There Are No Small Deaths

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This post is in defense of those who have connections with other people we don’t understand. As I hope we’ve all experienced, it’s possible to meet a person and ‘get’ them, as if we are estranged best friends. Some of these bonds are stronger than those of family. It’s possible to feel closer to one’s fourth cousin than one’s grandmother. Bit players in our lives often morph into the main actors. By living in reverse, we don’t see their importance until they’ve stepped out and away from our lives.

Only the person experiencing the feelings of loss at a person’s passing knows to what depth those feelings reach. Tendrils of connection are often invisible, incomprehensible, and unknowable. It’s important that we abandon the false expectation that we understand the loss someone else is processing.

There are no small deaths.

Even with my best arsenal of words and passion, I sometimes struggle to describe the nuances of another person and their importance accurately. That’s the best-case scenario even when I’m communicating with someone who shares a great deal of humanity. It’s a fool’s errand with those who lack a common understanding.

When a person commits suicide, it’s human to question all your choices, as well as your attention to the person who has left us. Even without the shadow of self-harm, we tend to experience a depth of introspection when we lose someone.

Whether it’s fair or not, suicide strikes us an accusation. We have to give space to those who need more time to find first gear again. Implying that the loss isn’t a reason to grieve is an unacceptable reaction.

Because of the invisibility of many of these connections, one of the most traitorous acts you can do is to doubt or question whether the relationship was real when another person is suffering from the unexpected rupture and loss. “Did you know him or her very well?” or “Were you ‘friend’ friends?” both serve to undermine and accentuate the pain of the other human being you’re inadvertently demeaning.

“Only the spoon knows what is stirring in the pot” is one of my favorite clichés precisely because it reminds me that I’m not privy to all the information contained in a situation or between people. I’ve committed the error of assuming I know. Worse, I’ve judged people based on what I perceive as only imagined depth. Because I’m human and stupid at times, I fear that I’ll do it again.

A typical example of callousness is when someone says, “It was only a dog” in reaction to someone’s disabling sorrow at losing a pet. Such shallow and meaningless comments only serve to highlight the accuser’s fractured self. We should feel compassion for them, as they’ve been deprived of a pleasure in life that they’ll never understand. It was indeed ‘only’ a dog. The greater truth is that a human being had a deep love for that dog. You’re not demeaning the dog; instead, you’re demeaning another human being’s choices and authentic feelings. From the right perspective, such an attitude is monstrous.

Likewise, when people are involved, the callous person can’t know the person they doubt shared a bond with you. The connection isn’t measurable. We can’t see the swell of your heart or the yearning you wish upon the Earth to have this person inhabit your space again. Grief makes even the best of people uncomfortable. As you learn with age, it also unhinges people who have no foundation to come to terms with the helpless sorrow they see from other people.

Perhaps the person who passed once took a moment and literally reached out to let you know that you were seen, measured, and appreciated. Whether you were indeed at your rock bottom, their outstretched hand and openness pulled you out of the abyss. These moments create a bond that’s difficult to inventory – and treasured forever. Because these moments are often private and held close, those left behind are often the only witness to their measure.

As people die, it’s important to remember that grief is terrible, personal, and unknowable. Each time we’re the one experiencing the loss, if we are lucky, we suddenly remember the lesson of connection.

Time, with its caress and embrace, imperceptibly diminishes our pain, even as it prepares us for the next dark surprise.
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*…written for someone struggling with friends who don’t understand the loss…
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