“Why don’t you just stop?” This was the hard question my ex-therapist asked me as I sat across the room from her with tears welling up in my eyes.
“How rude!” I thought, especially since I was a relatively new griever, just one year shy of my mom’s death anniversary.
I’d entered the therapy session, armed with a laundry list of complaints about how tired I felt. And rightfully so. Grief is exhausting. The work of grief adds a whole new level of fatigue.
My therapist (an “ex” simply related to our time drawing to a natural close) sat quietly, listening to my every grievance. She nodded at the right times, observed my body language, and skillfully probed to gain a better understanding of my pain. She knew me well, given our biweekly therapy sessions for nearly 9 months at that point. I secretly hated that she did, leaving me no masks to put on in the room or spaces to hide from my feelings.
She knew me well enough to give me room to share, then reel me back in to face harsh realities.
Throughout that first year of grieving, I felt enormous pressure to ‘act normal,’ as if life were the same as it was prior to my mom dying. Just three weeks after her death, I returned home and resumed my pre-death life. 12-hour work days. Church. Singing in a choir. Attending work-related and personal functions.
Unfortunately, nothing was the same.
I felt anger and resentment rooting in the deepest parts of me, related to the ways others responded to my grief.
They wanted me to keep going. Doing. Acting as if things were just fine. At every turn, I had a cheering squad applauding my tireless efforts to live a post-death life in a pre-death way. Frankly, I was over it. However, I didn’t know what else to do.
That’s why my therapist asking, “Why don’t you just stop?” startled me on all fronts.
“Wait! I have a choice?” I responded.
In the midst of my grief fog, I’d forgotten that I had choices, the most important one being helping myself.
Have you forgotten that you can help yourself as you grieve, my friend?
If so, it’s OK. Today, perhaps I’ll do for you what my ex-therapist did for me — that is, shake me into reality.
As we talked, my therapist encouraged me to stop five things. Here they are …
Stop saying ‘yes’ all the time. I think I wanted people to see me as strong, put together, and capable in spite of my loss. This, unfortunately, led to my saying ‘yes’ to projects, gatherings, volunteer activities, etc. far too often. And on the heels of these things, I secretly harbored grudges against others. After talking things over, I realized that saying ‘yes’ to any and everything resulted in my feeling more tired, more angry, and actually, more emotionally disconnected from people. This was an eye-opening ‘stop’ for me. It helped me create firmer boundaries in relationship to others and re-establish some control, something I desperately craved amidst grief’s unpredictability.
Stop doing. The return to work and other social activities thrust me into a hamster wheel for quite some time after my mom died. Recognizing the value of simply being without working towards specific goals was a game changer. For the first time in my life, I began to view rest (beyond the time slept at night) as a necessary activity. I allowed myself to move more slowly, resist the reflex to work on days off, and create spaces for me to actually feel the pain of my grief. That first year, I was running from grief. I knew it was time to stop for health’s sake.
Stop pretending you’re OK. Nearly a year into my grief journey, an old friend called me to chat. I hadn’t spoken to her since my mom’s memorial service. She called to check in and see how I was doing. As was natural for me at the time, I responded, “Fine. How are you?” Typically, that response was enough to keep people at arm’s length and avoid the possibility of my coming apart in public. However, she didn’t fall for it. Instead, she probed even further. “Mekel, I know how close you were to your mom. Can you please just tell me how you’re really feeling?” Her question stopped me in my tracks, immediately stunning me into tears. I’d pretended to be OK for so long at that point that I feared my emotions might overtake me in the moment. While messy, they didn’t. It was another critical realization. Grief resides where love resides. I didn’t need to deny my feelings to save face anymore.
Stop refusing help from others. OK, truth serum time. Nearly 9 years since my mom’s death and one year since my dad died, I still wrestle with accepting help from others. I know I need it. And I want it. At the same time, when it presents itself, my default response is not to accept it. My ex-therapist encouraged me to practice saying, “Yes, thank you” when others asked if I needed help as I grieved. It’s a work in progress, for sure, but I’ve opened up more over the years. And on the heels of my accepting help, I’ve been able to release tucked away tears and emotions, as well as connect with others in deeper ways. I’m still under construction here.
Stop waiting. Grief had me so bound, ‘forcing me’ to live like a hostage. Underneath it all, fear and a desire to control things around me, resided. I felt afraid to fully live for some time, thinking about who else might die if I did. “If I take that trip, who’s going to be there if something happens?” “I need to stay here to answer the phone.” Of course, my responses were perfectly normal in grief. At the same time, my ex-therapist helped me discover the roots of my waiting and explored ways for me to consider how to get back to living. I’m a free spirit, a butterfly, after all. Armed with this freedom, I’ve now traveled to nearly 30 countries in just under 9 years. It’s served as a way to honor my parents, both of whom I can hear saying, “Go. Do. Be.” That’s all they ever wanted for me.
Why don’t you just stop?
Friend, the five ‘stops’ aren’t easy, I know. Nevertheless, what would it look like for you to consider at least one?
Grief is layered and complex. Along the same lines, our responses to it are layered and complex. And I definitely don’t want to over-simplify the difficulties inherent in the process.
I do, however, encourage you to not over-complicate things either. Sometimes, we need the shake up. We need to be awakened to the reality that in the face of loss, we still live.
If you’re interested in learning more about managing your lifestyle, love, leadership, and loyalties to God, self, and others, click here: https://mekelharrisphd.com/.
5 Ways to Unwind RIGHT NOW!
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Dr. Mekel Harris is a Memphis-based licensed psychologist who loves helping other perfectly imperfect folks navigate life's challenges in order to grow in lifestyle, love, leadership, and loyalties to God, self, and others.
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