Did you ever feel so consumed by your own grief that you have forgotten that others grieve too? That they grieve not only for the loss of your spouse, who may have been a friend to them, but possibly they grieve also for other people that you may know absolutely nothing about? Do you find that during this time of all consuming grief, you have forgotten that other people have suffered loss too?
Recently that realization has hit me hard.
For the last 19 months I have been consumed by my own grief and I didn’t have room to consider the possibility that anyone else in my life could be carrying around a similar, agonizing grief from their own past. That wasn’t on my radar at all. Lately though … lately my eyes have opened a bit to the world around me as I have slowly started to awaken from my drugged slumber (figuratively drugged, not literally), and I have been surprised to discover that others – not random strangers but actual people who are a part of my life – have suffered their own agonizing losses that I knew nothing about. How could I have not known??
Years ago I had a colleague who became a friend. We worked together for a brief period of time before I was transferred, and although we didn’t work together for long, she was one of those people I have always considered a friend regardless of time and distance. She’s someone you don’t forget.
The day after Ben died I had to go into my office building to meet with the Chaplain and I walked right into her for the first time in years. I recall that she called out my name, burst into tears and hugged me long and hard. I was moved by how much compassion she had for my situation, although I was far too deep into my own devastation to give it much more than a passing thought. On some vague level I recall being a little surprised by how upset she was on my behalf, but we are about the same age and have kids the same age so I guess I assumed that she could imagine on some level the difficulties I was about to face. It never occurred to me to consider that the reason she was able to feel my pain so deeply could be due to a past significant loss of her own. After all, her husband was alive and well, and although I knew her dad had passed away she was a middle aged adult by the time it happened and (although terribly sad and not something I want to even think about happening for many many years) it is just not quite the same thing. Anyway, I went on to my meeting with the Chaplain and pushed the thoughts of her and everyone else out of my mind.
Fast forward 19 months and this old friend contacted me recently to see if I wanted to have coffee with her and catch up. She came over and we visited for a couple of hours, and she let me ramble on endlessly about Ben. Fresh ears, you know? It was nice to talk about Ben to someone who hadn’t already heard all the stories about the nightmare we lived. I like to tell those stories because talking about it takes away some of the power that those memories have to hurt me, and of course I just like to discuss Ben in any way, shape or form. She was very compassionate and she was visibly moved by my loss, and I found that so touching. I mean, naturally I think there is no greater loss in the world than that of losing Ben, but to see someone else who never met him be so touched made me feel like she cares about living in a world where Ben does not exist. She made me feel as though she wished she knew him, and that made me feel good.
After having an emotional conversation for a couple of hours she eventually needed to leave (or escape), and as she was leaving she mentioned that her brother had been killed in an accident when they were teens. Just like that. She said she thinks about him every day. And in that instant I realized that not only had she lived a terrible, aching loss of her own, but she relived it through me because our conversation brought back memories of all that pain. For the first time in a long time I was overcome with an emotion that was not my own grief. I’m not even sure what it was. Compassion? Understanding? Guilt, shame or embarrassment over not having known and never having asked? Probably a bit of all of those. I recognized that she had lived through pain that was similar to my own. A terrible, life altering loss. The kind from which one never fully recovers. A kind of loss like mine. And although I had clearly understood on some subconscious level that there was more going on for her than just consoling an old, casual friend from the past, I had never stopped to ask her. I had never asked her why she seemed to understand so well, or why she clearly felt my pain so deeply. I should have asked. It never occurred to me that she could have ever had reason to grieve like I do.
Over the last 19 months I have never paused to ask her, or any of the other unexpected and random people who showed up to help for reasons unknown, why they seemed to understand just a little bit more than everyone else. Why had these people, some almost strangers, known exactly how to help, or exactly what to say? After all, these people didn’t know me well and couldn’t possibly know a pain like mine, right?
Clearly, I was wrong.
With regards to my friend who disclosed that her brother had been killed, I could probably use the excuse that we had never had the opportunity to develop and nurture a close relationship, so how could I have been expected to ask her if she had reason to know my pain? But the thing is … on some level I did know. I knew because her overt sadness on my behalf was more than most others felt. I could inherently feel that it was different, and I have felt that difference on a couple of other occasions. I’ve felt the difference from people who were merely acquaintances in my ‘real life’ but who felt compelled to reach out to me in a way that was subtly different from the rest. One of them, I later learned, had lost her sister when she was a teen. Three others had lost their fathers when they were teens. I had not known, but I feel like I should have. I feel like I should have asked.
So basically, that’s what I’ve been thinking about for the last few days. I’ve been coming to the realization that my pain is great, but it’s not greater than everyone else’s. (Although, as I’ve mentioned before, it is most certainly greater than those who lost a pet. I will stand behind that statement forever.) I’ve realized that there are hurting hearts out there all over the place, and I never knew it. Somehow, all these people managed pick up the pieces of their lives and move forward, and then use what they learned to be able to help people in need. They understand how much it hurts to have your heart broken, but they demonstrate how to be brave enough to allow it to break all over again for someone else, just so they can help that person.
Recently I was reading through my blog and I came across a comment that was written by my friend two years ago in response to the pain I was suffering. She wrote, “Oh my woman … how can a heart break so many times and still we live? It must have superpowers.” How true those words ring to me now, as I recognize all those hearts out there that have been shattered in the past, and still they put themselves back out there to help the next one. To be able to not only live after heartbreak but to use that pain to help ease the suffering of others is indeed a great, great superpower. I will not close my eyes to the pain of others any more. I choose that superpower.