Myth #1 We Must Be Strong for Others

On June 17, 2006, I received a call from my daughter, Brittani, that would change my life forever. My then ten-year-old nephew was missing near the river where my family was spending the Father’s Day weekend. In just three brief hours, we got the confirmation that Austin had drowned.

In the next five minutes that followed, I leaped into what I thought was the right thing to do to help my sister. I must be strong for her. She had lost her son. Erica and I are ten years apart in age. We have always, since day one, had this strange mother/ daughter relationship. You want to know something that, to this day, is so strange to me? I did not think that I had the right to grieve the death of my nephew. In my ignorance about grief, I truly thought that the parents were only awarded that luxury. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I truly thought that the rest of us would just have to suffer through it, as best as we could.

I will never forget the look on her face when I finally reached her house. The best way that I can explain her expression was as if she was begging me “Please, Sharon. Give me some good news.” I took one look at her and something in my heart and mind said, “Just tell her the truth. Nothing but the truth.” So, I said, “I am so sorry, sister. Austin has drowned.” She screamed, “No!” And ran from me.

After going to her apartment and telling her face-to-face that Austin was no longer with us, I began to navigate Erica and her husband, Louis, through this dark hole called “grief.” Instinctively the only thing that I knew was that I had to be Strong. I thought, this is not about you. She is hurting more than you. You need to grow up.

So, I pulled up my sleeves and embarked on the research on how to plan a funeral, how to deal with grief, and where the best support groups were in town. After I signed them up for the third support group visit, Erica called me to tell me that it was the worst experience of her life. Through her tears, she was able to tell me that there was a gentleman in the group that had lost a daughter thirty years ago. 

She told me that this man was crying as if his loss had recently happened. She asked me to stop helping her. She also informed me that she did not want to be like that poor man thirty years for now.

I left her alone to figure out her own path. About eight months after Austin’s death, I stumbled upon a program known as the “Grief Recovery Method.” Without permission from either Erica or Louis, I signed up both of us for the class. And she agreed to attend.

The foremost profound thing that I learned while attending this group was that I, Sharon Brubaker, the aunt of Austin Tyler was grieving his loss too. The feeling of the knife that had been inserted into my heart was mine and mine alone. It was the grief that I continued to push out of my present moment so that I could “be strong for Erica.” Most importantly, I learned that “being strong for others” is a myth of grief, a sort of lie that we tell ourselves to help us deal with the pain of our broken heart.

I know now that I learned this behavior from my parents. Time and time again as my parents had to deal with death, loss, or grief, they did one common thing. They were amazing servers, and they would serve the griever. For the most part, the world has taught us all some unhelpful myths about grief. When we are at the doorway of this vortex that we call “grief,” these myths all seem to fit. Not only do they fit, but they also seem normal and natural to us because this is what we have learned. Other myths include but are not limited to sayings like “Time heals all wounds,” “Grieve alone,” “Be strong,” “Don’t feel bad!” “Keep busy,” and “Replace the loss.”

Most of the reason that these myths seem to fit is that these, most often, address the intellectual parts of our brain that is trying to search our inner files on how to deal with grief. “Be strong for Erica” was safe. It was smart. Stay busy and plan the funeral events. Shield the calls. Talk to the caterer. Meanwhile, I never stopped long enough to deal with this knife that was sticking into my heart.

Here are many misconceptions about the pain associated with significant emotional loss. Some relate to the relationship of others, like “It’s not fair to burden them with my pain!” or “You have to be strong for others.” Some relate it to how we think we should be reacting to the loss, for example, “I should be over it by now!” or “I have to keep busy.”

In my educational program, not only do I help grievers dissect these myths, but I also attempt to teach them the true definition of grief: Grief is the normal and natural reaction to a loss of any kind. Grief is a broken heart. You do not need to be fixed. You are not broken. You are in pain from your broken heart.

Something happened to me those many years ago that changed my life and restored my view of the future. I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to help each and every person suffering from a broken heart find his/her own way through grief to recovery. I trained and became a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist. I will forever be thankful to Austin. I am forever grateful that he came into my life. That I got to walk ten short years of his personal journey with him.