Disclaimer: I don’t believe in comparisons of loss. The spectrum is infinite. There will always be someone better and less well off (especially if you look closely). Similarly, what “slings and arrows” one person easily endures can just as easily for another cause mortal wounds. To say my losses have been greater or heavier or more devastating is to steal someone else’s right to sorrows of their own. If we both survive a car crash and you lose both legs, but I lose only one, am I not allowed to grieve my lesser loss in your presence? The weights of life that I can easily carry may be too heavy for you. And the puzzling events you easily comprehend I might find inscrutable. It is for these reasons that I try to (try to) avoid comparisons—in any venue.
I believe in a community of loss. I endorse cooperative compassion. I don’t claim to have endured more, lost more, or suffered more than anyone else. I won’t try to puff up or tone down what I have endured. What I will do is hope that my grief carries me to new territories of empathy. Every time my heart breaks, I hope it grows better equipped to love well those who mourn. At the end of the day, I believe that’s the best thing I can gain from loss—empathy and love.
Do I know how to grieve well? Probably not, but I do know that I need to grieve to be well. Is there such a thing as good grief? I don’t know, but I do believe that there is good to be found in all grieving.
I have known loss. One Sunday morning, as I sat savoring a pre-Church brunch of Indian food in Cambridge, my mother was having a brain aneurysm in New York. I almost didn’t answer the phone, and when I did, the words I heard took all my strength from me. The air turned to poison and, as if someone had ripped the bones from my body, I could barely stand. A new and foreign pain enveloped me; it coated my skin, took root, and invaded my bloodstream.
I tried to get to New York as fast as I could, but as I prepared to board the plane I got the worst phone call I’ve ever received—the one telling me not to go to the hospital, to just go home instead. I understood that imperative’s grim meaning. Sitting alone surrounded by strangers on a forty-minute flight, I had to come to terms with the fact that my mother was no longer among the living. In that moment, I forgot death’s meaning—its definition leaked out of my mind. The word no longer made sense to me—not now that it was how my mother would hereafter be described.
I had been expecting death, but it still caught me off guard—coming from an unexpected direction. For months I’d been looking for death to come by way of my grandfather. He’d been gravely ill for a while, and over the course of the previous year, my father, mother, brother, sister, and I had each made the trip to Grenada to see him one last time. But he didn’t die—not then—not even after the second time I went to see him for the last time.
Six months after my mother passed away, my father, sister, and I took a trip to Fort Lauderdale to visit family. The loss of my mother was still an open wound. I think we all secretly hoped a change of scenery would be soothing. And just as the sun was beginning to do its good work, death again caught us looking the wrong way, finally coming to claim my grandfather while we were all still fixed on my mother’s passing. Exactly six months apart (to the day), my siblings and I lost our mother and grandfather; our father lost his wife and father. Even as I mourned, I was awe-struck by the unique enormity of my father’s loss—spouse and parent within a year. Mourning is a heavy burden, but watching a loved one mourn is only negligibly lighter.
There have been material losses as well. I’ve been robbed. My childhood home has stuck its toe in the whirlpool of foreclosure at least once. And then, just two days after Christmas two years ago, my husband and I saw our apartment destroyed by a fire. As a result, I know what it is to stand in the cold, nearly knee-deep in snow, and watch as an inferno defies control. I have stood at the threshold of my own home and barely recognized it—such was the extent of the damage.
Having lost what I’ve lost, I can’t say that I’m any good at grief, or have any advice for the grieving. But I do think there is something to be gained through loss. And I do believe there is good to be found in grieving. It is as natural and necessary as the seasons. It is the fall and winter of our souls. Every life will be touched by death and loss. Each one of us will be called to mourn—to experience grief. Whether we lose a loved one or a limb, whether it is our possessions or our dreams that are taken, losses will come.
The question I ask is not whether or when I will mourn, but how my grief can change me. I can pave over my heart and try to make it impenetrable—immunizing myself to the tougher feelings like sadness and anger. Or I can let my heart be softened and opened—my grief making me more sensitive to the grief of others. And while I may not share anyone’s particular loss or unique experience of grief, I can join the community of mourners and hopefully be of service—even if by simply being present. That, in my opinion, is good grief—grief that attends to the grieving, loss that leads to giving, and death that gives life new (or renewed) purpose and meaning.
“I will not say, “Do not weep,” for not all tears are an evil.” ~ Tolkien