Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You are listening to episode 74 titled, “We Aren’t Telling Sad Stories.” I hear the question often. It’s accompanied with empathetic looks and compassionate postures. “How do you handle working with grief all day long? How does it not drain you?” And so this week, I want to answer that question for those of you who listen along. Some of you are here because the stories resonate with your own grief journey. Others are listening to learn about how they can support grievers well. But all of us are here to create an environment where grief talk is not taboo; where grievers are safe to fall apart and find movement that serves instead of shoulding that condemns. So let me tell you how, even amid a pandemic, I can navigate this work daily without breaking.
Part of the work around grief literacy that we need to do is disarming toxic positivity. We’ve talked about it in previous episodes, so if you want some more details, go back and listen to episode 44, titled “Dismantling Toxic Grief Support.” Toxic positivity is a way of presenting hope that minimizes the reality of the moment. It wants comfort, avoiding the uncomfortable by pretending it’s not that bad, it’s not that lasting, it’s not that worthy of our attention.
It’s a manipulation of positive psychology, a concept easily written off because we’re very afraid of being toxic. And understandably so. But one of the ways we can support ourselves and our grieving communities is through a healthy understanding of positive psychology, which invites us to consider our human suffering in the context of our positive aspects as well. Modern psychology is too often pathological, making disorders and diseases of the entirety of our human experience. Positive psychology is a framework creating space for us to consider why life is worth living – despite suffering. It’s founded on ideals of creating wholeness, integrating our stories of suffering into the purpose and hope for a future that is better than our present. And in this hopeful future, we define what is better. We investigate and define our understanding of laughter, joy, happiness, motivation, wholeness; and we determine how to move forward with wholeness at the forefront of our psychology instead of leading with our challenges.
This is the first place I go when I think about grief work and how I maintain high energy through my ever-growing workload. I’m not centered on suffering, nor am I denying its validity and importance. In fact, it is in this place of both/and that I find opportunity to share the stories of loss without shutting down my audience, whomever they may be.
We’ve all been energetically drained by people existing in the melancholy. When we hear the same iteration of their experience over and over, without a marked understanding or indication of insight, and we’ve checked out. It’s a hard place to be – we don’t want to be “that person” who walks away, but we also may struggle to understand how to remain present and supportive of one who seems to simply want to vent and express anger.
Let’s check in for a minute. We can equip ourselves to witness better for people in this intensity of pain, but as people who also experience this “stuckness” of pain, we can also teach ourselves how to identify and move differently through it. We don’t have to exhaust ourselves with the retelling of our painful stories either!
What does it mean to “vent”? A few years ago, the millennial generation discovered pressure cooking through the electric Instant Pot. I guess we didn’t all grow up in a household where our grandparents had that too hard to open but be careful, you’re going to get a steam burn” kind of stovetop pressure cooker. And when it’s cooking at it’s peak, how do you open it?
By venting. By releasing a small amount of the pressure so you can open it fully without pain. So when we decide that we are going to “vent” for a minute with a friend, what is that? A release with a purpose. It’s not just the unleashing of all that hurts and deserves expression. It’s for the purpose of opening further. Of digging into the true needs of our fullest self, often tucked away and hidden by self-protection and emotional outbursts.
This level of vulnerability is scary, but that’s the reason it matters. We are trusting others with our painful stories not to simply dump on them, manipulate them into feeling sorry or badly for us, or to make someone else think they have it just fine in comparison. The purpose of emotional expression is to create connection. Connection to ourselves through a deeper understanding of what we’re experiencing and what we might need to learn or do for healing. Connection to others through allowing ourselves to be honest and seen for where we are in life. Connection to the world around us because these shared experiences are not isolated or truly unique. Yes, our grief is going to be unique, but others have tread this land before us. We do not walk in the dark. So when someone comes to me and just “wants to vent,” I allow it unequivocally. But I do follow it with a gentle reminder that venting is just releasing the pressure for a purpose. And that purpose is not to immediately let the pressure build to the point of bursting again.
When we start listening to the stories of others with this in mind – that they are under a lot of pressure and ready to burst – we no longer hear sadness as the only note in their sorrowful songs. We begin to see the whole person, with needs and emotions beyond sadness or anger. As a listener, we start to recognize nuance. It’s easy to push this away because we are usually guarding against our own painful stories coming to the surface and I get it. Going beyond venting into introspection is challenging – where can you even begin?
Well, just like someone venting or shouting about what has them spun to 100, you too can start with what is causing the most pain. The biggest pain point is that thing you can’t get out of your head, heart, body, and spirit. And I’m not talking about the big picture pain; I mean the focused parts that, when you’re honest with yourself, are far more surprising and unexpected sources of grief.
Learning to become a healthier grief witness for someone else is a gift not only for them, because it teaches us how we might also need a similar experience of support and introspection in our lives. What do you gain when you hold space for another person? A sense of gratification. Maybe you’re fulfilling a need to support others and be seen as supportive. Let’s get real about it, okay? Do you like feeling as though others see you as trustworthy? As safe? Your sense of self is absolutely bolstered by knowing others will come to you and share what’s hurting or scary in their lives, and there is nothing wrong with wanting that.
Where it gets gross is when you are not doing the same vulnerable work for yourself. Are you showing up in your own story how you want to show up for others? If not, start taking notes. Pay attention not just to the story someone is telling, but how they are caring for themselves before, during, and after. See when it comes to compassion, we are experts at sharing it with others. We are weirdly averse to showing it to ourselves.
Which leads me to the last point I want to make before we go. Self-compassion is the sister of empathy, right? In this space of active listening and supporting others, we practice empathy through our actions, our words, and our availability. But much of what we think of as empathy is often boundarylessness. Empathy as a tool is powerful but easily abused. When we are listening to others, we may go beyond our own limits in an effort to not make their pain worse by denying service or care. Maybe we center our own experience, and become overwhelmed by tears and emotion after hearing their story, unable to continue in our lives and grief work.
And I think this is what people are really asking me when they wonder how I can do this work every day. It’s not as though I don’t take days off or say no to clients that are not a good fit. It’s that empathy as a practice is misunderstood as selflessness to the point of abuse. It is entirely possible to demonstrate empathy with boundaries as I listen. This doesn’t mean I’m detached or disconnected from the weight or reality of your story.
If you are nodding your head and realizing that maybe you have created avoidance where you cannot reinforce or establish healthy boundaries around empathy, I’ll give you a few notes. This is a chance for you to reaffirm your commitment to yourself and your own grief journey, but also to remind yourself that your use of boundaries is not a bad thing! Being selfish here is good. It’s not self-centered; it’s only self-ish, right? A little self-compassion is necessary for wholeness.
Boundaries for the empathetic include learning to say no when you’re asked to do something outside of your realm of expertise, skill, desire. If you as a grief supporter are being asked to do something you’re not okay with, saying no is not denying the person’s need for support. It’s denying your ability to give the type of support they are asking for – which is kind, don’t you think? I’d want someone to be honest if I asked them to build my house and they’d never lifted a hammer.
This is your chance to explore the role you are playing in this person’s life. Are you contributing the same level of energy they’re returning to you? I understand that depending on the season or grief experience, it’s not always an equitable exchange. But on the whole, are you receiving bi-directional support? Do you recognize that you are valued, cared for, and communicated with at the same level you are offering?
This is tough. But a healthy environment between peers or friends, even when grief is involved, is going to be the type of relationship where as you share, you are heard. As you listen, you see the person as whole and not broken. You see them as needing a friend, and not a savior/coach/counselor. Your role in that person’s life is not likely to be a professional one, and that’s where your boundaries come in.
I’ve definitely broken friendships by cutting people off midstory. Before I started this work years ago, I had a friend who consistently complained about everything in their life. No matter the context, there was always a detriment to bemoan. I wasn’t invited to fix it, but I also wasn’t being heard in the same way. If I shared my struggle, it was nothing in comparison to theirs. After a certain point, my self-compassion shut down because all I witnessed was the cyclical narrative of pain and a lack of introspection to resolve or investigate their role in their own life experiences.
And that has to be a possibility. We’ve all spent too long in one-sided relationships. Where we’ve not had our voice or experience valued. Where we’ve felt like a side project instead of a companion. But we don’t want to be people seen as telling sad stories and set aside, either, because I’ve also been cut off from relationship and told that I’m too much.
When we establish healthy boundaries for ourselves as empathetic listeners, we start to create boundaries around our own healing and relationships, too. In this place, I can push back when someone says I’m full of sad stories. I’m not! I’m full of nuance, and my stories have a lot of sadness that deserves expression, as well as introspection. What is this sadness trying to tell me? What can my story tell you? What can we learn together and how will these questions make us into more helpful and grief literate witnesses?
Whatever your answer, remember this simple thing when you bear witness to another. Your role is never to fix or repair what hurts. Your role is to listen really well through the worst moments of their lives and to celebrate as they begin seeing the beauty and wholeness of their stories on the other side of sadness.
Thank you for listening to episode 74 of Restorative Grief. Truth be told, I usually come out of conversations about grief and loss with the energy of a thousand suns. I’m not holding space with others because I want to be a guru; I’m holding space to bear witness for the moment they have their breakthrough. The a-ha! of healing that allows my sweet grievers to see where a small adjustment of their values or move of their attention could alleviate the repetition of pain. It’s invigorating in a way I can’t quite explain so yes, while empathetic boundaries, positive psychology, and healthy emotional expression is crucial, I’m also just made for this. And honestly, I find with the right support, most of us are.
If this is your first time listening to Restorative Grief, thank you for making space in your life to grow your capacity! Grief is not an easy topic, obviously, but your choice to join in the conversation is making a healthier community in your life and mine. If you’re interested in learning more about Restorative Grief, consider joining our Patreon community or the Restorative Grief project. I love hearing new voices in this work and finding out what really impacts your grief experience, too.
You can check out the show notes for links to our Patreon, group coaching, and more, as well as a few for the concepts we discussed today. Be sure to subscribe to the show so you hear all the new episodes the minute they’re out and obviously, leave that five star review.
And as always, one last thing. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
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