strong

Tip for the future:

People will say the dumbest and most painfully insensitive bullshit to you when you’re grieving. So much so that in many ways the urge to punch people will be a more prevalent feeling than your intense feelings of sorrow and loss. Until you’re alone that is, and then eventually the crushing loneliness will send you back out into the world looking for people to comfort you. And once you do, they will say something appallingly stupid and/or thoughtless, thus allowing you to repeat the cycle endlessly. Grieving is exhausting in this way.

But I digress. I do that a lot. I call it pinball brain. My thoughts tend to bounce around my head in a somewhat violent manner. I’d blame it on grief, but I think it’s just my brain. Bear with me.

Where was I?

Ah, yes. When you’re grieving you have two choices:

1) Give up on human companionship, retreat from society and start polishing your gun collection…


2) Become an expert in the art of forgiveness.

If you choose the latter (and I hope you will, but who am I to judge?), you will get a lot of practice at this because I promise you, you will spend most of your time forgiving people.

You will have to forgive them every time they say something asinine like “everything happens for a reason!” or “I’m sure he’s in a better place!” You will have to forgive them when they forget how much pain you’re in and ask “how’s it going?” (You have no idea how much I hate this fucking question). You will have to forgive them when they tell you to cheer up. You will have to forgive them every time they fail you in some way. Because they will. Over and over. The people you need the most are also the ones who will fail you when you need it most. And you have to forgive them because it is not their fault. They’re doing the best they can with what they have and what they know. They don’t know how to fix you and you can’t expect them to. It is not fair to place that kind of burden on someone.

So why is it that I got so furious when people told me how strong I was? If anything it’s a compliment. I knew I was strong, why didn’t I want to hear it?

Because I didn’t want to be strong. I wanted to be weak. I wanted to fall apart in someone’s arms. I wanted to give up, give in, retreat and have someone else take care of me. I was so tired. And honestly, I still am. But now, I am finding a different kind of strength.

Getting ahead of myself. Pinball brain. Let me backtrack.

The strength I found right after Dad died was a temporary kind of strength. It was like a prolonged state of adrenaline. It was instinctual and survival based (don’t show weakness or be eaten by lions!). I kept going because I just had to keep going. As far as I could tell I didn’t have any other options. Life had to go on because life is something that just asserts itself that way. So I went on. I went through the motions of being a human being. I pushed forward and people called that strength, but it was exhausting because it was a poorly constructed mask that was always threatening to crumble to pieces.

When I went to people looking for comfort and instead was told how strong I (supposedly) was, what I understood was this:

“Don’t take off your mask. Keep up the façade. Don’t let us see what’s underneath. Don’t let us see how broken you are. We don’t want to know. When we ask you how you are, just say that you’re fine. We prefer you this way. Stay like this or you’ll lose us.”

I was tired of maintaining that false ‘strength’ and so when I was told to keep it up it just became an even greater burden.

I was mistaken though, about the nature of strength, that is. I thought it meant masking your feelings but it is actually something much greater.

In some ways it is heartbreaking to discover how strong you really are. I still struggle with it, because in many ways I am still looking for someone to rescue me; to hold me when I fall to pieces and carry my burden for me for a while.

But that isn’t going to happen. Brace yourselves for bad news kiddies. When you grieve there is no one who can save you. Not your family, not your friends, not your lover. They may try. They may try as hard as they can, but they will fail you. Even I will. And I know what you’re going through.

Here’s how it will play out:

You will be exhausted, at the absolute end of your rapidly fraying rope and you will think,

“I can’t do this by myself anymore. But if I can just hold on until I see (insert family member/friend/lover here) then I will be alright. I’m falling apart, but they can put me back together. I just need to get to them.”

So you hold on, waiting for that moment where you can fall apart and be taken care of for a while. You’ve done all you can. You can’t possibly do this on your own any longer.

This is the moment when this wonderful, loving, supportive person will suddenly fail you.

They won’t be there. Concert tickets. Emergency at work. They forgot to bring their phone with them. There are a million reasons, all valid. You can’t blame them. Forgive them.

So now you’re alone. Really alone. Just when you thought, “I can’t do this alone anymore,” that’s when you’ll be the most alone you’ve ever been.

I can’t do this. I can’t, I can’t do it. I give up. I give up. I give up.

But you don’t. You don’t give up. You reach your breaking point and yet somehow you just don’t break. This is the awfully beautiful and beautifully awful moment that you discover that you are stronger than you thought.

You fall to your knees. You scream. You weep. You weep until you can’t breathe. Then you stop. You get up. And you keep going.

You are the only person you can depend on, but you can depend on you. This is the hardest lesson I have had to learn. It nourishes me just as much as it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

I don’t always want to be strong. But I am.

I am the only person I can depend on, but I can depend on me.

It doesn’t feel like it’s enough. But it is.

[Contributed by Caitlin Corbett]

Next Article: “On Grieving, Part 4: “Why Didn’t I…”” >>

4 thoughts on “On Grieving, Part 3: “But You’re So Strong!”

  1. Resounding “Yes!” to this. You put into words what I am feeling but could not express to myself. I get so tired of people telling me how brave I am. Even my counsellor told me that my smile and my upbeat attitude would help me get through. And I was resentful about that comment, but couldn’t figure out why. But you got it. I want a chance to crumble, irresponsibly, messily, selfishly.

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