Lately, people have been telling me I’m strong. They admire my strength. They don’t know how they’d do it if they were in my shoes. “You’re so strong,” they say, often with admiration.

Except I’m not.

I’m not strong. And although I appreciate the sentiment and the compassion behind it, I sort of wish people would stop proclaiming my strength, because quite honestly, my actions don’t constitute strength.

My actions right now are simply putting one foot in front of the other. They are breathing in and then out, then repeating, because that is what you do in life. You breathe in and out, whether you are cognizant of it or not.

Sometimes, often in the toughest of times, you are cognizant of the need and the effort required to simply breathe.

But breathing doesn’t make you strong. It makes you human. It makes you alive. It separates you from the person you lost. Sometimes, the very act of simply breathing hurts, because it is a reminder of this separation.

I am hurting.

My heart is broken.

So I do what I can do. All that I can do, some moments. I breathe in, then I breathe out. And I repeat. I remind myself: I am alive; someone I loved is also alive, but not here on earth, so our lives are no longer intertwined like they were for so many years. At least not now. I believe they will be someday. We will be reunited and it will be glorious. I hold onto that. If anything, that is my stronghold, but it doesn’t make me strong.

For now, breathing is all I can do to ward off the pain and the deep, deep sorrow. Breathing is all I can do to continue living. And the others around me, those who love me, need me to continue living.

But hear this, and please know: Sadness does not make me strong, or brave, or better at this role that’s been thrust upon me.

I’m just doing what I need to do. It’s the only thing I can do, except give up, and I’m not ready to do that yet.

So, I breathe.

And, although I appreciate you trying to build me up, please don’t tell me I’m strong.

Because I don’t feel strong. I feel weak and vulnerable and broken. Heartbroken and lost.

Tell me it’s OK to feel this way. For now. Tell me it’s OK to just breathe. And cry. And be afraid, because I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Tell me you don’t know what to say or what to do, but you will be here. Tell me it’s OK that none of us has the answers, because there are none. Tell me that this sucks, because it does.

Tell me you can’t possibly imagine how I feel, because no one can compare their own grief to that of another. It isn’t a grief competition. Hurt and pain are hurt and pain.

I understand you want to help. I understand you want to make things better, and because you can’t, not really, you feel powerless, and that is beyond difficult. It’s terrible to have to watch someone hurting; I understand that. I truly do. And I thank you for stepping into that uncomfortable role in order to support me.

If you truly believe it, you can think I’m strong. But please don’t say it out loud. I’m not ready to hear it, because right now it isn’t true.

Right now, I’m not strong. Not really. Not really at all. And that’s OK. Because love and having loved — truly, madly, deeply — beats strength any day.

I truly, madly, deeply loved. I sure did. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Not Popeye’s muscles or Superman’s cape.

Not ever.

— Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Don’t miss a slice; follow the Slices of Life page on Facebook.

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