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  • janetgoncalves

Busting the myth about "you have to be strong" after a death

The idea of “being strong” after a death is so distorted to the point that it now implies that you should not have or demonstrate emotions in front of others.

As a death doula, I’ve often heard well-intentioned but misinformed people say to the bereaving family matriarch/patriarch the phrase “you’re so strong” or another variation on that theme. As a death doula I’ll ask them later, during a debrief session “How did it make you feel? Did you feel empowered and encouraged or unseen and misunderstood?”.

More often than not, the person will see the negativity in at least one of five distinct ways.

Grieving people often feel the opposite of strong, at least internally. Such comments have a patronizing effect on them, and at the very least make them feel misunderstood. Later on, they might reflect and think that they should be displaying/have displayed more emotion for their loved one. This often makes them feel even worse. Others find that praising strength may imply that stoicism is preferable to emotional expression. Whether consciously or not, a person may internalize the belief that being emotional around you, or others will be a disappointment. For others, the statement “you have to be strong” reads like a threat that a person better hold it together or there will be consequences. Finally, others feel that if you bypass a person’s pain and assume they have it together, you may be less likely to offer that person compassion and support.

There are alternative phrases to “You have to be strong” that I as a death doula wish people would use:

• 1. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m here for you.

• 2. I can’t imagine how you feel right now.

• 3. This is a hard time. Do you need anything from me?

• 4. It’s okay to take your time. Let me know if you ever need to talk.

• 5. I know how much you loved them.

• 6. I wish I had the right words. All I can say is that I’m here for you.

“You have to be strong” differs greatly from being strong. Can you be strong in grief? The article “What does it mean to be strong in grief” suggests this analogy. “…strong in grief means being resistant. Like a knight riding high on his stead, he pays no mind to the scary thoughts and feelings nipping at his toes. His armor is so strong that you can throw what you want at him, and it all bounces off. Nothing penetrates. Nothing gets through. But in the real world, we’re not knights; we’re just vulnerable people.”

In conclusion, grieving people often feel they must put on a mask to the outside world. Outwardly, you may give off the impression you’re doing “fine”, while on the inside you’re struggling. The struggle is where the strength comes in, but not everyone can see that because moments of strength in grief are personal, and quite often they’re private.

Resources 18 more supportive ways to say “stay strong” (blog by Sam Tetrault Updated 4/28/2022) “Staying strong after the death of a loved one is bad for your health, here's why” (Content created and supplied by Jenom) “What Does it Mean to Be Strong in Grief?” 11 healthy ways to grieve (blog By Margaret A. Howard, Updated Apr 13, 2014)

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