Friends of mine are grieving over their 14 year old dog. She was a family member, a quirky rescue girl who loved humans and hated other dogs, quickly turning into Cujo whenever she saw another canine. As far as she was concerned, her human family was her pack. Now her pack is heartbroken that she’s gone. They said to me, “We know you understand because you’re an animal person.” I was struck by the fact that they felt the need to explain their grief.

Another friend just lost his life partner of many years and is understandably devastated. When I reached out in comfort, he made it clear to me that I couldn’t possibly comprehend his grief because I’ve never suffered the loss of a partner with whom I’d shared decades. True…but I have grieved and I wanted to offer compassion.

So I’ve been thinking about grief a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about how we put different kinds of grief into separate cubicles, defining some as bigger, heavier, others as a bit lighter and therefore easier to get over. There is some validity to that thinking. The loss of a child can’t compare to the death of an aged parent. The loss of a spouse is of course a million miles from the loss of a beloved pet. But there is also this truth: Grief takes root inside us in the same way no matter who it is we are mourning. It literally makes the heart ache; it steals our breath and courses through our bloodstream. Every day seems like a vast river we’re being asked to cross, and we don’t know how we’ll do that without drowning.

It occurs to me that there is no benefit to separating grief into different categories. There is a large village of people who understand loss, and who want to help however they can when they see someone trembling on the banks of the river they too have had to cross. To tell any one of those villagers that they don’t understand because the source of their grief was different is to render them helpless. It’s possible to get through grief alone, but solitary journeys are treacherous. Ultimately, I don’t know if the circumstances of one’s loss matter as much as the emotional darkness that feels like it will never end. If there are people who can whisper to you that the darkness will in time lift, why would you turn them away?

Before I published my novel Till Human Voices Wake Us, in which the main character loses her child in a swimming pool accident, I did a reading from it at one of Eve Brandstein’s Poetry in Motion events. A woman told Eve afterward that she wondered how I knew what the character’s grief felt like. This woman had lost a child, and she knew I hadn’t, yet she said I got it so right in the novel. I wish she’d asked me that question, because I’d have told her that I dove into my heart, my soul, I pulled up the times I had grieved and I followed that river of tears. Maybe one of the lessons of grieving is that human beings are achingly similar, more alike than we are different. We’re also incredibly strong. It helps to be reminded of that — of how the human spirit can rise up from the deepest darkness and choose life again. It takes a village to remind us of that.


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