Mourning Has Broken
Recently, a family friend passed away. All told, he had a brilliant life. He achieved great success, both professionally and personally. He died at the age of 91. While it came as a surprise, my first thought was, “What a lucky guy to die in his sleep, avoiding days or weeks, or even months and years, of pain and frustration!”
But that was Bob. He went out of this world as gently as he had lived in it. A man with rosy cheeks and a smile like St. Nicholas, Bob was tall and thin, quiet and well educated. He always had a kind word or a fantastic story for the weird loner kid at the neighbourhood holiday party and spoke to her (me) like an adult.
After hearing the news, I kvetched about the best way to reach his wife. Should I call her? Text her? Email her? We live thousands of miles apart. My choices felt callous, impersonal, cyborgic. (My newly-minted term. It fits.) I just wanted to give her a hug. Nothing replaces human touch, and the warmth that goes with it. It conveys much more than the kindest words.
I called five days later. That’s how long it took the wooden figures, the ones continuously circling the board-of-director’s table in my head, dressed in pinstripe suits, on clothes-pin legs, to sit down and reach a consensus. The Board mollified my fear that calling her would hijack her suffering for my own. There is nothing worse than being the emotional dump for someone else’s pain when you are the one suffering the personal loss. The Board warned me not to cry, because tears are a slippery slope. Once the well springs, it’s easy to emote a moat around that person.
Sympathy and empathy are visceral. It’s human to sense the pain of others, and share in their grief. Sometimes however, there is a disconnect between the emotions, how to hold them ourselves, and how share in them with others. This leads to other emotions, usually a turbine of guilt, fear and anxiety, bolstering further disconnect. Ideally, this highly-charged flywheel spins towards a shared connection, like oil-paint splashed across a canvas on a spinner, beautiful and hopeful, yet abstract and undefined, instead of further apart. It’s what we aspire to, but being human, we bumble through it most of the time.
Sometimes the flywheel even stops and falls flat. A widow once said to me, “It feels like people are afraid of catching whatever it is I have. They can’t look at me for fear of seeing the possibility of what could happen to anyone–what could happen to them.” After a death in the family, after mourning the loss of the loved one, survivors often face mourning the loss of friends and friendships. They change, maybe fade, and sometimes disappear altogether. In rare cases, a friend never acknowledges the death, coupling the initial devastation a survivor feels with more unexpected pain and loss.
Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb said, “There is no hierarchy of pain” when comparing one person’s pain to another. Honestly, I grapple with this. I really want to believe her. I really do. She has a column in The Atlantic and has written a fantastic novel/memoir about her experiences being a therapist. She has great credentials and a healthy sense of humor to go with it.
But I really need to hear Cheryl Strayed say the words. I’m more likely to entertain advice from someone who’s taken an existential walkabout; suffered the massive loss of her mom as a young woman; has cut ties with her narcissistic, abusive father; has done some hard drugs and survived; had a couple abortions along the way; put herself through college and grad school; and continued wracking-up tens of thousands in credit-card debt beyond that; all before her success with Wild or Dear Sugar. I’m going to trust the words of Dear Sugar before I swallow any psychobabble from someone who attended Yale, Stanford and Pepperdine. (#CesarChavezatheart).
In her own words Lori says, “I believe that of all my credentials, my most-significant is that I’m a card-carrying member of the human race.” Well if that’s the most important qualification, you’ll see my shingle hanging outside by tomorrow morning (#callmeanytime). There’s an Ivy League education, there’s the school of life, and just because you carry a membership card to either, doesn’t mean you’ve used it well. If Cheryl isn’t available, then Wendell will do (Lori’s therapist in her book). I have no idea of his credentials, but I liked his character, and he wore a cardigan and khakis to the office everyday, not unlike…Mr. Rogers. We can all thank Fred for the feeling of love and safety a cardigan denotes.
I really want to accept the premise we all experience pain on the same level. For the most part, it’s true. Everyone’s pain is their own after all. In the same way ten miles is painful for me, another runner might laugh hearing that distance. They only begin to feel the edges of pain at 26.2. While I comprehend this deduction, I fail applying it to the gradient of emotional pain.
I value compassion and empathy, but my compassion can also be a bitch. While your own pain is your own, and you grapple with it however you do, sometimes I have an initial opinion, such as “Get over it” or “Just wait. It gets a lot worse.” I keep these thoughts to myself. The best I can do is whisper Lori’s platitude under my breath, “There is no hierarchy to pain,” when facing another’s (perceived) anguish.
I’d go as far to say my compassion is a calibrated analogue, divided into four sections. The first group are those who deserve compassion and get it. These are good people, who do good things. The second group are those who deserve compassion, they do good things too, but they don’t get it, because life just sucks and is unfair sometimes. This the group I cheer and support the most, because I like to give karma a kick up its ass when I can. The third group are those who don’t deserve compassion for their ruthlessness and uncharitable acts, but get it anyway, because again, life is unfair and karma likes to headfuck you for fun. Then there is the last group: persona non grata— those who deserve nothing, because they are the worst of the bad actors, yet karma plays fair this time, and even better, lets us watch.
Clearly, I have a lot of work left to do, to better understand the intricacies of pain and compassion within myself, with others, and within our world. Thank God it’s only half over for me. (As far as I know, anyway.) There’s still time, and I need all the time I can get.
(You never know with karma. Especially after what I just said.)
Turn Off The News
Last week my Dad went for a check-up at the doctor’s office. His blood pressure was out of control. They gave him something to bring it down and made him wait twenty minutes before continuing the appointment. My dad called me afterward. His voice was somber.
He said, “Well, I got my ass chewed big time.”
“What do you mean, Dad? What happened?”
After his blood pressure settled, his doctor asked him a few questions.
So what are you doing these days?
How much news are you watching?
What are you eating?
Finally, the doctor sat down and said, “Mr. Simmons, you’re 85. The average American male lives until 81. So the last four years have been gravy! I suggest you turn off the news. It is what it is, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Quit worrying, make the most of your time, and enjoy every day!”
Pass the gravy, please.