The Difference Between Grieving and Self-Pity

This is a brief excerpt is from one of my latest books, The Flying Boy Letters: Getting Back to Y’all 30 Years Later, published by Teitlebaum Publishing. Back in the day people actually wrote letters to authors. This book contains dozens of letters and my answers to their questions.

Ms. “Very Impatient With Myself” writes: “…You have helped me to clarify the difference between grieving and self-pity…”  

Dear Ms. Very Impatient with Myself,

Congratulations on a couple of things. First, now you know the difference between self-pity and grieving at age 24. I did not understand the difference until I was halfway through my 30s. Most people regardless of their age secretly know that self-pity is draining, exhausting, and deadening. Most people, including some of our friends, family, and lovers, don’t want to be around it or at least as little as possible. Whereas grieving is empowering, ennobling, and as a result, most people often feel energy after a brief time of rest. 

Even as a counselor, I sometimes feel impotent and powerless because so many people especially men find grieving to undermine their own sense of their masculinity. (Note: In an article in Psychology Today a study was done, and long story short, found that when men shed tears of sadness their level of testosterone increases.) 

I’ve been asked numerous times, “How does one do grief work or how do I start grieving?

While I am describing what it takes to stay with our grief is not a linear process I have broken it down and say there are five necessary components to doing grief work. 

          1. We have to become aware of the difference between grieving and self-pity and give ourselves permission to start feeling all of our losses, changes, and transitions, and even at 24 [years old], there are plenty.

          2. We need to give ourselves time, no matter how long it takes, and not let anyone – even our friends or counselors – tell us when to stop. 

          3. We need people in our lives to support us as we dig into the untilled ground of our grief. Community is so important because while some grieving can and should be a solitary act most grief work is done with others, i.e., counselors, coaches, mentors, supportive friends but usually does not include our biological family because many will not even engage the process because they see us hurting and want to intervene, rescue, or fix us. 

Most people don’t understand that the hurt has already happened, and that grieving is the healing of the hurt. 

Most women and some men know what “a good cry” does; it washes away the debris of devastating memories and pain. 

          4. We need to ritualize our grief. For many years in the Spring I would go to my grandfather’s grave at Union Grove Baptist Church in Crossville, Alabama, and very often talk to him. After my divorce, I got up every day even when I didn’t want to and opened my journal and wrote about this life and loss, the marriage, the dream, and the family that was lost. A ritual is something one does over and over again until we no longer need that ritual. Some rituals last days, weeks, months, even decades. 

          5. We need to employ ceremonies to symbolize that we are now on the other side of our grief, and we celebrate with our friends and support people who held our hands through our darkest nights. 

So, Ms. Very Impatient with Myself, stay with any and all of your grieving for as long as you need. Wow! As of today, you are probably hovering around 54; I’m sure you’ve had several losses and transitions but you’ve learned what to do before many 70-, 80-, or 90-year-old people. 

Thank you for writing.