Just reading that sentence should make your stomach turn. Yet I hear this so often when trying to help others make space for their grief. In the last post we talked about the word “selfish.” We challenged our use of the word, and opened to the fact that the word selfish actually need not be in our vocabulary at all. If you are utilizing “selfishness” as an off-ramp to avoid your grief, its understandable. But let’s dig deeper into how this words fits (or doesn’t) when used in conjunction with the aftermath of profound loss.
As we noted (click here for full post) in our last discussion, the word selfish is comprised of two main components: This first is an increased focus on self-concern and pleasure. The second is that this self-concern is pursued as a priority even if it means we ignore those around us. A person is considered selfish is if he or she is elevating his or her own needs such that it necessarily demotes the needs of others.
Let’s see how the word mourning breaks down:
Merriam Webster defines ‘mourning’ as:
- :the act of sorrowing
- :an outward sign (such as black clothes or an armband) of grief for a person’s death
- :a period of time during with signs of grief are shown
And let’s confirm we have a definition for the word ‘sor-row’:
Merriam Webster defines ‘sorrow’ as:
- :deep distress, sadness, or regret especially for the loss of someone or something loved; resultant unhappy or unpleasant state
- :a cause of grief or sadness
- :a display of grief or sadness
Now that we have some working definitions, let’s return to our statement: “Mourning is Selfish.”
“Mourning (deep distress or sadness)…is… Selfish (concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure or well-being without regard for others, concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself.). In other words: “Deep distress is concerned with concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure or well-being without regard for others.”
Does this make any logical sense? Is there any facet of advantage or pleasure to grieving?
In all of my efforts to outrun mourning, grief and sorrow I’d never stopped to think about the logic behind my commitment to moving on. I just went all “lemons into lemonade” mode through activities like becoming a Pediatric ICU nurse and trying to expand our family. I just knew doing something for my fractured bottomless heart would be too selfish.
I sincerely believed at my core, that I couldn’t allow myself to take time to nurture and protect my wounds. There was work to be done, life to be lived, and there were always others who needed my care. I may not have officially thought “Mourning is Selfish” but at with every breath, I behaved as if it was the law of my new land. And THAT was my ‘MO’ (modus operandi) for 25+ years. I concluded in my mind, that as long as I could act as if I were still fully functional and of value to others, that it would eventually I would be.
I concluded correctly. I did go to nursing school and work as a PICU nurse. We did try to expand our family. I did run marathons. I did found and manage a solid consulting practice with lawyers on their cases with medical issues. I did work hard to meet the needs of others, including those of our now 23-year-old gastro tube dependent son Zach. I did work to make birthdays and holidays special for those around me. I absolutely did think, even if subconsciously that anything else would just be selfish.
Losing someone we love is intrinsically complex. However, we can simplify it if we stop creating fake narratives in our heads. It took me two decades to realize that I was exacerbating the complexity of things further. By flying around untethered, without a sense of self, I maintained this foundational belief that ‘mourning is selfish.’ Who wants to be selfish?
This insidious underlying assumption is a total deal breaker. It can impede growth and evolution that may be required within, for us to have any quality of life after someone dies. This inability to grow and evolve is the threat that has inspired me to challenge this long held and misplaced assumption. That’s what I am hoping this conversation may do for you as well: Inspire you to challenge any of your deeply held beliefs that are actually bullshit.
Now for the challenge! If you are so inclined, make some notes so you can start asking questions about your own grief journey. You may even drop some antiquated assumptions. Here are some questions that got me started:
- What actions have I undertaken or initiated since my daughter Alexis and son Emmanuel died, could be described as “self-serving” or having anything to do with “pleasure or advantage?”
- At what moment in time did I concern myself with my own sorrow, while ignoring and even stepping on the needs of others?
- How have I elevated my own needs for mourning such that they obviate my attention and action in the service of others?
Answers: 1: None; 2: There isn’t one; and 3: I have not.
So what part of my mourning is selfish? No part.
But only you can initiate this process of challenging the known and unknown assumptions that govern and drive YOUR life. Just know that wether or not you are aware of them, these are the mechanics of the mind and they are active. There is nothing easy about the process of opening the hood to see whats happening in the engine. It is not for the faint of heart. In fact you can pursue this internal investigation for years, before it bears any fruit. This makes it hard to feel like we are moving in the “right” direction. And it’s hard to keep working on something that seems immovable.
Looking inward may be the hardest thing we will ever do as humans (beyond living without our loved ones.). Getting to know our minds can be a scary and intimidating. Profound loss only makes this journey harder. We aren’t given a tool kit or rules about how to manage this upside down reality that is now ours. No one wants to talk about grief. We can’t effectively find evidence that this is a safe and worthy pursuit from those around us because there are no grief gurus to call on. Most of us are trapped in my former MO of believing it would be selfish to even indulge in such inquisition. Plus, delaying gratification is not our specialty here in the West.
If you believe consciously, or unconsciously that mourning is somehow selfish, I urge you to challenge your conclusion. Maybe your mourning IS done for your own pleasure and advantage? Maybe you DO elevate the fulfillment of your own needs beyond caring for others? (Once in your life does not qualify!) Maybe you ARE on some hedonistic survival path that renders you immune to the responsibility of caring for those around you?
Or, maybe you are like the “FORMER” version me? Maybe you just want to do good in the world and don’t see a reason to let a few deceased loved ones hinder that progress (meant sarcastically)? Maybe denying your grief (which equates to denying your love) seems to be the shortest path from awakening, to working, eating and going back to bed where it is safe? Maybe you secretly hope you might not wake up? That would end the mourning. Maybe.
But if you are like the “NOW” me, you will begin to open to a new perspective. You will get curious about what these unique life experiences and profound losses are here to teach us. You will wonder if and how that learning can be an avenue to improve our own little corners of the Universe. You will increase your awareness of reaching for numbing agents like booze, food and digital addiction. You may even acquire the skills to help you stop reacting compulsively! You will experiment with ways to create, and subsequently pursue different truths over the false one we have stood on for so long: Mourning is Selfish.
There are no promises in this content, but hopefully you’re now aware of some alternative possibilities. Please see, that if you shine a light on what you have darkened and ignored for so long, you might just find there is more to your loss than excruciating pain, complete confusion, and paralyzing sadness that have become your life’s factory settings. You might just find a way to integrate your loss experiences rather than binding them up and burying them never to be found again. Except through your compulsive action.
You may just discover other ways of living. And through this ongoing process, you may even find healing. It happened for me. At least in this moment. Can’t speak for the next one 🦋