Telling someone to 'cheer up' is not a coping method that helps
I recently made it through what I would unequivocally call the worst year and the best year of my life. I saw my dad for the first time in seven years. I fell apart. Then, I slowly put myself back together.
Through all of this mess of an experience, thank God, I was in therapy. Otherwise, I might not have thought it was OK to cry literally every day for six months. It felt like a dam had opened up. For the first time in my life, I was feeling intense waves of emotion I had bottled up from childhood — a painful and somewhat abusive childhood I had been wanting to ignore.
So, when I finally stopped ignoring it — when I got myself into therapy and faced some of the biggest issues in my life, like seeing my dad again after seven years — I was a wreck. I firmly believe these really uncomfortable periods of emotion were necessary because I had been holding them back for so long. Though I had never lost anyone close to me, I had lost a normal childhood and had been carrying this pain around for 20 years. I was grieving.
A major part of my recovery process was opening up and explaining this to the people close to me, my family and friends. I feel really fortunate to have a great support network, for the most part. But, I noticed something funny whenever the topic of therapy, change and "what was going on with me" came up.
Don't try to make me feel better
People cared. People listened. People who had been my friends for years were still there for me, and it felt amazing. But, when I told people that I had been sad, really sad, for the better part of the year, nine times out of 10, it made them uncomfortable. "Cheer up," they'd say, as we wrapped up our conversation. "Do something nice for yourself. Get your mind off things. You'll get through this."
This advice, as well-meaning and loving as it was, was misguided. It was hard for me to accept that some of my rawest emotions made my friends uncomfortable. "If you're trying to help someone cope with a loss, don't try to make the bereaved person feel better. It just shuts down their grief and makes them feel that their feelings are unwanted. Listen if you can. Have patience with the grieving person. Support them when they cry or are angry — it's part of the process," says Tina B. Tessina, California psychotherapist and author with 30 years of experience.
Tessina continues, "Distractions can be good — for example, leaving familiar territory behind and taking your friend away can give him or her a break from the constant impact of loss. But, please be an understanding friend and allow your friend to be down and withdrawn at least part of the time. Too much distraction is bad. People who try to run away from their grief wind up creating other problems."
Give me time
I have always been a really happy and upbeat person. And do you want to know why? It's because I thought it was the only way to get people to like me, and I desperately needed that acceptance growing up. Finally giving myself the permission to feel all the ugly things for however long I needed was liberating and, ultimately, healing. The friends and family who helped me the most provided the same favor in return — they were willing to listen to anything I was going through, even if it didn't make sense to them.
Dr. Sarah Allen, a psychologist with 20 years of counseling experience, explains, "We all carry around what I call our own personal Stress Bucket. The more worries and negative things that we have in our bucket, the fuller it gets, and it is usually that final small thing that happens that tips us over emotionally. Giving ourselves time to process what is making us stressed or unhappy (by talking or thinking about them) allows us to gain more understanding about why they happened so we can start to make changes and feel more in control."
Accept my pain
Pain is uncomfortable for anyone, especially the person slogging through the issues. But if I have learned anything from these low points in my life that have brought me more healing than I ever thought possible, it is this: To the extent you are willing to feel the negative emotions, you will also feel the positive emotions.
Meaning, for me, taking the time to remember painful childhood memories, to process issues with my parents and to figure out what is holding me back today was incredibly difficult. But a funny thing happened — learning how to sit with these uncomfortable emotions (which will inevitably come up again many, many times in my life) made it noticeably easier for me to sit in the happy moments, and my life has many of those too.
I don't blame my friends for the way they reacted to my pain. They are truly loving, caring people, and most of them don't know any better. Pain can be intimidating, and grief can be hard to understand. But the good news is that supporting a friend in a hard time is so much easier than we think — just be there. Let her feel. Check back in with her in a few weeks and remind her that you haven't gone anywhere. That's all she wants from you.
This pain that your friend is going through has a purpose. There's no need to rush the process. Michele Rosenthal, author of Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity, concludes, "Many friends mean well when they encourage us to cheer up; they don't want to see us in pain. A certain amount of pain and reflection, however, is healthy in keeping us attuned to and aware of life lessons, personal choices, priorities, values and priming us for future actions."