Who Gets to Say They’re Grieving?

I was going to start off this post with a story. And then I realized I don’t want that to distract from the message I feel is so vitally important to the purpose of my site.

So let’s get this straight right now.

I believe that if you have experienced any sort of loss or pain, it is real. And it is relevant. While I do think that perhaps some losses are more profound and consuming than others, I also want you to understand that I don’t think “loss” has to specifically be a death. Yes I lost my mom, but my hurt does not undermine or top anybody’s.

In fact, I have had bizarre, trapped-in-my-own-head moments in which I would diminish my own grief. I would sit there thinking (obviously irrationally) that it was silly for me to be so sad, I had only lost my mom. Even just writing that, I can’t believe that thought ran through my head. I think my brain was trying to shut down the hurt. It was trying to minimize the loss so it could turn off the flood of pain in which it was drowning.

I only lost my mom.

I remember telling my therapist that I had thought that. She looked at me with such sadness.

I don’t want any of you to feel like that. Or think like I did.

Any type of loss that is sharp and raw and meaningful is going to stick with you for awhile. Loss of your family. Of your identity. Of your place in this world. Anything that feels completely unfair. Anything that seems too wrong to be able to exist. Grief shows up in all kinds of clothing.

I want you all to be here. You have the right to be here. You have the permission to grieve.

So what was that story I was talking about? Well…

We had this truly wacky teacher in high school. I mean, he was hilarious. He would tell us stories of the trouble he got into as a teenager, he collected his students’ hunting trophy pictures and created a collage of them on the wall behind his desk. He had a deer head mounted high up on the wall right above my desk. (Montana, am I right?) He was the “fun” teacher. Beneath all that silly exterior, though, was a truly kind and perceptive man. Maybe that’s the reason they assigned him to teach our Religion class for Senior Year. While he didn’t particularly seem like a theologian, everyone could tell that he had some wisdom to dole out.

Our first day of class, he assigned us a one-page essay on a personal topic to bring to the next class session. I don’t quite remember what the question was, but it was like a journal prompt- it had nothing to do with religion. When we showed up with our papers in hand, he made us each read our papers aloud. One by one.

We were shocked. We just wrote down a bunch of our personal thoughts, and now we had to share them? With everyone? But this set the tone for the whole class. We had already been tricked into sharing our unguarded thoughts.

From that day on, it gave everyone permission to simply… write our truest thoughts. I recall with such tenderness all those shaking hands and voices as they read- those little high schoolers, learning that it’s okay to let your walls down.

There was a person in my class with whom I didn’t really see eye to eye. I don’t usually dislike people, but this person was so different from me and could come across as, well, pretty mean.

One day they came to class and read their paper out loud, and it shook me to the core. They had been secretly carrying a burden I couldn’t have possibly imagined or assumed. How could I have such dislike for someone who had experienced so much pain? I can’t tell you what the story was- because it’s not mine to tell, and I want to respect that. The important lesson here is that I had had absolutely no clue. Their story had nothing to do with a death. And yet the grief and loss of this story had the power to change my life and, in some ways, change who I am.

I realized that I had had no right to judge them. At the age of 17, I became a gentler, more compassionate person in the span of 10 minutes.

This memory has a special little corner in my mind, and I rediscover it constantly. Our Religion teacher who hadn’t said a word about religion had taught us the most essential part of it- to love and have compassion for one another- to recognize ourselves in each other.

I use this example, because not only did my classmate’s grief have nothing to do with a physical loss, but also because I think it’s easy for us to get wrapped up in our own pain. In our own injustices. In thinking that we are the only ones hurting. Not because we’re full of ourselves, necessarily, but because we hide our pain so well from each other. We walk around without any clue what the people around us have experienced or are actively dealing with.

Let’s try to remember that if we expect others to respect our grief, then we need to be sensitive to the pain of others in return. Be generous with each other.


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