Carrying home a bag of books I think of all the books I will never know about because you will not show them to me. I think of the loss of knowledge, all the things I will never know because you are not here to tell me. I cannot ask questions, I cannot be reminded. Elizabeth Alexander
Grief divides us in so many ways. The person we lost .. child, spouse, parent, sibling. The way they were lost .. disease, accident, overdose, suicide, murder, old age. How we are left .. orphaned, childless, widowed, an only child. How the death came … predicted, expected, unforeseen, a shock.
From there, the complications only grow. What if our beloved who died doesn’t fit into an easily recognized category, i.e., what we consider “immediate” family. A cousin can sound so distant, unless she is the sister you never had. An ex-husband no longer belongs to your family, unless you never stopped loving each other and have remained dear friends. A grandmother sounds old, unless she raised you because your mother died or wasn’t capable of parenting you.
What if our loss is a baby who never drew breath and might not even have had a name. Life shattering, and yet unseen by the outside world. The burden of remembering falls on the parents who must introduce the fact of the loss before they can even tell the story.
What if we grieve for a dog, a cat, a parakeet, a rat. To others, our animals may sound easily replaceable. For the bereft, they may be close family; the one constant in our lives; a living, breathing soul who enabled us to navigate other losses, infertility, trauma, dashed hopes and broken dreams. A source of unconditional love and comfort when the world feels cold, unfair or cruel.
I think grief is like cancer. When you first hear the word, before you have danced with the pain, you think that deaths can be neatly categorized, allowing the griever to minimize many of their losses based on how long the person lived, where they fit on the family tree and whether the deceased is human.
But life is far more complex than that. So often labels don’t come close to explaining the depth of our pain or the strength of the connection. The death of my son at the age of 21 is completely different than the death of my friend’s son at two months. We are both bereaved mothers with dead sons but oh, such different losses.
Grief unites us, too. The death of one of your most important people thrusts you into a club that no one wants to belong to, one that’s hard to fully understand unless you, too, have lost someone you loved most. Some grievers hate hearing “I can’t imagine what you are going through ..” because they believe what it really means is that “I don’t want to imagine what you’re going through ..” There’s probably truth to that. But it also true that you can’t imagine what it’s like to have a child die until it happens to you. And being told “I can imagine what you’re going through ..” by someone with three healthy children doesn’t seem to me to offer much comfort either.
What I’ve found is that I need different sources of comfort at different times. My closest friends, who held me up after Jimmy died, all have living children but every one of them has suffered a life changing loss … of a mother at a young age, of health and mobility, of a grandfather who provided love and encouragement when her parents could not. When I find myself turning bitter and resentful, I crave time with other grieving mamas who can witness my pain and hear my sharp words without judgment or a desire to fix anything. To know that I am not the only one who has been dealt such a cruel, unfair blow.
In the end, what we need most is space and grace, understanding and connection. The gray instead of the black and white. The presence of those who say “Me, too” but also those who say, “Tell me about your son.” The ones who show up, over and over again, even if they don’t say much or anything at all. The ones who understand just how unfair and hard life can be but who never stop looking for the beauty that is all around us.
The sea accepts all rivers …
It wouldn’t grade and judge
each tributary, choosing some,
requiring that a stream
follow a different course
before it flows into the sea.
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