The Shelf Life of Sympathy

I've had a rough year in terms of death. It began with the death of my mother sixteen months ago, followed swiftly by the passing of my mentor and close friend who I'd known and loved for 25 years. Then, after a brief respite, two of my childhood friends, who are still among my best friends, each lost a parent who'd been parents to me as well for most of my life. Each death felt like a body blow as the world became depopulated of people who knew me before I knew myself. And not only did I begin to feel like I was living in a fundamentalist version of hell where I was left behind, it quickly became apparent that the next generation waiting in the wings to greet the Grim Reaper would be me, my husband and my peers. Talk about a cold splash of water to the face.  The implications were legion and complicated and intertwined. And in my grief I barely had the headspace to unpack any of those boxes to look inside and see what was wrapped up in all those layers of confused emotion.

Mostly, I just hurt.   And I felt like maybe I was losing my mind. I did things that were totally out of character for me. Like driving 100 miles one way, stopping, and turning around to drive back. Sobbing most of the way. I'm sure the roads were super safe that day. I also ranted and raved, mostly at my family and closest friends. I went to bed early some nights and stayed up till dawn on others. I could not find a comfortable place for myself, no matter what I did or didn't do. I had to re-learn to live in a world that no longer included individuals who shaped not only my reality, or rather my old reality, but who also shaped me, because they had created boundaries to my universe, dictating what I did, and said and thought and even what I was willing to admit to myself that I felt. Without them I felt ethereal, that my essence was dissipating.

And mostly, people were awesome. At first. For a while. And then maybe less so. And then less after that. And the very first thought that came to mind was that sympathy definitely comes with an expiration date. Unfortunately, the one grieving doesn't get to decide when that date is. In my case, the expiration date was significantly short of the actual amount of time spent in the most intense throes of my sadness. I suspect this is true for most of us.

I was reminded if this phenomenon by two things, which, as I'm coming to expect, coincided in a way that seems increasingly unlikely to be coincidence. I'm rereading the Black Dagger Brotherhood series and thinking about Tohrment, whose mate and unborn baby are killed early in the series, leaving him grieving and seemingly irreparably broken until he's given a second chance in Lover Reborn. As are all the Brothers, Tohrment is a compelling character and JR Ward makes us feel every emotion that he feels. His pain, which goes on and on, drives him to do crazy, out-of-character things, like leaving his adopted/foster son, who is also grieving, and basically trying to kill himself so he can join his mate. His Brothers don't know what to do. And they are clearly discomfited, though happy, when he is returned, almost dead, but not quite.

The second event involved speaking with a friend who has recently lost her father.  She is lost in grief, simply lost. And it was so difficult to speak to her. Even though I know exactly what she is going through, the raw emotion, the intensity of her feelings, and my own helplessness to help her made me very uncomfortable. And I felt that way and behaved commensurately despite the fact that I know how disappointed I felt when others have presented similar reactions to me in my grief.

Why is it so hard for us to share a common human experience with each other?  Why do we react with what amounts to aversion to those who are grieving?  Why do we only tolerate our own discomfort in offering sympathy for just a short time after a death, and then expect the one grieving to take their tears and loneliness underground and out of sight?  I've seen this happen too many times to believe that this is not the norm.

We must think grief or misfortune is catching. We must believe that we might attract death to our door if we associate with others who have been visited recently. Or, as we have no idea what to say or do, the excruciating awkwardness of the situation compels us to avoid it.  I get it. But we need move beyond those initial feelings and offer support to those who need it.

The gifts of presence and witness are highly underrated. We don't have to do or say anything, in fact. We can just offer ourselves as fellow humans who either understand or don't. Doesn't matter. We can connect without saying a word or doing a thing. And we should. It's what we have to offer someone experiencing what we will all face at some point or another. There is no expiration date for grief and loss and it's inauthentic to pretend there is. We are all entitled to our feelings and we all deserve to feel connected to life through our fellows when that connection is interrupted by death. It’s what the Brothers do for Tohrment.

The way the Brothers surround Tohrment with their presence and love, without necessarily doing anything in particular, is instructive. It's another reason to read these amazing books. And the next time someone needs to affirm life after a death, let's all commit to overcoming our reticence and to behaving like the Black Dagger Brotherhood would.  And certainly we can behave as well as a group of mythical vampires whose job it is to save humanity, no?  WWBDBD?