After the death of my husband, I struggled for a long time to find a place where I felt like I could feel safe and talk about my experience and my grief; a place where I “fit in”—but no matter how much I looked, I couldn’t find it. I became a serial group-flee-er. I’d find a grief group, go once and never return. I’d either be the youngest person in the group or someone might say something a little off so never felt truly safe in those settings to express how I really felt. Now, thinking back, it didn’t have anything to do with the people, per se, but more that I didn’t feel safe addressing my own experience. Saying it out loud meant it was real and it really happened, and I wasn’t quite ready to talk about all that encompassed my reality.
I did find a group of widows who met, that I tried out. It was the second winter after my husband’s death and I was a wreck. Winter is a snowball of special memories for me, and so when it hits, it hits hard. I desperately wanted someone to relate to, someone who could validate my experience, someone to remind me I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t the only one. The first few minutes after I was grabbing a drink and met a widowed mom who also had multiples (triplets) and another child, for a second I felt some hope. Maybe this was the friend, the mentor I had been praying for. I told her that I had twins and another baby and that my husband had recently passed, and she quickly replied, “Oh, well I have you beat…” I don’t know if she was trying to be funny or totally serious, but in my hyper-sensitivity that is new grief, I felt crushed and a little offended.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve run into stuff like this. I’ve heard, “Oh you should meet my sister…she just got divorced…you’d have so much in common” “Oh, my husband is out of town working a lot, so I’m a single mom, too.” Or “Well, at least you’re young and you can get remarried…” It’s as if I opened the doors for others in grief who also desperately want to relate, to connect and to share, but it more often than not, seemed to backfire on me in my raw and new grief journey. Here, I offer an idea that perhaps can be put into practice: Allow people’s grief to be their worst—it’s not yours, it’s theirs. They need to share the loss that broke their heart, that turned their life upside down, that took them to their knees with the realization that we live in an unfair world where bad things happen to good people. There’s no comparing someone’s grief and loss to your own. It’s not possible because you are the only one who experienced your loss…it’s yours and yours alone.
“Allow people’s grief to be their worst—it’s not yours, it’s theirs.”
We can’t go around saying, “I’ve got you beat..” or “well, gee, why am I so upset and sad over my loss, I had 50 years with my husband and she only had four years and was left with little kids…” or “What’s my problem, I have a job and a place to live, I’m not living in places where people are starving on the streets every day…” But we do try to reason that way. In an overly positive pop culture, we try to talk ourselves out of our loss, that others have it worse. But it’s OK for your loss to be the worst—because in your own personal circumstance, your loss is the worst. If the only experience of loss you have experienced thus far in life is the loss of your dog and you struggle for a while mourning that loss, it’s OK. If the only loss you’ve experienced is the loss of a dream job; it’s OK to feel that loss and share it.
There’s one caveat, however; we HAVE to allow others the space to feel their own loss. Once someone has experienced profound and catastrophic loss, I believe it has the power to unlock in you a sacred space for empathy and compassion for others that wasn’t there before your loss. I know that many of the people who were on the front-lines of lifting my family up were people who were going through their own grief journey, too. With that empathy and compassion comes the responsibility of also being a caregiver to other people who are grieving and hurting, and allowing them the space to feel that fully in their own circumstance. Being sensitive to the timing of things when on the other side of grief—those whose grief is further out– can be so helpful and healing to someone else whose loss is new and raw. It’s not until we can give our fellow grievers the validation and space to feel their own loss without any comparison to our own, that we ourselves can tell our stories and create that bond.
I’ve talked to a lot of grieving people these past these two years and I think it’s unanimous that the one comment that is the hardest one to swallow is, “I understand” or “I can totally relate.” The second you say that to a grieving person, they will shut down and probably not want to share with you anymore. It’s not that you can’t understand pain and loss and loneliness, but how it comes across to the other person is that his/her loss isn’t unique. If someone trusts you enough to open up to you about their loss, it may not be the best time to reply with something like, “Oh, I know how you feel, my grandma’s sister’s friend died of cancer too.” We say, “I know how you feel,” yet we can’t possibly know how anyone else truly feels.
Grief is very inward and personal because you’re the only one who had that relationship with the person who died or you were the only one who had your own personal dreams of a marriage that didn’t end up in shambles, or the parent experiencing raising a special needs child—your child, no one else’s, or the couple planning for a baby, but instead struggling with infertility. Yes, millions of others have had these experiences too, but these losses are yours and yours alone; it’s your worst, and it should be safe for you to feel that. Putting your loss on the back burner while attempting to rationalize it by comparing it to everyone else who has it harder (or not as hard) than you is not validating your experiences. Until we can validate our own stories, it’s hard to share and hear others’ experiences.
No one will ever truly understand what you’re going through, or went through, but with that understanding we can empower each other to “feel all the feels” (thanks InsideOut) without comparing or relating or fixing or giving advice. What we can do is tell our stories and let others tell theirs, and learn from them. Tell your story, own your grief, and in turn, give others the space to do the same.