After Emily died, there were so many cards, calls, comments, and letters that came in. Most of it is a blur. There were so many things that were said- in all honesty, I tuned most of it out. Mostly out of self-preservation. There are only so many times you can hear the same phrase before it makes you want to explode. On a side note, I have the same feelings about lunchmeat trays. It sounds ungrateful to complain… but take it from me- there is a reason why lunchmeat is not considered a comfort food. I know lunchmeat trays serve a practicality purpose by feeding several people with little effort. And I also know food is usually the last thing on your mind- but I distinctly recall weeping at the sight of the stuffed shells our neighbor brought us. And Ms. Eileen is still my hero for that chocolate cake.
But I digress- back to the comments. One comment in particular that was made has stuck with me:
“Losing someone gives you automatic membership into a club that no one wants to join.”
Almost three weeks ago there was a helicopter crash that killed seven Marines who were on a training mission for their deployment to Afghanistan. My friend Mark’s son was one of the Marines. Mark was the pastor of my church growing up when I lived in Alabama, and is one of the greatest people I know. I didn’t know his son Ben very well. He was two years older than me. And when you are junior-high aged, two years might as well be twenty. Ben was one of the “big kids”. But you don’t have to know someone to be affected by their loss. Ben was thirty-one years old. He has two young children. He was a son, a brother, a father. And while I can’t say that I knew him well, it’s jarring when someone who’s your age is suddenly and tragically…gone. It goes against the natural order of things. I don’t understand life sometimes. It doesn’t seem to play fair.
Pastor Mark has been posting a lot on his facebook. As I read some of his posts- his pain is almost palpable. I ache for him. I ache with him. I ache with the kind of hurting from deep within a heart that’s been there. I find myself wanting to say “I know what you’re going through”. Which is ironic- because I hate that phrase. But I finally understand why people feel the need to say it. You say it because you desperately want to convey that while you don’t really know what the other person is going through, you still know that sense of loss. No two losses are the same, and every relationship is different. Every dynamic, every piece of past and history, every aspect is different. But the underlying grief is the same. The sense of loss, of emptiness, and of a pain too deep to put into words- that’s the same. While everyone grieves differently, there is a weird sort of camaraderie between people who have lost someone. It’s not a knowing of how someone feels, but a knowing that on some level, there is a shared sense of emptiness. There just isn’t an expressive enough way to convey its meaning, so the phrase tends to fall flat. So even though it doesn’t express itself well… I do understand now the depths from where the phrase comes from. But when you’re struggling through one of the deepest tragedies of your life, the last thing you want to hear is someone saying they know what you’re going through. At least that’s how it was with me. I didn’t care. It didn’t help knowing that there were other people in my shoes. I was so sick of people comparing their stories of loss to mine. I was tired of nodding along in “shared sympathy”. I didn’t have the energy or strength to be gracious.
Now that I’ve moved beyond that initial raw and hurting place, I do find a little bit of solace in sharing with people who’ve been through it. Everyone reaches that place in different stages. And those stages aren’t always permanent. It’s been almost 4 years since Emily died, and my stable ground is still pretty shaky. I feel caught in the “in between”- somewhere between grief and healing. It’s a strange place to be. It’s the place where you know that the hole they left won’t close, but you’ve learned to live with the emptiness.
One of Pastor Mark’s posts talked about how he was holding onto Ben’s dog tags like a rosary. For a year, I kept something of Emily’s in my pocket. Without realizing it, I’d find myself running it through my fingers- exactly like a rosary. You think that grief is something that’s personally yours- but it’s strange how our patterns of dealing with it can be so similar.
I’ve found myself starting to comment a couple of times on Pastor Mark’s posts. But then I catch myself and think “Ok, is this something YOU would have wanted to hear? Is this going to help him… or help you?” That caught me off guard. Grief really is selfish. Some of the sharing and telling of grief isn’t necessarily to help the person who is grieving. It’s a subconscious form of therapy. It helps me understand some of the comments people made to me. But that’s now. When it was then, I was pissed.
So I find myself saying less. There’s a time for words, and there’s a time for silence. There’s a time for flowery sentiments and there’s a time to simply say “I care”, and nothing more.
For me, the worst part was when people went back to “normal” life. When the cards stopped. When the e-mails stopped. When the phone finally stopped ringing. When the first anniversary came around and the world didn’t stop. When people stopped being so forgiving when I snapped and sniped because they forgot that my heart was still shattered. That’s when you need the grief club. That’s when you need the gentle reminders of “I understand your sense of loss”. I find myself wanting to give him a head’s up- “here’s what is coming your way. Be prepared!” But each journey is different. And knowing what’s coming doesn’t make it any easier to prepare. And it certainly doesn’t make the hole that won’t close any more visible.