**Quick disclaimer: I’m not mad at anybody who uttered this phrase to me. I don’t think anybody said it with malicious intent and I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to say. But it always rubbed me the wrong way and today I want to explore why. **
It sounds like a compliment. It seems like something nice to say. But every time someone said something like, “You are so strong” or “I am blown away by your strength’ I seethed with inner rage. I couldn’t figure out why this well-meaning phrase made me so angry – on the surface there was nothing wrong with it. The *first* problem is that it implied I was somehow special for rebuilding my life after a sudden and traumatic loss.
Yet in my widow support groups (shout out Hot Young Widow’s Club) I saw that I wasn’t special at all. There were so many examples of grievers who were strong and while I will never presume to speak for them I noticed that many of my fellow grievers had a similar reaction to the ‘you’re so strong’ compliments. We were all just doing the best we could. Doing whatever we needed to do to keep going. Reworking my budget wasn’t so much an act of strength as an acknowledgement that I really liked having electricity and water. Turns out if those bills aren’t paid you no longer have electricity and water. If I was strong it was because there was literally no other option.
But a bigger issue is that it implies I was only strong because of this horrific thing that happened to me. As if my trauma is the only reason I could be strong. I was strong way before my husband died, and now, nearly two years later, I am still strong. What I wasn’t was stable.
When you choose to partner your life with someone and then that person suddenly dies, every facet of your day is different. You don’t know what you need to buy at the grocery store because you are only cooking for one now. You get a french press because coffee is still an absolute necessity but you no longer need to make a full pot. You realize you don’t know which day is trash and which is recycling because that was never your job. You don’t have the login for internet because your husband set up the account and why would you both need access.
And those are just the logistics. Meanwhile grief and trauma makes it so you can’t even trust your own brain. I didn’t think I was the type of person who would sacrifice their identity in a relationship but I knew who ‘wife Sarah’ was. “Widow Sarah’ was a completely unknown quantity. I had no sense of time and my emotions were completely unregulated. One day I would be numb and the next day I would feel everything.
Walking through that, feeling all of the emotions, and facing my grief head on in therapy -that was the strongest fucking thing I have ever done in my life. I was strong but completely unstable. And as someone who overvalues being competent, capable and dependable; I did not feel strong. I think that’s the real reason I said, “thank you” but thought, “you’re a moron” whenever someone told me I was strong. I was confusing stability for strength.
I am supremely grateful to be both strong and stable. Well…as stable as a millennial teacher trying to teach over zoom during a global pandemic while still trying to have some semblance of a social life can be. But that didn’t just happen. I worked to get here. And while I don’t want to discount the unbelievable support system I have and the redeeming work of grace in my life, I also refuse to discount the amount of effort and gut-wrenching, life-transforming work that I put in. I never want to stop seeing that same strength in other grievers, especially when I tell them they are strong and they think, “you’re a moron.”
So maybe instead of, ‘you’re so strong’ a better sentiment would be, ‘you are capable of even this.” Though when I think back to all the anger of my early grief I probably would have hated that too. If you have a better idea please drop it in the comments. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter what you say. What matters is that you show up. Your griever is strong, they can do this. But they shouldn’t have to do it alone.