Out of Grief Comes Emotion

Portrait of a young woman Forming a Heart with Her Hands | Out of Grief Comes Emotions

When grief hits, we are pummeled by a range of emotions. We may not have known that we could feel so much, endure so much, or rage for an hour until we were exhausted. Grief unleashes a barrage of emotions that short circuits our mind and leaves us sobbing on the floor. 

When someone close to us dies, we feel so battered that most of us put a wall up around our hearts that blocks people out.

Many of us think we should be strong enough to handle grief, so we set our feelings aside and operate out of our heads. We try to control grief by forcing it to conform to our schedule, and we bury ourselves in our work. When we realize that stuffing emotions in a drawer doesn’t work, we reluctantly listen to our hearts. 

I don’t deal with emotions well, my own or those of other people. I never learned the language when I was growing up. I approach every challenge in life as a problem to solve, thinking that if I can find the right solution, it will work out. You may feel the same way.

I grew up in a German-American community in Wisconsin where strong emotions were not expressed and you didn’t complain when life dumped a load of hurt on you. When death came to someone you loved, you endured it quietly. When someone in the community asked how you were doing, you said, “It’s hard, but I’m fine.” This denial of emotions did not serve me well when my wife died unexpectedly in her 40s.

No matter how well you handle emotions, grief surges in like a tsunami and sweeps everything you understand away. Male or female, if you can’t cry when your spouse, child, or best friend dies, then you are in denial about something.

Grief is an emotional ecosystem that maintains its own weather.

I get a thrill when I accomplish a lot of work, thinking that the more tasks I finish, the happier I will be. Working validates my existence. 

Or I used to feel this way. Now, not so much. I’ve come to see that we live from our hearts, not our heads, and tasks are empty boxes if they don’t help others. My wife’s death made this clear. There is never an end to the number of tasks that need to be done, but people don’t live forever.

I worried that my emotions would take me down, so every day I was off work I deliberately sat with friends who invited me over to talk about grief. They patiently listened to me walk up and down the hallways and peer into each room trying to identify which emotion I was feeling. I would talk about despair, anger, and a host of other negative emotions that I thought would drive them away. But they kept inviting me back. Being a newbie, what I thought were really strong emotions, were just emotions to them.

At work, I changed my introverted habits by lingering in conversations with people, letting emotions seep in, and our bonds of community strengthened. In the past, I would say what needed to be said and go back to work. 

Life is a river that is always moving and changing. So is grief. It carries us from death back towards life. Sharing our emotions with others is our river.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment and I’ll respond.

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8 Comments

  1. Francesca on April 25, 2019 at 12:23 am

    Hi ! Grief is definitely a tsunami ! For me it broke open my heart and is teaching me how to be vulnerable and open to the beauty of love. Nothing humbles you more than the loss of somebody you love deeply , nothing teaches you more about life than grief and whilst I would do anything to have my dad back , happy and healthy i’m coming to accept that, this is just not how life is. I wish you well and if you would like to read my post about grief and conflict, please feel free to check out my website http://www.the-conflictexpert.com

    • Mark Liebenow on April 25, 2019 at 3:09 pm

      I agree with you. I had a dam holding back my emotions, until grief came and knocked it down. Then I was feeling and expressing every emotion I knew, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. They could like me or not. It didn’t matter. I would love to keep my emotional literacy and have my wife back, but that will never happen.

  2. Tracey on April 24, 2019 at 4:55 pm

    I am happy for you that you have found a community. I thought I would have one when my mom died, but I am grieving alone. No one cares about how I was feeling or what I had to say. If they even bothered to acknowledge it, they clearly just wanted to hear “it’s hard but I’m getting by” and nothing else. Keep up your writing-it seems to be a good outlet for you and you have worthwhile things to say!

    • Mark Liebenow on April 24, 2019 at 6:56 pm

      Tracey, my community is so scattered, and many people I know only on the Internet. When my wife died, I was in my 40s and few of my friends had lost anyone close, so they didn’t know what to say or do to help me. It’s still a problem for almost everyone who is grieving to find a group of people physically in one place where they can meet and talk things over. I am hoping through my writing to inspire other people to share and gather and be a community. When I started writing there were few resource available, even online. We’ve made great strides there, but there’s still quite a ways to go.

  3. Aladin Fazel on April 19, 2019 at 10:36 pm

    It’s the first time that I leave a comment on your writing my friend. As my brother died in 2007, I felt that I have lost more than my half of my soul. We have a traumatic childhood that bounded our soul very strongly. He was about 20 month older than me. I will write once about our life together just wanted to say that you have helped me a lot to overcome my grief about this loss. Thank you. Sincerely, Aladin Fazel 🙏❤❤🙏

    • Mark Liebenow on April 20, 2019 at 4:27 am

      I’m touched that you have shared this, Aladin. You have been so supportive of my writing, and I am thankful that it has been helpful to you. To lose a sibling who has gone through so much with us, and someone we expected to have around for our entire lives, leaves a hole. Every other relationship comes and goes, but brothers and sisters who understand us, are special.

  4. Linda on April 19, 2019 at 12:58 pm

    Mark, we are so alike in how we were brought up and having the strong German background and saying what needs to be said and get on with the tasks ahead. We are also mostly introvert and reflective. I’ve tried breaking out of my mold but it is hard work and exhausting.

    • Mark Liebenow on April 19, 2019 at 3:13 pm

      There is strength in how we interact and decipher the worlds, Linda. It is hard work in sharing the uncertain with others, not knowing how they will react. Often it’s easier to find a book that addresses the specific question we are asking ourselves. And yet people surprise us, not all of them, and not all the time, but now and then, and in ways that take our breath away. Perhaps they just show up on a day when we just need someone there, not to say or do anything, but just be there. I doubt that we will ever be effusive with our emotions. We’ll probably always be succinct. But grief has given us a vocabulary to use, and people have given us community.

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