I’ve spent a lot of my morning tracking down the ways people have shared my article on surviving the holidays. It’s pretty humbling. As a life-long introvert, I’m not accustomed to being so visible. Certainly, early on in my grief, I didn’t want to be visible at all. But like many introverted people, I deeply enjoy being useful. Being useful through words is what I do best. It’s a way to be alone-together with thousands of people. It’s a way to say “you’re not alone;” to give some measure of comfort to those in pain. It’s a way to recognize each other.
But here’s where this relates to grief, especially new grief. If an intense loss has erupted in your life, one thing you’ll hear often is “you’re not alone.”
And that isn’t really true.
You are alone in your grief. You alone carry the knowledge of how your grief lives in you. You alone know all the filaments of story and of love that fly through you. You alone know how deeply your life is now changed. No one, no matter how many times they say “I love you,” no matter how well they do love you, no one can enter into your true mind and heart and be there with you. It’s not just semantics.
There’s a story that makes rounds through the grief world – it’s called “The Beduin’s Gazelle,” from the book Arab Folktales (though you wouldn’t know it by that name, most likely). In the story, a man finds his young son dead. To soften the news for his wife, he wraps his son in a cloak, and tells his wife that he has brought her a gazelle from the hunt. In order to cook it, she has to borrow a pot from a home that has never known sorrow. Of course, she goes door to door in her community, and everyone shares a story of loss that has come to their family.
The wife returns home empty handed, saying “there are no pots that have not cooked a meal of sorrow.” The man opens his cloak, revealing his son, and says, “it is our turn to cook meals of sorrow, for this is my gazelle.”
One interpretation of this story is that everyone grieves. Whether it’s this version of the folktale, or the version with the guru and the mustard seed, or any of the other versions you might find, that’s the common take-away: everyone grieves. Not one household, not one life, is without pain.
What I hate about that interpretation is the implied second half of a statement like that: everyone one grieves, therefore your grief is not special.
In other words: buck up. You don’t get to be cared for in your pain, because everyone is in pain. You’re asked to downgrade your pain simply because others have felt it too.
But there’s another way to look at this.
As the woman walked from house to house, not yet knowing the grief awaiting her at home, she learned the pains of others. She learned, in advance, which families had suffered the loss she was about to face. Without knowing it, she laid the groundwork for finding her own tribe-within-a-tribe. The universe preparing her in advance for what was to come, whispering in her ears: meet them. Know them. You will be alone in grief – searingly alone, and these are the others who will know exactly what that means.
The truth is, you don’t have to buck up. That other people have experienced pain, even pain that looks a lot like yours, is not meant as a solution to grief. It’s meant to point the way to those who understand.
No one can enter the deepest heart of grief. That is yours alone. We here, the ones who know this pain, we are both with you, and not with you.
Our hearts have held great, great sorrow. As our words knock on the doors of each other’s hearts, we become way-stations for each other. Together, we recognize each other, and bow to the pain we see.
You aren’t alone.