Friday, December 5, 2014

Faking it

Many years ago when in the midst of an episode of depression, someone told me to smile. He said that the body responds to smiling by producing the hormones we experience when we have real reason to smile, so fake smiling may help reduce stress and improve mood. "Fake it til you make it" was his recommendation.

I never found this to be particularly effective and even less now so when I am in the midst of grief. But it does raise some interesting questions about how the grieving fake feeling better to help those around them. I expect this is especially acute during the holidays because we don't want to bring those around us down.

For example, I was recently at a family gathering and genuinely felt good. The mood came and went, but I decided to behave as if I felt okay because I didn't want to upset those around me. Some of my family finds my grief distressing. I got through the event, came home and fell apart for awhile.

The grief community might argue that this was the wrong call. By suppressing my grief I was emotionally dishonest. I was doing it for others and, frankly, those of us grieving justifiably selfish about feeling what we feel when we feel. This isn't a culture that makes it easy to grieve, so there is some militancy about our need to express our feelings unapologetically. I agree with this. I think it's important that everyone can express their emotions honestly and effectively. So why did I put on a happy face?

Because I love my family. Because I didn't want to bring everyone else down. Because the work involved in honestly expressing my emotions felt as though it would be greater than just smiling for the time being. I'm not saying my choice was right or wrong. It just was.

But what if we tried something different this holiday season? Holidays are notoriously hard for the grieving. There are so many memories and holes that it's hard to understand how we can or should behave. So what if we tried something different.

What if those who love the grieving find a way for them to feel safe enough that they can express their emotions and then experience what joy they can? It would take work. Those who love us would have to ask honest questions, be willing to open the door to the sorrow as well as joy, and welcome whatever honest answer is given. It would require not flinching and not judging. Sometimes stepping back. It would require always accepting that the grief is valid, not matter how new or old.

If the grieving knew that this was possible, what if we found a way to smile, even if we have to fake it sometimes, because we know it would be safe to not smile? Would the sense of safety make it easier to relax and find what joy we could in the moment?

I don't know. I hope so. I know that the stress of faking it is immense, but there must be some way the bereaved and those who love us can work together to make this hard season easier. I think it requires honesty. Conversation. Space. And maybe a little faking it on both sides, only acknowledged and appreciated.

I know this won't sit well with a lot of you. But I think it's worth a try. A little honesty. A little gentle fakery, acknowledged and appreciated. Might be worth a try.

I don't know. But I'm trying to find out.

(36 weeks. See? I'm smiling, right?)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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