The Polar Bear in the Room

Polar bear

To help me understand myself a little better as I navigate The Unimaginable, I have been reading a lot of books about grief and resilience lately. Most recently, I finished “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.

One of the things that stood out to me the most in “Option B” was the chapter called “The Elephant in the Room.” Since Dad was known for being a polar bear, I’ll be referring to this as the ”Polar Bear in the Room” or PBR for the duration of the post.

In this chapter, Sheryl and Adam write about how difficult people can find it to interact with you after you lose someone. People often get caught up in what to say and spend so much time worrying that they will say the wrong thing and upset you, they end up avoiding the topic altogether.

This can be problematic, because it makes the grieving person feel like you don’t care or their grief isn’t important to you.

This chapter really hit home for me. I don’t want there to be a PBR. I don’t want people to feel like they can’t talk to me about my Dad or that I can’t talk to other people about him. I need to be open about my grief in order to get through this.

I know it’s uncomfortable to talk about death and losing loved ones. I know that me talking about losing one of my parents makes people think about the possibility of losing their parents, and it can be really scary.

But I want to normalize these kind of conversations. I want to address the PBR and live my life as normally as possible, honoring my Dad everywhere I go.

I do this by addressing my grief head-on: If I’m mad and want to smash something, I’ll tell you about it. If I’m sad and I want to cry, I’ll do that. And I won’t apologize for crying — I’m so glad they mention that in the book. I focus on naming and processing my emotions to release their power. 

(“You have no power over me!” -Sarah, Labyrinth)

I let the tears run their course, and then I am able to function normally again for a while. 

As much as I might want to just wallow in my sadness for 4 hours, I know that isn’t practical and it’s not what Dad would want, so I try to resist the temptation. (But on days that I really need to wallow, I do, because repressing those emotions is not healthy and will not serve my future healing.)

So to alleviate some of the feeling of the PBR and help people answer questions they might be afraid to ask, I put together a list of questions that I assume people are wondering:

  • How did he die? His end-stage liver disease caused multiple organ failure, so when he caught an infection in the hospital his body was unable to fight it. 
  • Was he sick for very long? He was diagnosed with cirrhosis in December, and it progressed quickly.
  • Were you there when it happened? Were you able to say goodbye? Yes, my mom, brother, and I were all there when it happened. We were able to bring some family and friends to say goodbye, and then the three of us were there for the final moment.
  • How are you/your mom/your brother doing? It changes all the time. What I found in “Option B” is that the best question to ask is “how are you doing today?” Asking it this way recognizes the intense cycle of grief you go through, and that if you were OK or alright yesterday, that doesn’t mean you are today, and vice versa.
  • How are you staying so strong? Honestly, it’s hard, but I have a really good support system and I know that my Dad wouldn’t want me to just be miserable all the time. I let myself process my emotions as they come to me, which helps me be stronger later.
  • What’s that necklace that you and your mom have been wearing? A pendant with some of my Dad’s ashes, so he’s always with us.

If you have any other questions, please, please, feel free to reach out to me. 

This is something that you can’t imagine until it happens to you, and I want to make sure that my friends and family have what they need to feel comfortable interacting with me normally again. 

That’s the whole point of this entire blog, really.

If we can all address the PBR – the good, the bad, and the ugly – it’ll help us all heal just a little bit more.

Please send me your favorite stories of my Dad if you knew him personally.

Published by allisonljensen

Marketing professional + event planner, grief and self-care blogger.

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