A lot of articles about grief tend to pop up around the holidays. If you take a moment to reflect, I think this makes a lot of sense. Holidays can be one of the worst times for emotional wounds, both new and old. That being said, I’ve seen what I consider to be a dangerous trend over the last few years as far as the tone of these articles.
First, I guess I should establish my “street cred.” Oldest of four, we lost my father when I was 18. It was a 5 year battle with a disease called neuro-sarcoidosis, and involved a lot of hospitals. The diagnosis part took several years in and of itself, so it wasn’t a very straight forward battle. It was neither the best, nor worst, of the many stories I’ve subsequently heard.
It probably should be pointed out that, in addition, I’ve gone through a divorce in my twenties, and my mother is a breast cancer survivor. The point of establishing this is to say that I understand grief, struggle, disease, loss, and helplessness on a very intimate basis. You could say we are old friends. But again I state: my life experience is neither the best, nor worst, of the many stories I’ve heard.
As my birthday rolls around, I find myself retrospective, as I often am at this time of year. It is another birthday my father will not see. I will likely celebrate it with my new wife, who my father has never met. He did not see me help coach a team to a state championship in football this past fall. He was not able to witness the Cubs finally winning a World Series. He did not see his youngest daughter, the last of four to begin attending Butler university. He has not been there for the dozens of little marking stones that happened last year, much less the many more that have occurred in the last 13 years.
13 years is a long time.
This is why loss hurts. This is the source of grieving. The fact that you have been robbed of a potential future, a future in which someone important to you existed, is painful whenever you choose to reflect on it. This truth is, this does not get better. It does not go away. You may get better at handling it, but you never really stop grieving.
But what about the whole “dangerous trend?” Right, sorry. I got lost for a moment. That is also something that happens, from time to time.
The thing that bothers me is that the tone of many of these articles seems to adopt the stance of trying to tell everyone else, everyone not in “The Loss Club,” how to treat those of us in the club. What to say. What to do. What not to do. All of that good stuff. And it is all said within the very positive frame of attempting to help those who have not experienced the same sort of loss try to understand. A noble goal, to be sure.
But, here is where I’m going to say something radical: Understanding is a two-way street. My problem with these articles is that, to me, they end up being preachy because while they make a valiant effort at understanding the loss side of things, they completely miss the boat when it comes to understanding the other side. You know, the one where everyone else hasn’t lived your life. I believe that the onus is as much on you to understand where they are coming from, as it is on them to understand you and your grief. Sometimes people express things imperfectly, but with the best of intentions. It is on each of us to look beyond the clumsiness of words and into the intentions and feelings that were meant to be conveyed. That is to say, it is not a one way street; it takes effort on both ends.
Or, to put it another way, I see a lot of it coming down do what I call life’s “tragedy game.” You, Dear Journal, there seems to be this unspoken competition where, unless someone can trump you with a worse life experience, then it’s as if you win and therefore you are in control of the relationship. You are also relieved of the responsibility of understanding them because, hey, your life is worse. They should then cater to you and your feelings because their life is better.
That bothers me. As someone who, for a good while in his life, was very much “winning” at the tragedy game… I don’t ever want to go back there. I’ve since racked up some positive stuff and distance, so my score has probably fallen to levels where I can more easily be “beaten” by others. After all, my losses didn’t continue. My mom survived. I got married again. I’m personally pretty healthy.
But it’s not a game. I don’t ever want to compete with someone for “worst life.” That’s a terrible competition to be part of. This fact has often led me to keeping my mouth shut when others are sharing their stories, for fear of unintentionally trumping them. Like: “I’m sorry to hear all that, but I’ve been through worse.” One of the most frustrating things I often hear from those going through something is: “You just can’t understand.” It is the cleanest, and most effective way to shut someone else out, and when we humans are hurting, that is often what we do.
Look, it is true that everyone experiences loss and grief differently, but there are some common human elements to the experience. I would argue that someone who has experienced a simple heartbreak, like from a high school date, or losing a dumb contest important to them, can absolutely understand loss if they choose to reflect on how they felt. It’s a simple matter of magnitude. Remember how it sucked when you lost and how helpless and scary it might have felt? Perhaps how robbed you felt of something that should have, rightfully, been yours? Magnify that by a lot when it’s someone or something you really loved. Same feelings, different scale. We have all felt sad, helpless, frustrated, scared, and alone sometimes. Loss is a lot like all of those things, except bigger and all together.
You do not need to “win” the tragedy game in order to understand others. It is not always the person who has lost most or the same that can understand best. Mostly, it just takes love and understanding. Effort, on an emotional level. People on both sides of the coin need to be willing to make that effort.
So, to those who have the best of intentions and are always just trying to empathize but feel like they can’t… don’t stop. Don’t let the advice articles or people push you away. Keep trying. Keep trying to empathize and understand, because if it comes from a place of love, love is awesome. You don’t need “street cred” to express love. Keep doing it in the best way you know how and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The world needs more love and understanding, despite the feedback it may be giving you.
And for those of us in the Loss Club, take care that you aren’t stifling the love flowing your way. It can be real easy to think that no one else can truly understand because, frankly, that is probably true. They aren’t you. But it doesn’t mean that no one else without the same experience can love you adequately enough to help. In our grief, we often turn from love, but instead should strive to grasp it with grace. Encourage love to flow as best you can can with whatever scattered shards of your heart you can sweep together. Putting yourself back together after being shattered by loss is one of the hardest things you will ever experience… but life and love does go on.
There are benefits that come out of loss if you choose to find them. Through loss we can gain a renewed appreciation for what it means to live and love. We can learn to harness and cherish the precious time given to us, acknowledging that it can all end unexpectedly. We can strengthen bonds among those that remain. We can bear more of a load on shoulders broadened by trial and adversity. We can recognize that it is better, truly, to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all. We are always better off for love.
Be patient with one another out there. Find the intentions behind words, and forgive one another for never fully understanding. It is such a challenge to truly walk in another’s shoes. Try not to be too critical when someone inevitably falls short, especially if you can tell the attempt is rooted in love. Trust me, it’s something I still struggle with 13 years later, but when I’ve been able to succeed, it is absolutely worth it.