It’s been almost a year since I shared my tribute to Hope. After writing that piece, I found that I struggled to attach any significance to anything I began to work on afterwards; as a result, nothing has been posted since. While working on an unrelated project, I found a fragment of this post and decided to finish it and share it. I hope those of you who shared with me in “Keeping Hope Close to My Heart” will see this too.
Years ago, I read that a study conducted on grieving discovered that individuals in mourning found their pets to be a greater source of comfort than their spouse. Although I was only 15 at the time I read this, I remember thinking to myself, “How lonely are these people?” While I adored my miniature pinscher, my friends and family were emotionally available, communicative, and close. I had known nothing but comfort and support in the face of any misfortunes up until that point, so I wondered at the state of the participants’ lives. It was only when I had a chance to see grieving through adult eyes that I came to understand how this study could have reached such a conclusion.
I was fortunate enough not to experience tragic loss on a personal level for almost three decades. My grandparents were allotted a comparatively generous time on earth which they spent well, investing heavily in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives and leaving behind a legacy of love that touched many generations. Our family and extended family have been healthy and lucky. Even close family friends seemed to be protected under an invisible mantle of physical well-being; cancer, accidents, and disease were terrors that lurked only on the other side of the glass, just outside the reaches of my immediate social circle. It makes sense then, that when I experienced an abrupt, tragic, heart-wrenching loss in my family for the first time at 29, I was completely… devastated? Emotionally wrecked? Existentially demolished? The right word continues to escape me and I am becoming convinced that the right language to illustrate my emotional condition has not yet been written. So, I can only state that I found my grief to be beyond description.
The one facet of my grief that did not defy description, however, was that of condolence. “Condolence” is defined as “an expression of sympathy, sorrow or grief”, with many sources specifying death as an appropriate reason to express said condolences. What dictionaries are unable to define, however, is how completely inadequate condolences are.
When extending condolences, there is a list of culturally appropriate phrases for people to choose from. They include, but are not limited to the following:
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“My heart goes out to you.”
“We’ll keep you in our prayers.”
“Let us know if there’s anything we can do.”
These phrases are paltry, hollow weapons with which to arm an individual against the terrible dragon that is their grief. I was being consumed, the sharp teeth of this horrendous, ghastly Leviathan tearing my flesh and gnawing greedily at my bones. And people were sorry. For my loss. My tears were made hotter by the anger and resentment I felt towards well-wishers, my indignation rising at their inability to fully grasp the depth my my mourning. This was unfair of me because, to them at least, I was on the other side of the glass. It was our loss, and they could never experience it as we did. Still at a time when I resented my peonies for daring to bloom, reason did nothing to lessen my pained fury.
While condolences bounced weakly off the scales of my personal anguish, I found relief, comfort and even joy in the unlikeliest of sources; when I had cried in the arms of my husband, when I had held my sons for warmth and still felt the demons of sorrow scrabbling at my chest, I’d inevitably find myself watching our kitten. When I held Marvin on my lap on the way home from the adoption centre, I had no inkling of how much I would need him just a short time later. On days where my feet felt so heavy that I could barely lift them to trudge from one room to another, he’d go careening down the hall at top speed, weaving around my ankles and forcing me to put a spring in my step to keep from face planting. When I was sure that I would never smile again, that grief had permanently inoculated me against all joy, I’d find myself laughing just moments later at his kittenish antics. And, most importantly, when I found myself seized in a moment of anguish, my chest leaden with sobs, he’d find his way on to my lap and begin purring. Slowly, my tears would give way to the rhythmic cadence of his velveteen voice, his little white paws kneading away my pain. He was exactly what I needed him to be when I needed him to be it, with no thought for decorum or propriety getting in the way of him showing his love.
We tend to fear grief. Life goes by in a flash of sitcoms, books, funny pictures on the internet, and when the unthinkable happens and we are forced to take notice of it, our natural reaction is to treat it as an eclipse of the routine, refusing to look right at it and waiting for it to pass. Those in mourning are often given the same social handling as a leper. We want to make the situation better. We want to do something. But we are paralyzed by the idea that, while there is nothing we can do to make it better, there is always the possibility that we could make it worse. We don’t want to say the wrong thing, to do the wrong thing, terrified that we might exacerbate their pain, bring on a fresh onslaught of tears or put another crack in a broken heart. So we do nothing. We get a lily or an orchid with the pot wrapped in sedately-coloured foil. We pick out a card and drop it in the basket at the memorial. We shake their hands in the receiving line or maybe even give them an awkward, leaning-in upper-body hug. And we rattle off one of the socially acceptable phrases from the liturgy of mourning.
As I emerged from the deepest point of my own journey through mourning, I started to look at my own response to friends’ grief. I realized that I, too, have been guilty of assuring myself that a lack of awkward tears meant that I had condoled well and that my friends were okay. Now that I have mourned with Marvin, I understand how I can be a better friend when tragedy visits my side of the glass again. I know to bring a magazine so that they can enjoy a brief respite from sadness, whenever they see an ebb in their tears. I will be comfortable with them crying and feel free to cry with them, even if it is their grief that affects me more than the event they are grieving over. I know to be angry with them when they need to be angry, to help them burn through their rage instead of trying to bury it. I will swear. Scream. Be entirely unreasonable. Whatever they need. I will remember to reach out to them long after the event, because time does not erase the past and they need to know that someone cares about their present. Most importantly, I will acknowledge that they are in mourning, that something terrible has happened and that someone they love is gone. Just as the desert-weary Israelites looked on the statue of a bronze serpent to be healed from a venomous bite, recovery from grief requires us to look tragedy in the face. Knowing that those who care about you are facing the beast down with you weakens its clawed grip on you that much more.
To those of you who condoled, to those of you who asked, to those of you that recognized, to those of you who took the giant step of doing something simple, thank you.
To those of you still hurting, know that people mean even more than what they’re able to say, but it does take time to sink in. Until then, a kitten will be a furry balm for your soul.