My heart is ripped open again. Raw memories 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.