Stay Strong, Be Vulnerable

Featured Image: Heather Ford

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“You’re so strong!”

It’s interesting how we use this phrase as an affirmation to our loved ones. Sometimes we may say,  “I can’t believe how strong you are!” We may even tell ourselves that. When I feel proud or am in awe of how people cope with pain, I tell them how resilient and brave they are. 

Two months ago, I lost my dada (paternal grandfather), Ramzan. May his soul rest in peace. Fortunately, this was the first time I experienced loss so closely. 

This situation was completely unfamiliar and new to me. It was like I was in a dream, and woke up, startled, to catch myself from falling. But instead, my family and I were scrambling to travel from New York to Atlanta in the midst of this pandemic. I was confused and ill-prepared, as many of us are during this time. 

Honestly, I feel this extreme discomfort when I think about the days leading up to his funeral. It was surreal to witness the rapid deterioration of a person whom you knew and loved for all your existence. We were blessed, however, to have only watched him suffer for three days after his stroke before he passed. 

I often pride myself in thinking I can muster up a quick response when people around me are struggling and need support. I realized, though, after witnessing my first close death, that this was something I could never really have prepared for. It also became challenging to find the right words to say to those grieving around me. 

I can see how our go-to response for those grieving may be “Stay strong!” or “Be strong, you will get through this.” My father, my grandmother, and the whole family continued to hear these phrases. Countless people came by to give their condolences, delved into how and what happened, and relished in my grandpa’s memories. But every time I heard those phrases telling us that we must be strong, it seemed like code for keep it together, that’s the only way to move forward.”

To me though, being strong in a moment when you feel such an overwhelming level of hurt, pain, confusion, anger, emptiness, and sorrow is like gently pleading the sun to begin rising from the West.

Since the process of grieving looks different for so many people, we cannot impose a single-minded view of grieving: to hold back the tears, tighten your chest, and give off an impression that you will immediately continue to be a functioning human, despite burying a piece of your heart. We have been conditioned to believe that our value comes from our ability to bounce back and begin contributing to society — no matter the cost. 

Why are we as humans so afraid of unfiltered, raw emotion? We worry, and sometimes rightfully so, what extreme or heightened emotions will lead to. But in this case, I observed how for our society, it is more acceptable to comfort a man with a stoic expression rather than one who could openly cry and lighten his heart. 

The more people said “Don’t cry” to my grandmother, the more I felt the weight building on her shoulders. Frankly, I wanted her to cry. I wanted her to feel what she needed to feel because later she would feel ashamed and scared to do so. As though crying would be a sign of weakness, and like she said, injo ruhani ke kush rakno aiin our native language, Katchi. We cannot cry, otherwise his [my grandfather’s] soul will suffer.

I do believe that vulnerability and comfort with our emotions are so critical to our well-being. We have heard science discuss the benefits of readily expressing our emotions. We are also acutely aware that men in our society are expected to bottle feelings and be a source of stability and toughness no matter what may be going on. What a burden to carry. 

My hope is that in moments of grievance and difficulty, we can acknowledge that emotions will express themselves in a wide range. We have to practice healthier expressions of emotion so that others around us recognize this as a real and valid way of coping with pain. We can encourage ourselves and others to indulge in experiences that are cathartic. It is okay to have outward displays of emotion, through a good cry session, journaling, talking to a friend, or even pursuing therapy. 

So stay strong, but be vulnerable. Create safe spaces that foster dialogue around loss, emotions, growth, and pain. For healing to begin in our families and communities, we must tend to our sprouts and the garden around us. Surely then, our flowers may begin to bloom.

1Flowers from the mobile florist at the hospital parking lot in Atlanta.