Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
Naomi Shihab Nye
I did not expect Jimmy’s death or my mother’s or my friend Teresa’s to make me a kinder person. In the early days, I found myself ricocheting between feeling sorrowful, envious, discouraged, resentful, impatient and occasionally angry. I appreciated the kind acts of others, both those I knew and those I didn’t, but I can’t say I was particularly inspired to be kind myself.
It wasn’t until I started Salt Water that I started to recognize a newfound kindness in myself. A desire to listen more, to be less judgmental, a decreased urge to talk about myself or my loss. Sometimes the silence was imposed on me, when another person wouldn’t allow me to speak or make space for my story. After the pain of feeling unheard subsided, I was struck by how much I learned when my mouth was closed.
At other times, the other person’s story kept me quiet. What she had been through, how unfair life had been to him. By listening, I found myself standing in awe of what other humans had been faced with or had had to endure. As people’s stories poured out, I was reminded over and over of the wisdom of that old saying — “Everyone you meet is facing a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
I realized how easily someone else’s story could have been mine. How my situation could have been so much worse. I stopped feeling special, entitled even, to a certain kind of life and began feeling grateful for all that I haven’t had to deal with.
I didn’t know that there is so much judgment in grief. That for some, there’s a hierarchy of loss based on age or location on the family tree. That for others, the death of a friend isn’t considered to be as painful as losing a family member, no matter how broken the relationship. And that the passing of a furry or feathery creature almost never matters as much as that of a human.
I have no insight into why we make these pronouncements or why we can’t let the other person’s pain dictate our response. In the past, I did it, too, without even being self-aware enough to notice I was doing it. My own loss and those of the people I’ve gotten to know over the past four years have taught me just how dismissive and hurtful these judgments are.
Maybe the death of a beloved is like a forest fire that burns your house down. It strips away so many of your beliefs, expectations, hopes and notions of fairness, leaving you with the realization that, in the end, all we really have is each other. To survive the loss, to build a life in the aftermath, to continue getting out of bed in the morning, we need people to listen to our story and acknowledge our pain. To recognize that these kinds of blows can happen to anyone, and that regardless of circumstance or relationship, loss is loss, and the grief is real and heavy. To know that even the smallest acts of kindness can ease the pain of a broken heart.