I read a lot of things about grief, much of it online. There are some really great websites that deal with grief (like Modern Loss) and also a ton of Facebook/Reddit/Instagram/Twitter resources and forums. In a lot of these places, people come together to say something like, “I lost a person I love and cry every day. How did other people cope?”
I almost never post in these forums. I love that there are places on the internet where people can go for support, but I would rather rely on the support I get from my blog readers and my in-person friends and family. Sometimes I do post an encouraging comment, but otherwise, I’ve found that putting things on these forums can often lead to ridiculous responses (like the woman who told me I needed a “trigger warning” on a post, merely because I had written that my husband was dead.)
But the other day, I couldn’t look away. On one of these forums a woman had posted something about how to help her daughter. Her daughter’s partner had died the week prior, and she was struggling with parenting her young child (this woman’s grandchild.) This grandmother, who was clearly trying to be thoughtful, was asking how she could get her daughter to function better as a mother (i.e., by making sure her child was ready for school on time, etc.)
Lots of people chimed in with “helpful” advice. You know, things like, “remind her that being an involved mother is the way she’ll get through the pain” and “kids need consistency.” I was scrolling through the comments and could feel the bile rise in my throat.
I put my phone down. “Stay away from the internet,” I actually said out loud. I do not know these people. There is no reason to get embroiled in a discussion with people whose lives are not my own. Remember, my default is that I do not comment in these forums.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I knew there were people who worried about me in similar ways when Shawn died. They worried that I never took my kids to school, that I didn’t show up at basketball games with my older son or guitar lessons with my daughter. Months went by and I still wasn’t making my children’s lunches or returning to work. I managed to do some things (I paid my mortgage, for example) but really, I let a lot slide, including a lot involving my kids.
But my children didn’t suffer terribly from my lack of parenting, mostly because my family and my community stepped in to help. Obviously, my dad was critically important in maintaining consistency for my kids. My aunt Nancy also stayed for a month after Shawn died, doing everything from cleaning the bathrooms to stocking the fridge. My friends did everything else I needed – from grocery shopping to carpool to home repairs – for six full months (and they continue to help me today.)
All I did was grieve. I also wrote, and after a few months, I went back to work. Slowly, I started taking my kids to school. But no one pushed me to do any of these things. I got to decide when I could handle different parts of “normal” life.
So the idea that someone who is grieving should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” is abhorrent to me. We love to tell grievers this. And if I can get on a soapbox a little bit, we also love to tell new parents this. And working mothers this. And young people this. And people with chronic illness this. And depressed people this. And people of color this. And women this. (Okay, I’ll stop.)
I’m not saying that as a society, we should allow people to be lazy or that as parents we should over-indulge our children. As a teacher, I think tough love certainly has its place. My children often don’t get what they want. My students get failing test grades sometimes. My own life should not be devoid of hard stuff just because my husband died.
But “tough love” and early grief are incompatible.
Eventually, after thinking about it for a long time, I replied to the comment on the forum. I was probably a bit too long-winded, as I felt the need to reiterate how difficult it is to be widowed at a young age. I made sure to point out all the things I didn’t do immediately after my husband died. I discussed the importance of getting help that came judgement-free. I talked about how hard it is to “pull yourself together” after such a loss.
I ended with this comment for the grandmother about her daughter: “You are not spoiling her by doing the work she ‘should’ be doing right now. You are loving her.”
I haven’t returned to this site to see what people said in response. Maybe it was well-received, and maybe it wasn’t. I truly believe that screaming into the internet helps no-one. But sometimes, I just can’t stop myself.
I believe in tough love. It has its place. But what people in the throws of early grief need is compassion and a whole lot of help. They don’t need encouragement to “just keep going” without any outside support, especially if they are parenting through grief.
Yes, I remember those people who implied that I should be pulling it together on my own in the weeks and months after Shawn died. But much more than that, I remember the people who came over and fertilized my lawn or raked my leaves without asking, the people who left groceries on my front porch or who fixed my broken appliances, the people who picked up my kids at school or who took them to church. Eventually, I did all those things by myself, at least mostly. But in the beginning, I didn’t do any of it, and that didn’t mean my family and friends were overindulging me.
It meant they were loving me.