I can’t even remember all of the people who sat in my kitchen and listened to me cry in the first few weeks of Shawn’s diagnosis. But I do remember them being there, and listening to me, and not usually knowing what to say, but staying nonetheless. They validated my feelings that things were horrible, that it was unfair, and that everything was impossible. “Of course you’re overwhelmed/frustrated/terribly sad” said everyone. No one tried to cheer me up with ridiculous optimism, and almost everyone let me really express my emotions.
This was a far cry from how people reacted when my mom died. Granted, I was only 19, so most people had never dealt with death and didn’t know how to engage with me. I also didn’t know how to engage with them, and so I usually felt sad and alone. But now I’m an adult, and so are the people surrounding me – and I know that being vulnerable is how we all will remain close. I’ve always talked openly with my friends about my life, and so I carried that into Shawn’s illness and death. And I’ve continued doing it the past few months while I deal with my sometimes very intense grief.
Just yesterday, as I was cleaning up the dinner dishes with my friend Becky, I was feeling really sad. It took me a minute to pin down why, but then I realized it was 6:30, right about the time Shawn would usually come home. My schedule has been so off lately that I hadn’t had a night like this one – where I got the kids from school and tag-teamed with another mom to feed them dinner and clean up the disaster afterwards. But it was right then as I washed the dishes that I realized that I was expecting him to walk in the door. When my mind snapped back to reality, I started crying. I told Becky why, and she sat with me as I had more than a few tears. She didn’t freak out and try and fix it, or say something ridiculous. She was just there at my kitchen counter as I talked through it, nodding her head and looking me in the eye.
It is uncomfortable to sit through someone else’s pain. I know because of the reactions I often received as a 19-year-old. It takes a certain degree of maturity to be present and supportive in situations like this. I think that’s why everyone told me right after Shawn died how important it was to be in professional therapy.
First let me say that I think therapy is great. One of my dearest friends in the world, Kelly, is a therapist and I know she helps many people. I see a great therapist who specializes in grief, and I think her ability to frame my pain is really helpful. But I will say this – many of my friends who lead lives as executives, stay-at-home moms, photographers, librarians, teachers and lawyers also all seem to have an incredible ability to share my grief with me.
I see my counselor for an hour a week. I probably talk to my friends at least 10 or 20 times that. So while I love my therapist, I also understand that getting everything I need from her would be impossible.
The one thing that neither my therapist nor my friends can offer me is a shared experience. For that I am grateful – I hope that the next time I have to help a friend through something like this is in 50 years. And so, I feel a need to find people who are like me. People who know grief, are living through grief.
A few weeks ago, I finally went to a spousal loss group. I had tried a generalized grief group, but when more than one person cried about losing a dog, I realized it wasn’t the right fit. I just wanted to find someone – anyone – who was like me. At the end of my first (and last) session with the generalized grief group, I talked to an older widowed woman about her spousal loss group she had previously attended. Tentatively, I said, “I want to ask a question that’s a bit odd, and I hope it’s not too personal.” She assured me I could ask her anything, and so I said, “I want to go to a spousal loss group, but I really just can’t imagine sitting there with a room full of older people. I think it will just make me feel even sadder. Are there ever young people in groups like this?”
What she said back was interesting. “There were a few younger people in my group” she noted. “But I think you will find that you can connect well with people of any age who’ve lost a spouse because it’s just such a unique experience.”
She was right. Because the spousal loss group is a confidential one, I won’t tell you here what I have heard from others. But I will tell you this – I am one of the youngest members, and the oldest person is pushing 90. And yet, no matter the demographics of the others in the group, I found myself crying through all of their stories. The way they feel is how I feel, even if we have different lives and different daily logistics. We all feel that hole in our hearts.
My friends – at least most of them – don’t have those same holes in their hearts. At least it doesn’t seem so. But no one’s life is perfect, and the 40-odd years we’ve lived seems to have let us all experience much more loss than we had back in college. Maybe that’s why they can sit with me, listen to me, and in many ways be like dozens of therapists. Most of them cannot truly understand the pain of the loss I feel, and for that I am grateful. For to truly understand, you have to experience it, which is why I need my loss group. But to just be with me through the horrible moments is true friendship, and something that doesn’t always take professional training. Sometimes it just takes love and about 40 years of life under our belts.