Eliminate “Should”

shouldIn the last few months I’ve reconsidered what surviving loss really means. According to the Cambridge Online dictionary, “surviving” means continuing to live or exist after the loss of…and you may insert whatever your own personal loss equates to here: husband, wife, partner, child, sibling, job, and so forth. All dictionary definitions are similarly vague, and lead to more definitions. Live. Exist. Huge words; huge concepts. And I’ll admit to being completely stymied as to what these words really mean.

I live. I exist. But I keep thinking there has to be more to it. I should be doing more. There’s so many things that I haven’t done of late. I should be working on my dissertation, on my blog, on my website. I should be socializing more. I should be exercising more. I should be taking better care of my health and diet.

And, surely, after all these days, months, years, I should be grieving less.

But the truth is I’m not. In fact, the past months have been hell. My sadness blankets me, and my mind’s foggy. And even the most basic of daily chores have all become “shoulds.” And on the darkest of days, I’ve felt that I am just not going to make it. Considering I’m trying to help others through grief, this paralysis has been terrifying and sobering.

Realizing pharmaceuticals are sometimes the only way the sharpest pains are dulled, I’ve trusted my genetically disadvantaged serotonin levels to my doctor–a wise move. However, like grief, one solution does not fit all, and so the trial and error of the right anti-depressant is, for me at least, trial and many errors.

Several other seemingly small events have transpired lately, though, that have clarified some of my foggy thoughts. Firstly, I read Joan Didion’s, The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for several years, but I think only now have I been ready for the message. It’s an excellent examination on personal love and loss. Didion mentions “pathological bereavement” and I recognized that I was experiencing many of the symptoms. Pathological bereavement often occurs when the deceased and survivor have been dependent on one another, unusually (which is often the case in long term care). This lead me to make a long overdue appointment with my therapist, and he, in turn, suggested some other books and exercises that have been useful.

But far more useful were these two very simple words of advice, he not so much offered, as demanded:

“Eliminate should.”

There is absolutely no place in grief for “should.”

It’s now three years since Roger died and still there are days when I don’t know how I will get through the day without him. For months I have been beating myself up thinking that I should be feeling better. I should be coping better. I should be crying less. I should be happier by now. Surely, after all this time I should be so less sad.

When the reality is I am exactly where I am meant to be.

There is no right or wrong in grieving. There only is.

Grief has a life of its own. It can’t be channeled, or quelled, or fastened. It ebbs and then gushes, whimpers and roars. It’ll leave you raw, fragile, broken. And then you’ll have days, weeks, when you’ll finally feel a little better, followed by days, weeks, and months when you won’t. There only is.

Accepting this helps.

Phillipe Aries wrote: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” There’s no advice that can change this. There are no words that’ll lessen this. There are no amount of “shoulds” that’ll change your visceral reaction to this emptiness. It is what it is. And you’re exactly where you’re meant to be.

Categories: Loss, Uncategorized

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93 replies

  1. It’s so great to hear your voice again and to receive this wisdom. 💜

  2. One of our first counciling sessions Phil and I went to in the 70’s, the counselor told us to drop should from our vocabulary.

  3. Amazing my beautiful sister and even though so sad, I am just thankful to hear your voice again. Hate that silence. Love you for ever. Kristi xxxxxxxxxx

  4. I don’t know if eliminating should is the correct way but griefing for me at this time is hard. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way and everyone grieves differently.

  5. Your words are filled with so much wisdom and honest experience. Thank you.

  6. This is so well written and speaks directly to me, even though I can’t say I’ve experienced such a loss. I am definitely going to pick up a copy of Joan Didion’s book. You should look into The Four Agreements. It isn’t 100% relevant to your situation, just life and how to make the right “agreements.” You are inspiring!!

  7. beautiful post – hang in there. I suspect your words will be more helpful to so many than you will ever realize

  8. I’m going to (try to) apply the message of eliminating should in my daily routine. Although I am not grieving a loss right now, the constant feed in my head telling me I should be doing something else is distracting. Yoga helps to live in the moment. Focus on your breath.

  9. shouding on yourself is how some put it

  10. As some of us therapists say, stop shoulding all over yourself! Thank for this great post! For me, I’ve definitely had to remove all the shoulds from my grief, trauma and recovery process.

  11. Think of another word, like tangerine, or rainbow, each time you say or think should, substitute. And it’s mini steps every day for as long as it takes….

  12. This is so good. I recall one of the lines from the book You can heal your life. “I would like to take the word ‘should’ and remove it from the vocabulary forever”.

  13. I have been widowed since April 23 2003. I never thought of eliminating the word should, that is an excellent suggestion that I will try. I wish you well on your journey, and offer hope. I still try to live each day one at a time, and turned to group counseling using a mind fullness based approach.

  14. Thank you for sharing your story. I have told people for years not to should on themselves. It is a default habit we pick up when young. It’s a little difficult to shake but you are working on it. Tell me about what is stuck inside regarding Roger.

  15. I certainly hope and pray for you that the days, weeks and months of feeling better increase and the grief turns into a warmness and smile in your heart.

  16. I lost my father, Roger, nearly a year ago and every day feels like the first day. I keep being told things should be better or “that was almost a year ago” and I can’t help but feel like the wound is fresh. Thank you for your words and advice.

    • I’m so sorry for your loss, gigi. Just a year ago? That’s a very fresh wound. Things “shouldn’t” be better. How can they be better when you’ve lost your father. They will, though, become more bearable. I promise.

  17. Great piece of writing! I really enjoyed it

  18. Love your blog! ❤
    Do you want to follow me back on http://www.gossipgirlnetherlands.wordpress.com .
    THAT WOULD BE AWESOME! I will give you a shoutout if you follow me!:)
    XOXO Gossip girl

  19. I agree wholeheartedly. And what a beautiful quote from Aries. Thank you for sharing your journey.

  20. I can not even begin to explain how appropriate this message was for my life today. Awesome post.

  21. This is such a great price of writing and has really made me think differently about dealing with a lot of things that life throws at you. Thank you for writing this, it is very true.

  22. I think grieving happens differently for each person. I lost my father a little over a year ago. I sat at his bedside, held his hand and watched him take his last breath. I still wake up sometimes in the middle of the night, reliving thst memory. I’m watching my mother struggle with the loss. It’s not easy, that’s for sure. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Mike, I’m so sorry for your loss. It took me several years before the reliving of that night finally started to ebb. In some ways I think it’s a way to hide on a little longer.

  23. “It ebbs then gushes, whimpers and roars…so beautiful and eloquent. That is grief. It has a mind of its own and ours is but to go with the mood of the day. Free from guilt. I lost a son 6 years ago and it’s just plain hard. That’s what grief is. It is hard – harder than life because it can’t be defined succinctly. I wish you well. I wish you peace. Sending you love and light. ~Karen~

  24. This is a really beautiful post, so so true!

  25. At least you have crossed “I should write how I feel” off your list. Hopefully, that doesn’t come off as sounding trite. You ARE capable of articulating how grief affects you personally. That is a HUGE step. I appreciate you sharing this part of your relationship with Roger. Your words are valuable. May each day bring more strength.

  26. Reblogged this on BigMamaBlog and commented:
    food for thought

  27. Awesome post. “Eliminate shoulds” is definitely the right thing to do or, at least, don’t let them pile up until they weigh too much to be removed. I made that mistake and got to the point where I thought it easier to eliminate myself rather then them! Luckily, I failed and that was long ago, but I can still remember how it felt. Hang in there, you have a wonderful means to help your healing: writing!

    Ps I wish we had a way to express ” shoulding” in Italian, it would come in handy sometimes…

  28. That was great! I will share it with my ALS surviving spouse group. Just what we talked about last night!

  29. I just today moved my old blog over to WordPress and I found this post while browsing. It speaks straight to my heart. I lost my fiancé just over 2 1/2 years ago now, and on top of my grief I have other mental illnesses to deal with. But reading your post helped me realise that it’s okay to still feel the loss, it’s okay to still hurt, to still cry, to still mourn, because something huge was taken from my life, and everything had to change because of it. There will always be a piece of me missing from now on, but I cannot fill it with the things I SHOULD have done or SHOULD be doing, I should fill it with memories and dreams of everything we were and meant to each other.

    So thank you for sharing with us such a beautiful and inspiring post.


  30. This post helped me alot for I recently lost someone close to me. Thank you so much…

  31. Pathological Bereavement… that makes so much sense. And then Aries quote at the end is perfect

  32. Thank you for sharing your truth, it will help light the way to the healing of countless others.

  33. YES!! My mother is always correcting me when I say “should.” There is only “could,” and this is true in all aspects of our lives. Keep doing the work. You are loved!

  34. Just found you while skipping on by and I stopped. I live without should whenever I remember to, which these days is most times. Expectations on emotions or a process seems downright silly at this point in my life, Even if I know I should, it doesn’t mean I will, it just makes me feel bad when i don’t. so no more. Thank you for sharing such wonderful thoughts and feelings.

  35. Any book by Ernest Holmes has helped me through the grieving process. I strongly reccomend

  36. Reading C.S. Lewis A Grief Observed helped me some but I still remain mired in my grief. My husband and my life as I knew it has been gone nearly four years now. While we have become accustomed to his absence it is still palpable. Should is a dirty word and we just get by each day. The only consolation is that we aren’t alone in our grief.

  37. Excellent words, I’ll definitely apply this in my life as well.

  38. Thanks for sharing. Even through hurt, your wisdom shows.

  39. Absolutely!
    Should, presupposes that there is some “other rule” that would be properly applied. The word serves only to convince yourself that there is some other way, if only you could know it – as self flagellation.
    Further it is used as a a weapon to coerce another into believing that they only somehow know the truth. —— Eliminate the word “should” from your vocabulary.


  1. Unit 1 Post #4 | mkeel6

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