To be alive is to be vulnerable, but to be human is to be sensitive in ways undreamt of by other creatures. All life forms are prey to death, loss, illness, and injury. But people also fear disappointment, ill-repute, and injustice. As was touched on last time, our values make us susceptible to considerable pain.
The most obvious and universal value is love, and it inevitably brings grief. No one we love will be with us forever, and except for those rare cases of simultaneous death, one lover always passes from this life before the other. The result is grief. No one who lives beyond youth escapes it, and many children suffer it too.
When I was five years old my grandfather died, and a beloved dog was stolen, never to return. I learned two flavors of bereavement that year. In the first case, I felt remorse. My father’s father seemed to me a frightening and humorless man. He often yelled at me and my cousin and never played with us. We made fun of him behind his back. When he died after a bad car crash, I couldn’t forgive myself for my disrespect. If only I could have gone back and behaved better, learned to love him more and tried to understand him.
The loss of the dog was tragedy tainted with guilt. My mother had received threatening notes about our pet, saying we would lose Inky if he continued barking and escaping into the neighborhood. After he disappeared, I never saw him again despite multiple trips to the police station and dog pound. I felt miserable, inconsolable. I also felt at fault; I might have forgotten to latch the gate. I should have been more careful.
These early losses were preludes to the major bereavement the following year. My mother had been suffering with severe depression after a painful divorce, cycling in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and openly wishing for death. Then one day she failed to return from her confinement for shock treatments. Her parents told everyone she died of natural causes, but suicide seemed a more likely cause of death given her oft-stated desire to die and her otherwise good health at age thirty-seven. It seemed obvious that she had taken her own life, a fact I understood even at age six.
That grief was unspeakable, shameful and untouchable. I felt crushed and utterly without hope. When our family moved to another town, I pretended my stepmother was my real mother until the woman’s cruelty toward me in front of my friends forced me to admit my mom had died. But even then I never named a cause of death. It was an awful, lonely secret. And as I hid the facts, it seemed as if I were betraying the only person who ever truly loved me.
There’ve been many losses since, of course. Three more grandparents (two of whom were almost like parents to me), a father, a beloved uncle, a remarkable cousin, a stepmother (whom I both loved and hated), two of my best friends (one to suicide), a number of other relatives, and then (just last year) my sister and only sibling. Each time there has been pain, regret, guilt, questioning, lost dreams, and hopelessness in varying combinations.
Grief is universal, as is the fallout from it.
Each loss feels different. If it comes with advance warning the death seems easier to bear than if sudden. If the person led a joyous life one feels less regret than if they were unhappy. If the relationship was harmonious there is less guilt than if otherwise. If nothing could have saved the loved one, there are fewer questions than if things could have gone better. If the person died elderly and frail, near the end of life with little opportunity for joyful experience, there is less sense of tragedy. And if the person was someone we spoke with rarely, someone with whom we only occasionally shared hopes and dreams, there is less sense loneliness and isolation.
Each grief is different because each relationship is unique, with its own special meanings. To lose a mother to suicide at age six is different from losing a sister to alcoholism at age fifty-three. Both losses are painful, but they are not the same. Death baffles a young child, and to be motherless is to be cut adrift in an unfriendly world. But one feels torment watching a loved one choose to continue a deadly habit despite constant warnings from her own body and protestations of love from those nearby.
To lose a child, they say, is the worst bereavement of all. Myriad hopes and dreams get crushed. The wish that one could have protected the son or daughter must forever haunt. I don’t know the experience of losing offspring, but just watching my pomeranian get killed by a large dog on the beach gave me a taste for how wrenching it can be to see a being you’ve nurtured from birth die while you are powerless to protect. I can’t imagine the far greater pain of losing a human child.
My father died suddenly, robbing me of the chance to offer the many apologies and praises he was owed. I would have loved to forgive him, too. So much regret. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t wish he were here for one last conversation. How many of us share such remorse?
And on and on.
My aunt lost her husband of six decades about two years ago. Talk about an unspeakable loss. I’ve been with my wife but twenty years and already feel so bonded that life without her is inconceivable. To overcome such a separation must be one of the greatest challenges of human existence.
But people move on after even the most painful losses. How do we overcome grief? By filling in some of the holes in our lives and making peace with those that remain. By forgiving ourselves and others. By recognizing the universality of suffering and bereavement. By finding faith in something greater than daily life with its bills, chores, and frustrations. By learning who we are without the beloved by our side.
I can offer very little here. Through the losses I’ve endured I’ve learned only one certain thing: grief lessens with time. It never ceases, but its horrible early sting dulls a bit, and one is left with a gnawing ache rather than a gaping wound. People regularly go forward after even terrible bereavement. What choice do we have?
Values bring vulnerability, and love brings the greatest vulnerability of all. Animals have been known to grieve; elephants in particular are recognized for behavior that looks like mourning. But it is unlikely that elephants imagine what life might have been like had the beloved survived. I doubt they feel regret for past acts or wish they had acted more protectively. I doubt they wonder if life is worth pursuing anymore.
All the questions and recriminations with which we torment ourselves after the death of a loved one are products of language. They are human constructs without counterpart in nature. Perhaps we would be happier if we experienced life and death like the animals who, while capable of genuine love, live mostly in the moment without vivid and unstoppable imagination of past, future, and better outcomes.