John Steinbeck wrote, “We are lonesome animals. We spend all our lives trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — ‘yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’”
In no other life experience is this need to share stories as vital as with grief. In other life transitions, such as graduating from school, falling in love, having a baby, there are other people around to share the experience, to tell their stories. In the case of graduation, there are your classmates, and hopefully, at least one of them is your confidant. When falling in love, there is the lover with whom to share the experience. When becoming a parent, there is the other parent, and if not that, maybe a mother, grandmother, midwife, sister, friend, someone who knows the same trials and terrors and awe and sheer love you are experiencing.
But when it comes to grief over the death of a spouse, life mate, soul mate, we are alone. Often, we are the only person in our circle of acquaintances who have had to deal with such a loss, so the loneliness is exacerbated beyond our ability to cope. Our friends and family don’t understand, can’t understand. Everyone has grief in their lives, but the all-consuming grief after the death of the one person who meant life and meaning and connection is simply not understood or even understandable by the uninitiated. We grievers don’t even understand. It doesn’t seem possible that one heart/soul/mind can be in such turmoil, and survive.
Yet we do survive, often by seeking out the stories of those who have been where we are.
The responses to a recent grief post, Note to My Grieving Blog Visitors, illustrates the need to share our experiences. I went to a grief support group until I got kicked out because they didn’t think I was grieving enough. Despite the ignominious end, it was an important time for me. I heard other people’s stories, both from the newly bereaved and those who have lived for months without their mates. I have often written about grief over the years, and people have shared their stories with me. They found comfort and inspiration in my words, I have found comfort in their telling me, “Yes, that’s the way it is. That’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.”
I often think of the blog reader who told me at the beginning that she’d lost her husband ten years previously, and though she was happily remarried, she still grieved for him. It helps knowing that we don’t forget, because yes, that is a fear. We hold tightly to our grief because it is the only thing we have still connecting us to our deceased beloved. If we loosen the hold, will we forget? The truth is, there are days I forget, but there is in me a void remaining where he once resided in my heart and soul, and even if I forget that I once loved, once was so connected to another human being that he almost pulled into the abyss with him when he died the void holds the memory.
I’m glad there is a growing trend toward blogging about grief. Grief is one of those things that no one wants to acknowledge. They have to believe we did something wrong, that we purposely lost or misplaced our loved one, otherwise the thought that the same thing could happen to them would be more than they could bear. They urge us to move on, not just for our comfort, but for theirs. They don’t like the reminder of death and mortality that hangs on our shoulders like a mantle, so they want us to shrug off the mantle of grief and get on with the business of living, without ever realizing that grief is how we are going about the business of grieving.
The metaphor of the cloak of grief does not originate with me. After about three months of writing about grief, a fellow writer, a widower, told me it was time for me to drop the mantle of grief. I didn’t, of course. It might have been important for him to pretend his life was the same, but I couldn’t. I felt the need to tell the truth. My intense grief shocked me to my core. It seemed astonishing that even though I’d read tens of thousands of books, seen thousands of movies, read copious article, that never once did I come across talk of such intensity. Oh, there is always that one old woman in widow’s weeds in mafia movies falling on the coffin of her son and screaming her anguish. This scene always seems so over the top and is played up for the almost comic melodrama, but comes closest to how grief for a spouse or child feels. (In fact, the death of my younger brother killed my mother; she died exactly a year later.) But mostly, there was silence when it came to grief such as I’d experienced.
So yes, it’s important to tell our stories. We need to know that whatever we feel, others have felt the way we do. We need to know that despite the belief we can’t survive either the death of our loved one or our grief, we will. We need to know that we will never forget. We need to know that life goes on. We need to know that we are not as alone as we think we are.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator