Extraordinary Empathy of Grief

My heart is ripped open again.   Raw mThe loss of light - a sunset signifying the empathy of griefemories have returned that had just started to fade  – of those last days before Larry died and the days and weeks just after.  A family member lost her husband last week and I have come to know the extraordinary empathy of grief.

I don’t just think about her loss with sadness, I vibrate with the pain of it.   I literally feel her pain in my body, making me want to reach across the miles and join my broken heart with hers.   I want to take away their pain but all I can do is tell her to be gentle to herself, that there is so much chaos of emotion to come, so many ups and downs.  I want her to know that whatever she feel sis ok, and that if she feels the world has changed for her but not for anyone else, that it has changed for me as well.

I heard an unusual interview between Steven Colbert and Anderson Cooper in which they discussed their grief over the deaths of their parents.    Steven Colbert commented that all of life is a gift, including these painful deaths.  Anderson Cooper couldn’t seem to agree or to understand at first.  Colbert explained that if not for his own grief, he would not have understood Cooper’s grief in the same way.  He would not have been able to write the condolence letter that so touched Cooper.

I guess it is one of the gifts of being human that we can feel for one another.  It brings us closer even in our aloneness.  I know there are many other life experiences that I truly didn’t understand until I went through them myself – getting married, having a child change your life, empty nester syndrome, losing a parent as an adult, etc..  Is that the key difference between sympathy and empathy?  The experiential quality of understanding?

But even in the shared experience of losing a husband, our experiences are different.  My loss, coming home after the funeral with no family within a thousand miles, is different than her loss, surrounded by children and siblings.  My loss, after years of Larry’s illness and watching him lose his body slowly, is different that her loss after her husband’s very brief illness.   And different from another family member’s loss of her husband after a sudden accident.

So while I feel that extraordinary empathy of grief, I also feel incredibly alone in this renewed recollection of the days and weeks surrounding Larry’s death.  I wake in panic, a feeling almost like an electric current running through my body and a heaviness in my chest.  The hours of the day pass slowly, even though I am doing things, and when darkness falls, even the minutes seem long.

I worry about what next, and tell myself not to worry.  I work at staying in the day.  And then the worry returns.

I know that these awakened memories will start to fade again and some of the happier memories will take over.  And I will continue to make new happy memories. In the meantime I can only be gentle with myself.  And be grateful for the gift of being able to feel this empathy of grief, even as much as it is painful.


Five Months and Not Fitting

These things don't fit together
They don’t fit

It’s a little over five months since Larry died.  Just writing that makes me sigh.  I’ve been feeling different – it’s this intense sense of not fitting anywhere.  Anywhere!!!

I love my house but I feel like it just doesn’t fit.  I have good friends and neighbors but I feel like I just don’t fit into the activities we do.  I have visited my kids around the country and I sure don’t feel like I fit where they are.  I went back to Cape Cod where Larry and I lived four years ago and I don’t feel like I fit there either.

I don’t know what other words to use.  It’s an awkward, uncomfortable feeling.  It’s more than not belonging.  It’s more than being single in a world of couples. It’s more than not having the one person in the world you’re completely comfortable with.

It’s more visceral than that. It’s physical. Like my shape isn’t right for the space I’m in.  It makes me crazy – I want to do something to change it, to make the feeling go away.

Do what?  Sell the house?  Move?  Move where?  Get a job?  Doing what?  Everyone says don’t make a major decision for the first year, but what do they know about these feelings?

It was just this week that I started to explore the idea that this is just grief in another form.  Duh?  It doesn’t show up as before, crying, intensely missing Larry, being lonely.  I mean I feel those things, although perhaps less often during the course of a day.

I realize this grief is more about a sort of proprioception of identity.  Proprioception is the sense we have of where our bodies are in relation to our surroundings – what keeps us from running into walls and furniture.  It extends to things we ride and drive (which is amazing when you think about it) so we know pretty much where the edges of our car or our bicycle are.

My identity for many years came from a life tied fastly to other lives, one with many – parents, kids, and of course Larry.  In these last few years my life wasn’t a separate life running parallel and along with Larry’s anymore but rather so intimately bound in time and space and goals and outcomes that our two lives became one life.  My proprioception of myself was of that whole one life encompassing us both.

So the space I took up in relation to what was around me was of that entwined two lives.  And now I am only one half of that.  I don’t take up all that space.  So I don’t feel like I fit.  A horrible simplified analogy is a fitted sheet that you’ve ripped in half and are trying to fit on your bed.  Or to go the opposite way, driving a tractor trailer after you’ve been driving a Mini-Cooper.  It’s wrong-sized.  Life feels wrong-sized to me.  I’m like Gulliver on his four travels – not fitting in anywhere he went.

It helps to name it grief.  To see these new feelings as part of the process of letting go of the old life, of letting go of Larry, of starting to create a new life.

It isn’t absolute reality that I don’t fit.  It’s just a feeling.  My neighbor said “Nancy, you do fit.  You just feel like you don’t fit.”  Feelings come and go. I’ll just have to breathe and grieve and let time pass as I figure out where the edges of my identity are again, and where I am in relation to my surroundings.  Easy to write and hard to do!