I gotta say something. In this age of astounding access to information and connection, there’s opportunity to experience grief and NOT allow it to turn you into a horrible person. Right at our fingertips, we have crazy advances in psychology, sociology, self-improvement, therapists, medicine and health sciences (I know I’m forgetting a multitude of other areas of study) ALL DEDICATED TO MAKING US LIVE BETTER LIVES.
And then we turn around and let our grief destroy us? Destroy our relationships with not just our friends, family, and communities, but even ourselves?
I can’t accept that. I have more faith in us.
And let me be clear, I have screwed up. This is not me pretending like I have it all figured out, like I got it right. But damn it, at least I’m trying. In my grief journey I have been a shitty daughter, granddaughter, sister, aunt, friend, roommate, coworker, employee… but each time I messed up, I let myself move forward by learning from it. Sadly, some lessons I had to hammer in multiple times, or even still stumble on. That’s okay. I’m not asking any of us to be perfect.
I’m asking us to believe in ourselves.
The only way to become a better person is to believe, right now, that you already ARE ONE. And then you’ll start behaving like it. You will never be better if you are still thinking your “current self” is no different from the person you wish could be your “old self”. You’ve got to let that old version exist only in the past.
I would not be the woman I am today without the last five years. I would give them back in a second to have my mom, but that’s not an option.
There’s always some pushback in my mind: how dare you even insinuate for a second that you’re grateful for what happened? How sick to find a silver lining in something so awful.
Well, I’ve compartmentalized. In my opinion, the death and the grief are two separate things.
I get it, one cannot exist without the other. But with these two categories, I’m able to make this distinction: I didn’t have a say in my mom’s death, but I DO have a say in my grief. There are things I can do now to get a better deal out of this. Perhaps this may have to become a series, because this is already too long.
So today’s topic- empathy as an ally.
I’m gonna do that cliché shit where you define the word, but I think it’s important because this is currently a hot button issue. Allyship: supportive association with another person or group.
Supporting someone other than yourself. It doesn’t say how, it doesn’t say who, or in what context.
For the rest of this post I ask that you try to keep this broad, literal definition of allyship. Because it applies to innumerable scenarios- not just the specific one that comes to your mind as you read.
When someone tells you about the shit going on in their life, what do you say? I’m sure you can call to mind those cringey moments where someone tells you something sad and awful, and you feel the immediate discomfort of your own helplessness.
So you overshare. And commandeer the conversation with your own troubles, leaving the other person feeling unseen and unheard, pushed entirely out of the picture. Invisible. -or- You undershare. And leave that person with the impression that you can’t (or won’t) understand, so they’ve revealed themselves for nothing. Vulnerable.
Invisible or naked, they’re alone.
And that kind of alone is as bad as it gets.
Whenever I find myself in that scenario, each time I try to strike the same note: “I will never be able to understand what you’re going through because every situation is so different- but I have understood pain and loss of my own, and I’m here to be a safe place for you to let that out.”
Even if someone tells me their mom has cancer, something I have experienced, that’s what I say. Because I don’t know what kind of cancer their mom has. Or what stage. Or how old she is, or what their relationship is like, or where they live in proximity to one another, etc. The infinite number of combinations of factors in our grief make every situation different. But… loss is loss.
Both parts of this response are important. I might as well just straight up say “I know pain intimately, but I won’t be an absolute asshole and act like an expert on yours.”
And I think we could all use a bit more of that approach lately.
Time after time in 2020, I looked around the world around me in incredulity because I didn’t understand how so many people could be numb to the pain of others- the pain of sickness, oppression, and mental health crises. I wonder if I would have been as empathetic if I hadn’t gone to my own kind of dark place of fear, helplessness, and loss before.
When I saw everyone attacking each other, I thought, you just DON’T GET IT. How do you not get it?!
And now I realize that’s the literal problem.
They didn’t get it. They didn’t understand. They hadn’t experienced significant loss yet.
OR they had- and then didn’t grow through their experience with grief. They didn’t let it open them up, they allowed it to shut them down. They don’t draw parallels between their own grief and that of others because it’s so easy to feel like our grief is unique and singular.
We simply HAVE to counteract those pitfalls and hold that duality of personal and universal together, one in each hand outstretched, offer it up to one another.
This past year, I saw my black friends grieving for their community and hurting, and raged at all the dismissive responses I heard.
I have learned myself that it takes courage to tell someone you’re hurting. And here was a whole group of people, offering their vulnerability, telling us just that. The amount of deaf ears it fell upon killed me, but not nearly as much as it killed them.
And now our AAPI folks.
I could go on. The list of people hurting, in a multitude of ways, after this year seems endless.
I will never understand sorrow for a whole community. For a whole ethnicity. It’s impossible to comprehend.
But that fact can’t be a cop-out, can’t be an excuse to not even try to empathize.
We’ve got to reach out both hands and say, “On the one hand, I get it. On the other, I never ever will.”