You know that moment when you’re raw and hurting, and someone says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? You’ve been there. I’ve been there. Hearing those words that suck the air out of a possibly tender exchange.
The thing about grief is most people don’t want to go there. That’s why they’ll say you’re going to be okay. They’ll remark on how strong you are. They’ll remind you it could be worse. They’ll repeat all kinds of deflating sentences in hopes of turning the conversation to safer, shinier, happier and easier topics. It’s unfortunate that in our voracious pursuit of happiness we’ve forgotten that darkness and despair deserve an equal measure of respect.
We can do better than this.
Because when someone unmasks their suffering, they’re not asking for it to be fixed. They’re asking another person to bear witness to the pain that is so bravely being weathered. It’s a way of confirming that deep grief, like love and joy and happiness, is normal. In this way, the invisible becomes visible and more doable.
“We have an enormous loneliness around our difficulties,” said Alain de Bottom, in the podcast On Being. “It’s normal that you are suffering. Life is suffering. In a culture that is obsessed with optimism, it is consoling and alleviating to honor that experience.”
Power exists in the simple act of seeing another person and being seen. It helps us move closer together. Our compassion deepens. Empathy grows. And the excruciatingly invisible parts of life receive light. The irony is that grief will make you stronger than you ever wanted to be. And one day you’ll be able to draw on this wellspring of strength for tasks small and great. But, until then, let’s just hear each other out. That is true strength.