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January 10, 2015

On mourning the death of a friend

Wellness Amy's Advice
Mourning File Art /for PhillyVoice

To stand with an open heart and offer your words of tribute is a powerful way of honoring your friend.


Yesterday, one of my closest friends suffered an unexpected and massive heart attack – and died. Mark was generous, funny, honest, and kind. He was a true friend.

The funeral is set for early next week and I’ve been asked to say a few words. Out of respect for Mark, I want to speak. I will speak. The problem is I can’t stop crying. I haven’t cried like this since I was a boy. I’m scared that I will break down while speaking at the funeral. 

Also, every time I think of Mark, I feel like somebody is squeezing my own chest. Is this normal?

Please advice me at this difficult time. I just can’t believe this is happening.

Thank you.

David, Jenkintown

Dear David, 

Thank you for trusting me with your story. Losing a loved one in such a sudden way is heart-wrenching. It makes sense to feel confused and scared. It makes sense to cry.

While surely disconcerting, the current tension felt in your chest is a normal response to yesterday’s tragedy. The mind and body are deeply interwoven realities. What touches one, touches the other. By making room for the wellspring of grief within, the gripping ache of loss and shock will ease. Allow your emotions to flow. They will bring you back to your boyhood when your heart was vulnerable, open and sensitive. The anxious and painful knot in your chest will open as you open.

Now, let’s consider Mark’s funeral. You’ve been asked to speak in a public space set aside for grieving the death of a close friend. You’ve agreed to share your words at a time when your own grief feels overwhelming. How can you speak clearly in this situation? What if, as you fear, you cry in front of everyone? 

Yes, tears may come. Yes, your voice may shake. Yes, those gathered may see into the depth of your sadness. That can be scary. So be it.

In her book, “Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair,” psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan acknowledges that “loss, vulnerability, and violence” are woven into the very fabric of what it means to be human. Given this, our natural, healthy, and inevitable response is to feel “the dark emotions.” However, by calling grief, fear and despair “dark,” Greenspan doesn’t mean these feelings are bad. Rather, she reflects upon how our culture keeps these emotions in the dark, “shameful, secret, and unseen.” This is particularly true for men.

There isn’t a lot of room in our collective discourse for the public expression of a man’s grief. Crying in front of other men is still commonly viewed as a shameful defeat rather than a healthy and fully human form of expressing hurt or loss. Given this, many men grieve in private or they repress the emotions of sadness and focus on anger. For such men, the knots in their chest may never unravel. In fact, men are more likely than women to suffer from physical symptoms like headaches or backaches after the death of a loved one due to their struggle in making room for the body’s need to grieve.

These facts need not deflate your resolve. To stand with an open heart and offer your words of tribute is a powerful way of honoring your friend. You describe Mark as “honest” and “kind.” You know that such a friend deserves a funeral reflective of his best qualities. Yes, tears may come. Yes, your voice may shake. Yes, those gathered may see into the depth of your sadness. That can be scary. So be it. Better to speak with courage than to close down to the ebb and flow of emotion which nature intended us to feel at such difficult times. 

May courage be yours as you walk to that podium David. May your words flow with honesty and kindness. 

Finally, consider this insight offered by Lara Rogers Krawchuck, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. Well known for her contributions to the further understanding of grief, loss and caregiving, she states: “Healing from a great loss comes a little bit at a time. It can look like a movement from shock or numbness to anguish to eventually being able to experience small moments of joy –- and eventually more joy than sorrow.” 

Your friendship with Mark brought joy to your life. He was a “true friend” as you describe. Consider writing Mark a letter and express both the pain felt from his sudden death as well as the joy you’ve known in your shared friendship. Take a long drive and visit places meaningful to Mark. Or, go for a walk in nature and imagine Mark beside you. Talk to him. Express your sorrow and your gratitude.   

In the processing of our individual stories of grief, we can experience the deep love found in universal human compassion. In your willingness to grieve Mark’s death, you will uncover qualities within your being that will allow you to become a source of refuge and strength for others. Of this, I am certain. 

David, your story stays with me. I’m hopeful these reflections bring a healing balm of solace at this time. May you be open to the movement of healing as it manifests through you over the course of the next few days, weeks, months and years.