When Chris broke off our engagement and told me he didn’t actually love me (click bait!), an older woman stopped me in the stairwell at work and said, “The loss you’re experiencing right now is no different than losing a child.” I instinctively knew she was wrong. But I knew what she was trying to offer me: that my loss was real, that consuming pain is consuming pain. I took from this woman the validation she intended to bestow.
It’s been very important to me along this road to call loss loss. Grief is grief. And God knows Chris’s death was only the beginning of the rapid fire tragedies in my circle of friends. So many of my close friends now know shattering loss. Girls nights at the gin bar are now informal grief groups, each of us with our bewilderment, our questions, our quiet tears.
There is something very precious about this bond of grief. It takes us places together that we could not otherwise know–mining the deepest places of our hearts, walking together, or just sitting together on the valley floor.
I think the unifying and universal nature of grief has made me afraid to delineate between losses. Part of this is because quantifying pain seems a fruitless endeavor. Pain is pain. Part of this is because I know that, truly, it all comes out in the wash. Or will. No one is exempt from the death of the person she loves most in the world. Part of this is because how can one rank loss? I know that delineation doesn’t mean ranking, but it can feel awfully close to it. I never want to come to the table somehow positioned near the top of a hierarchy. I never want the person I’m with in any moment to feel inherently silenced by a sense that her suffering is comparably too small to bring.
But lately I feel my gears grinding. Not just lately, actually. But the scrape of dry metal on metal has gotten louder. Harder to ignore. It’s jarring and blares out inside of me like a scream. And it says, in a voice that sounds like shaking sandpaper: You don’t understand.
It’s hard for me to even type that. I’m crying at the tension I feel in this moment, as every fiber of my being wants to qualify that statement, and there are many true qualifications I could give. We all have our very real versions of this.
What helps me say it–what helps me say, simply, You don’t understand–is that I’m finding, as time processes, that I also don’t understand. I said to a friend recently: I think I’m only now beginning to wake up to the reality of Chris’s death. When the atmosphere of your being transforms in a moment, in one quiet moment of dissolution, and you continue, in your next breath, with a different chemical compound in your lungs…. I guess the change is so cellular as to be imperceptible. The shock so thorough it can hardly be felt.
I walked out of the hospital that day in December and left Chris’s drying corpse on a bed there. I drove back home and entered my house where everything was the same except for his absence. The same house on the same street in the same neighborhood, the same front stairs and door and living room, the same playful kids, the same family members, the same friends all still there. We go to the same church, the same school, the same pool in the summer. A huge chunk is missing, but the picture is otherwise completely recognizable. So for even me it’s hard to see and say: Nothing is the same.
It’s taken me a while to realize how different is the air I breathe. How alchemized the water. It’s really just the grinding gears that tell me so. The dissonance between the air I breathe and the old words spoken into it by other voices. The sound doesn’t travel well. The gears grind. And then the scraping voice inside: You don’t understand. And oh, I almost hate myself for saying it again. Loss is universal. But Chris, my husband. One flesh with mine. How can anyone else understand what even I don’t.
In saying these words out loud, even if just to myself–in letting them exist as an at least partial truth–I find another reason why I’ve been afraid to delineate this loss from another. Because in the same cage of my heart where this statement resided waited a cast of characters I have largely kept quiet over these two years–ones I despise and don’t want to see. Jealousy. Resentment. Envy. Self-pity. They’re not flamboyant in their appearing but take turns, scurrying across my path like ghosts, right in between me and the people in front of me. I see through the trail of their fog.
I don’t want to resent my dear friend for expressing that it’s hard for her to have her two kids overnight without her husband when he works, but I do. I don’t want to envy the ease at which another friend says to me, “Be careful!” when I choose to spend time with a man I know I will not marry, but I do. She says those words as a woman with a living husband–the security and settledness there is deeper than she could possibly know unless it were taken from her. I don’t want to sit on the edge of my bed in the morning, paralyzed by the myriad things on my floor and to-do list and feel sorry for myself and my lot in this life, but I do. I do.
Here is one more thought: I think it’s true that when I endeavor to mark the vast differences between the griefs my friends and I endure, the delineation not only validates my unique experience. It validates and gives shape to the unique losses of my friends in a new way for me. I do not and cannot know the pain of losing a child. But tell me, dear friend, what that shattering feels like to you now. How are you holding it, the gaping hollowness, as you move through your days? I can’t understand, but I want to be with you there, even in my unknowing. And tell me, beloved sister, how you exist in the world without your mother? How many moments happen in a day when you feel a silent ache, deeper than anything you’ve ever known? I can’t understand, but I want to be with you there, even in my unknowing.
Dear God, help me hold it all.