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Grieving Out Loud

Image Courtesy of Rachel Stephenson

What's the true cost of hiding your grief? Rachel Stephenson revisits her TED Talk on why we should break the silence.

When Rachel Stephenson was 18 years old, preparing to speak at her grandfather's funeral, she opened her mouth and found a different voice: her mother's.

"One of my aunts had asked me to read a poem on her behalf at the funeral. Each of her siblings said something during the service... I realized my mom was the one sibling that wouldn't have a voice during her father's funeral, and that upset me. I decided that day that she deserved to be acknowledged and heard, in a public forum, so after I read the poem that my aunt had given me, I looked at the congregation and I said, "Now I would like to speak for the one daughter missing here today—my mom, Margie, who died years ago."  

She couldn't say much more after that, but those words were some of the most important she'd ever spoken.

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"My throat got really tight, and the priest on the altar had to rub my back to calm me. I don't even remember what I said next, but it was an incredibly important moment in my life, because for the first time in front of my mother's family and my father and my paternal grandmother, who were in the congregation, I said that my mom was with me and that she was owed something and that I wanted to be the one to give it to her."

An excruciating sob came from the middle of the chapel while she spoke. 

"It was my dad," she recalls. "That was the first and last time he cried about my mom in my presence. By the time we found each other in the parking lot of the chapel after the service, he had recovered and he couldn't look at me. Our fleeting moment of connection had passed. I knew then that I would continue to speak out loud about my loss. My mom deserved to be remembered."

In Stephenson's recent TEDxCUNY Talk, "Against Grieving in Silence," she shares her own experience with grief and offers guidance for those who are suffering in silence. Watch the video below and scroll down for her full interview with Legacy.

What do you think caused you to silence your own grief?
"For many years when I was a child, I grieved silently. I had gotten the message from my paternal grandmother and my father that it wasn't safe to talk about my mother's death. When I say safe, I mean that there wasn't the emotional space for me to say that I missed her or that I needed help or that I had questions. The few times that I let something out—like when I gave my grandmother a Mother's Day card with "I MISS YOU, MOMMY" written on it—I saw what my grief could do to others. My grandmother dropped her head in her hands and sobbed. She couldn't speak to me. What I learned as a little girl was that exposing my own pain would cause more pain, and I didn't want to do that."
When did you begin wanting to give a voice to your grief?
"My questions about my mother never went away. As I got older, my longing for my mom was mixed with sadness and confusion. At one point, I learned from a cousin that my mom had been killed in a car accident. I hadn't been told this by my father on the morning after she died. As a teenager, I would stare at a black & white picture of my mother, which my mom's younger sister had given to me when I was 16, and I'd search for answers. One night I walked up to the picture and got really close to it—the tip of my nose touching the tip of my mom's nose behind the frame's glass—and I screamed: "Who were you? Why are you gone? Why aren't you in my life? Where are you?"
How does silent grief hurt the griever? 
"I watched silent grief cripple my father emotionally. He walled himself up and never really let anyone in after my mother died. I know that he loved me with every ounce of his body, but he wasn't capable of opening himself up to me and really connecting. He dated women on and off for years, but whenever they would begin to talk about commitment (and they always did) he would walk away. He didn't want to risk being destroyed again, the way he was by my mother's tragic death. I believe that he kept himself walled up, repressing all of his grief inside, numbing himself with alcohol and eventually prescription pills, to protect himself from feeling anything. Suffering alone and in silence was a death sentence for my father."
How does silent grief affect people who are close to the griever?
"My mother died suddenly because a reckless driver ran into the car my parents and their friends were riding in in 1981, but when I think about it now, I realize that I lost my father that night too. Even though he lived another 32 years, he embarked upon a slow and steady march towards emotional disconnection and his own death after my mom was gone. I think he and I could have had a different relationship to each other if he had had a different relationship with grief. This is something I want to talk about now, especially because I'm a mother trying to be mindful of the importance of openness in my relationships with my own children."
How can we help someone who is silently grieving?

"I would tell them: You are not alone. I know that you feel like your world is dark and turned upside down and devoid of meaning, and in so many ways you are right and these things are true. Your life will never be the same. But there are others who reside with you in the darkness—you may not be able to see them. They are hiding in their own dark corners, feeling as alone and afraid as you do. Take a minute to look up from where you are. Reach out. Feel for their fingertips, which might be reaching out for you too. The connections you create by sharing your grief could begin to heal you. Opening up creates opportunities to get support and share stories and see yourself reflected in others and honor the dead."

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