Do You Need Your Friends & Family To Approve Of The Way You’re Grieving?

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Last week I posted my “How Can I Heal?” article on Facebook and two of my wonderful friends commented in response to the article. Here’s what Rebekah said…

And then Dana said this…

Seeking approval in our grieving

Do you find yourself seeking approval in your grieving, and wanting your friends and family to validate the choices you’ve made about how to grieve? Do you keep quiet about some of your loss story or some of your reactions to loss and the strategies you’ve chosen for soothing your grief because you think that other people wouldn’t approve of them? Do you sometimes feel ashamed of your grief reactions and then try to adapt and put on a “social mask” to hide your real thoughts and feelings because you fear that your friends and family would be uncomfortable with you or even reject you if you revealed your true thoughts and feelings or asked them for what you really need?

Well, you’re not alone in that. We all do it. We shame ourselves about some aspects of our loss and grief experience in our attempts to seek approval and avoid judgement and rejection from our friends and family.

But here’s the thing… we’re ashamed of shame. So we don’t talk about our approval-seeking, fear of judgement and rejection or shame. It takes the kind of self-awareness, consciousness, courage and self-confidence that Dana and Rebekah have to talk about our shame.

The risks and pain of shame

When we feel our need for approval and our shame, it’s stressful and painful. So we do all we can to avoid feeling it and we work especially hard to avoid letting on to others that we’re feeling ashamed or wanting their approval.

We try to convince ourselves that we’re independent and we don’t need anyone else’s approval – what they think about us is “their business.” When that doesn’t work, then we try to numb our shame with everything from food to sex to medication and alcohol. And through it all, we’re on “high alert,” trying to anticipate what we can do to get approval and to persuade others that we’ve “got it all together.”

We’re constantly adapting ourselves and hiding parts of who we really are, and with each social mask that we add, our true self gets a little more disconnected from our friends and family, and – perhaps worst of all – we get a little more disconnected from our own selves. And really, not even being on your own side is the loneliest way to live.

Work at dissolving the shame, not the grief

In the modern Western world, we tend to approach grief as though it’s an ugly, unnatural and even toxic thing that has to be purged from our bodies. I once even heard a grief counselor say that, “Crying is like vomiting… nobody likes to do it, but you always feel better afterwards.” The metaphor conjures up the idea of grief being like bad food or unnatural toxins that the body needs to purge. And it points to our shame and social fears too – we’re about as willing to cry in public as we are to vomit in public!

We’re mistaken though. Grief is not the poisonous, unhealthy and painful toxin that needs to be purged. Shame is the poisonous, unhealthy and painful toxin that needs to be purged.

When we allow ourselves to notice our fears of judgement and rejection, and our shame about our grieving experience or the person we’re wanting to become after loss, then we can start to choose self-compassion and authenticity instead of letting shame rule our lives. Grief can feel very painful, but without shame, it’s a bittersweet, heart-expanding pain. Shame turns grief into a stressful, lonely, meaningless and sometimes even hopeless kind of pain.

What we’re really looking for when we’re seeking approval

When you read this article, many of you will feel ashamed about seeking approval. It sounds like such a lame thing to do (at least that’s what I find myself saying to myself when I notice that I’m wanting someone else’s approval.) But here’s the thing… approval isn’t *really* what you’re seeking. There’s a deeper need below the need for approval. What you’re really seeking is connection, relationship, intimacy.

As humans we’re wired for connection with our communities, because it’s the best way to be resourceful and survive. Perhaps more importantly, I believe that we intuitively know that, while love is the reason for grief, it’s also the salve that soothes grief, so when we’re grieving, we feel our need for connection and love even more deeply than ever.

When we’re feeling that deep need for connection, anything that could possibly cause rejection is terrifying. The potential of losing further relationships is just awful when we’re already feeling the pain of the absence of a loved one. So we try to avoid rejection and seek approval in our grieving.

It’s really helped me to notice when I’m feeling ashamed and seeking approval, and to remind myself in that moment that when I feel I need approval, I don’t need to feel ashamed about it, because what I’m really seeking is connection and intimacy. When I’m confused and I think it’s approval I need, then I put my social masks on and lose authentic connection and intimacy with both myself and with others. It’s total self-sabotage, because connection with my true self and with others is the very thing I really want.

When I remember that it’s intimacy and connection that I really want, then I can decide whether this person or community is the sort of person or community I *really* want to connect with. If they are, then I can choose to put the social masks away and to bring my authentic self to the relationship, instead of adapting for approval.

It’s not easy – this is always a courageous choice. But with every courageous choice I make to put down my social masks and bring my whole self to the relationship, I experience more of the authentic connection that I’ve really been wanting. And ultimately, the authentic connection – the love – is the most powerful way to both dissolve shame and soothe my grief.

Big thank you to Rebekah and Dana for having the courage to open this conversation that triggered this post!


Would you like guidance to explore and heal your grief?

I’ve put together a 35-page grief “workbook” for you; an introduction to Remembering For Good and living wholeheartedly after loss. Learn more about the Remembering For Good grief workbook.

The first book in the QUESTIONS + ART AFTER LOSS series, Untangle Your Grief is a beautiful 65-page book of artful questions and creativity-sparking art prompts to help you to create meaning, belonging, and hope after loss.

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9 Responses to Do You Need Your Friends & Family To Approve Of The Way You’re Grieving?
  1. alexandraamor
    March 6, 2012 | 10:22 pm

    Wow Cath! What a beautiful, brilliant article! You are an incredible writer. I am so moved. …I am reminded of ‘putting on a happy face’ in the cult I belonged to because it was unacceptable to grieve. And I am remembering that when I opened up about my grief and connected with the new people in my life, how soothing that was. Those two experiences are captured perfectly in your article. Thank you so much.

    • CathDuncan
      March 8, 2012 | 9:51 pm

       @alexandraamor My pleasure, Alexandra! And thank you for your kind words about my writing. I’m glad you’ve been able to discover the difference between a cult and a compassionate community, and create and nurture your compassionate community. If/ when you write that article on the difference between a cult and a compassionate community, please go ahead and post a link here.

  2. NnekaHall
    March 7, 2012 | 8:00 am

    When I first lost Annaya, I needed validation from my friends and family.  But now that I am 18 months out and have created a new support system of people who have experienced loss… I really don’t care what my family and former friends think.

    • CathDuncan
      March 8, 2012 | 9:49 pm

       @NnekaHall Yes, I think it’s natural that we all need validation, witnessing, connection. But we don’t need it from *everyone.* The important bit is to honor your desire for connection – real intimacy and find or create that sort of intimate relationships somewhere.
      It is hard though, when you find that some past relationships no longer work and especially hard for those people who find that they have nobody compassionate around them when their loss happens, and they have to go about looking for new compassionate friends when they’re in that really fresh, raw grief. Real friendships can take time to develop, which can also be hard when you’re grieving. I’m glad you’ve found compassionate community, Nneka!

  3. gailkenny
    March 7, 2012 | 10:57 am

    I have the experience from the other side of being a friend of someone who has experienced tremendous grief over the last three years.  She lost her husband to a heart attack and her 24 year old son 5 months later in a car accident, around the same time her daughter became a heroin addict and homeless.  I’ve tried to be there for her over the years and I now realize from my end I was wanting her to get her over her grief so we could go back to our old relationship.  A few days ago she kindly “broke up” with me because this friendship is just not working for her anymore.  I feel sorry that in my efforts to be a good friend I have inadvertently been putting more pressure on her to “change back.”  But this has also given me the opportunity to feel some emotions from previous lost friendships which I had not known how to feel. 

    • NnekaHall
      March 7, 2012 | 11:53 am

       @gailkenny You are a good friend because you’ve now realized that after loss there is no going back.  If you are interested in rekindling your friendship, give your friend some space and time and then approach her from a different angle.  You should be able to learn to love the new person she has become.

      • gailkenny
        March 7, 2012 | 12:47 pm

         @NnekaHall Thank you for the encouragement.  It’s my understanding that what is so painful for my friend is that we have always connected on a deep level and she can’t hide her pain from me so it’s in her face when she is with me.  She said she can only handle superficial relationships right now that don’t require any thing of her because she has nothing to give.  We left open where the relationship may go in the future, but for now I am taking a step back from it and not expecting anything at all from it and am pulling back my neediness from it.  A comforting thought for me is that when I think of her I can think of sending my unconditional love to her higher self which is whole and above her pain, her pure self. 

        • NnekaHall
          March 7, 2012 | 2:54 pm

           @gailkenny You are very welcome…  Send her cards from time to time just to let her know she’s on your mind.
          Everyone (including my soon to be ex husband) just told me to get over my loss.  I’ve separated myself from all of them and the best part is I will be single by the end of this year.  
          Praying that your friend will be gentle with herself and that you will not give up on her.

        • CathDuncan
          March 8, 2012 | 9:45 pm

           @NnekaHall  @gailkenny Gail, thank you for your courageous sharing here. I think grief is hard for all of us – those who are directly affected and all our friends and family. And we’re all responsible for nurturing relationship and connection – so this article isn’t meant to “blame” the friends and family of people who are grieving!
          It sounds like you and your friend have had very honest chats about this. As Nneka said, I’d also encourage you to keep the door open and take a long-view of this relationship. The current status of the relationship isn’t the “forever” status. Cards are a lovely way to let her know that you care without pressurizing her. 

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