Strength vs Vulnerability when you’ve lost a parent or someone you love
If you read a statement like “being ok with being vulnerable is a strength, not a weakness” and cringe, gag, frown, huff, or some other show of contempt and disbelief, then this blog is for you.
I know about the above reactions to comments like that well, because I do them. Often. Vulnerability is not my favourite thing and for a long time I have struggled to some degree or other with the balance between vulnerability and strength (the desire to be all strength all the time with no noticeable weakness at all, right?). But you know what – both have their place and you wouldn’t get far without either. I won’t talk to you of why you need strength – I reckon you have that bit covered already. This is for you if you are feeling vulnerable and hating yourself for it….or very successfully managing to stay strong and hiding your vulnerability (and losing more out of the deal than you know).
This battle between the two becomes particularly evident and important when you’ve lost a parent or someone else you love.
The temptation to ‘stay strong’
When you’ve lost a parent, particularly if you’re the eldest child or the child closest to the other parent, the temptation, in fact sometimes the expectation, is that you will ‘stay strong’ for them and for the family. When Dad died I remember being told this: “stay strong for your mum”. And I did. Strong like a brick wall. And seeing as I am not actually a brick wall there were repercussions. No-one really saw me cry after the first day. I was very matter-of-fact about everything that was happening and very practical about all the planning that needed doing. Oh yes I was strong alright. And the pressure I could feel building up in my head and in my body became a constant discomfort and went on to being a constant pain.
You have enough on your plate dealing not only with the loss of a parent, your own feelings and the feelings of those around you, but all the arrangements that need doing at the time – a funeral to plan, calls to make, wills to find (if you don’t have a will, get one. You’ve no idea the mess it leaves if you don’t), sorting out bills and accounts changed out of one name and into another, etc, etc. The list is endless. There is so very much to be doing that also giving yourself the huge job of ‘staying strong’ is just one thing too many. You need to take breaks to be weak. This isn’t just your family’s tragedy that you’re cleaning up here. It’s yours too. It takes a heck of a lot of energy to try to hold everything in and look strong – and you probably don’t have this right now. And if you do then don’t waste it all on this. You aren’t doing your mental and physical health any good by trying to hold everything in. It’s a constant physical strain to do that. How is acting that you feel something you don’t helping you or anyone else?
Others can communicate/understand
Here’s a biggy. Did you realise by acting so strong you distance yourselves from the people who need you most – the ones who want to help and be helped by you? A friend told me a couple of years ago that she just wished I would show when I’m struggling, or unhappy. She said I would sometimes tell her when I was but always with a smile on my face (that’s me being ‘strong’). She said that because she could see I coped so well with absolutely everything (insert me going “are you joking?!” here), no matter what I said to her, it made her feel guilty about her own pain and struggles, that she couldn’t ‘cope’ so well, and made her feel she couldn’t talk to me about them. Because how could I understand her? That really hit me hard – that one of my closest friends felt she couldn’t talk to me when she was feeling very weak and vulnerable, because I was doing such a fab job of acting ‘strong’.
When you’ve just lost a parent your siblings and remaining parent might look to you to know how to behave towards you. And also to know how you expect them to behave. If you make it clear that you are staying strong then you aren’t a place they will share their feelings. If you make it clear that tears aren’t really an option for you then you are telling them that theirs aren’t an option for you either.
If you want other people to be able to communicate and share with you and know you’re open to how they’re feeling then…surprise of all surprises…..you have to show them that this is ok. And you show them by admitting to some of your own vulnerability.
What are you afraid of?
Let’s turn this whole strength-is-good and vulnerability/weakness-is-bad thing on it’s head because it’s a bit of a backwards belief. This big addiction to being seen as strong (because, let’s be honest, that’s what it usually boils down to) has more to do with fear than anything else.
What’s strong about acting like something you’re not?
What’s strong about holding in what needs to come out because you are too ashamed to show your tears?
What’s strong about being afraid to have others see your emotions?
What’s strong about distancing yourself from the people you love because you just can’t bear to say ‘I hurt too’
What’s strong about being too terrified to experience and live your own emotions?
Because that’s what is really going on. When I was back at work after my dad died my colleagues would tell me they were amazed at how I was handling it, at how incredibly strong I was. But you know the truth? At least part of it was that the thought of people seeing that pain in me, of having to share it, of them seeing something so very intimate, of people thinking I needed their help, was absolutely terrifying to me. How did we end up thinking that this spelled out strength?? At what point did wanting to hide the way you feel from the world because the idea of sharing is too threatening become ‘being strong’.
I think true strength is about being ok with being strong and being weak and not being afraid to have others see both in you.
So if you are grieving the loss of someone you love and trying to stay strong or wishing you could stay strong have a little think about the things I have said above.
You need your strength, but no more or less so than you need your vulnerability, and the ability to admit to it.
You know what – it takes tremendous guts, courage, strength and bravery to be fine with showing that you hurt and to not be threatened by other people seeing that in you.
Here is a really lovely and powerful talk on the power of vulnerability and it’s effect on human connection, by a woman who struggled for years with the concept herself. It’s beautiful. It’s 20 mins long but well worth a watch.