The more I learn about grief, the more I learn how universal it is.
Recently, I learned that a friend’s brother passed away in a sudden, shocking accident, and I offered to get together with her, to listen.
We agreed we would walk together on the wooded path in Northampton that spills out on the Smith College campus. I hadn’t actually seen her in many years to socialize, but I knew that mutual understanding would connect us.
When I saw her, the first thing that struck me was the raw emotion on this tough woman’s face. It spilled over, and I remembered my own inability to keep myself in check in those first month’s after Ed died. I remembered the inability to think about anything except what I had lost.
So, I asked her to talk about whatever was on her mind.
She talked about her brother, their childhood and the close relationship they had had all their lives, and she talked about her fears and her limitations in her work and life. I was really amazed at the parallels in our grief, even though she lost a sibling, and I lost a spouse.
As we walked, I thought what was most striking was her fear that she would lose touch with her three nieces, her brother’s children. She worried that without her brother in her life, there would be no liaison, no connection to them any longer. She worried they would just slip away.
That resonated with me. After Ed died, I worried I would lose touch with my three stepsons, his children, and his grandchildren, who I had come to love. I had to learn, over time, that what connected us was not simply Ed but relationships we had each developed, and I told my friend that her ties with her nieces would grow stronger, not weaken.
I also told her I knew that that would be difficult for her to believe for a while.
The other familiar things I heard my friend say in our hour-long walk that day was that she found it very difficult to go grocery shopping. She also found it impossible to read for pleasure. I vigorously nodded my head.
“I didn’t go in the grocery store for weeks,” I told her. “I kept sending my daughters.”
We talked about both of those phenomenons, and we decided that grief causes a loss in a person’s general ability to focus. How does one choose between hamburger or chicken for dinner, or follow a plot line, if all they can think about is that their life is off kilter, seemingly over?
I asked my friend to tell me who else she was leaning on in these days, and I encouraged her to let people know she needed their help. As I said, she is a tough woman, unaccustomed to needing help, much more comfortable as the helper.
She said she was spending a lot of time with friends she had grown up with; they have been a comfort because they knew her brother so well.
A few days after we walked, she emailed me to tell me that she had relayed to these friends that she had walked along Federal Street in the woods. She learned from them then that the path had been a favorite playground of sorts for her brother when he was young, that he and these former neighbors had played in the Mill River together, roamed the woods. I could tell the images were comforting to her.
I didn’t tell her this then, but it is in this way – in her telling these stories with friends, family, her nieces – that she will keep her brother alive in her heart and spirit. It’s in this way that she will heal and find her way back to all the things in life that once made her happy.