By Jonathan Decker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
It was definitely one of the stranger approaches I've ever tried in therapy. The woman in front of me (story shared with her permission) was struggling with the death of her husband several months earlier. Like so many widows, she tried to cope by immersing herself in child-rearing and work commitments, staying busy so that she hadn't the time to grieve. She hated mourning because, as she put it, “every time I cry I turn into an blubbering, uncontrollable mess, and the timing is always awful. I'm usually around people and it's very embarrassing.” In fact, she asked me to help her speed along the grieving process.
Like so many, she was trying to avoid the unpleasant anguish of mourning. The general attitude seems to be “Yes, it stinks that they're dead, but crying about it isn't going to help anything. I need to get on with my life. It's what [deceased loved one] would want for me.”
A Bizarre Analogy
I love analogies. Maybe it's from my time as a comedian, but my brain makes strange connections. For whatever reason, in that moment I thought of the classic children's book Everyone Poops, meant to help children embrace the normalcy of potty training. “Do you poop?” I asked her. It was a risky question, but I had a good connection with this client. Given the heavy conversation that preceded it, the question certainly seemed out of left field. “Excuse me?” she said. “Pooping, do you do it?” I pressed. “Um…yes” she replied with a chuckle. It was good to hear her laugh. Clearly I had her attention. Where is he going with this? I went on. “What would happen if someone disliked pooping, so they avoided it at all costs?” She gave it some thought and said “Well, I imagine that it would get all… uh… backed up. They'd probably get all bloated. It'd be very uncomfortable.” I took her to the next step. “When would they poop? Because it's got to come out sometime.” She replied “Well, I imagine that it'd come out when they least expected it, and it'd be a huge, painful, embarrassing mess.” She was starting to see my point. She was also getting a fit of the giggles, but then that's often therapeutic.
“Exactly,” I explained. “It's the same with grieving. It's healthy, it's normal, and it needs to be regular. When one needs to use the restroom, one uses the restroom or ‘holds it' briefly until they can make it to the toilet. Similarly, instead of holding in your grief, you need to let it out when it comes or wait a short time until you can do so in a proper setting. It makes total sense that you avoid crying, because you've come to believe it'll consume you uncontrollably. But it only does that because you hold it in for long periods. It gets backed up and has to come out. You need to be… regular.”
“You Need to Be… Regular.”
She laughed and said that she'd give it a try. When she felt the need to cry, she'd find a private place or a close friend and cry. She had her doubts, but she trusted me. In the coming weeks she reported that allowing herself to feel sad was making her happier. By letting the grief run its course, instead of fighting it, she was beginning to find peace, even if this was accompanied by melancholy and occasional sharp pain. She'd cry and mourn when she felt the need to, but this was followed by a sense of relief.
My client was right; her husband would want her to move on with her life, but that could only happen by passing through the pain, not by keeping it at bay. Everyone poops. It's a natural process. Likewise, everyone grieves, or at least everyone who has ever loved. “Grief is the price we pay for love” said Elizabeth II. This being the case, a life without mourning is a life without love. Having experienced the affection of friends and family, I'd say it's a fair price to pay.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.