My little brown dog died last month. His name was Charley, and he had walked beside me for nearly 11 years with a boundless energy and devotion. Over the past year, I watched him slowly fade into a creature who coveted much sleep and rejected the food he once relished. The vet had warned us that he would go soon and we remained determined to enjoy our time with him, in spite of our sadness. In the last days, I saw his transition as his hearing failed and his eyes grew dim. I said goodbye as he went on his journey to some beautiful place where all good dogs must surely go. A few weeks later, I spread his ashes in a beautiful canyon near my home. When I walk through the canyon paths, I can imagine him there, resting where the mountain lions roam. I envision him free of pain and filled with the limitless energy he knew in his puppyhood.
Although I was prepared for Charley’s death, I was startled by the voracity of my grief. How could I experience such profound sadness at his loss? Hadn’t I known he would die? Didn’t I have an opportunity to say goodbye? It seemed my grief was mingled with so many other pieces of sadness. Like most experiences of grief, losses are often layered and tangled together. My dog’s death closed a chapter that spanned 11 years of my life. In those years that he was by my side, I walked through days of sadness and joy. I sat with my mother during her stage IV cancer diagnosis and treatments, I watched my son grow from toddler to pre-teen, and a dear friend passed away. I recalled who I had been 11 years ago and the ways that I had changed—all that I had learned. I remembered all the times that my dog greeted me with love or offered me his companionship. I remembered the sparkle in his eyes and the ways he taught me to love. When Charley died, those experiences arose within me and fused together with my grief.
Many people who grieve find that they are faced with a tangle of inseparable experiences and losses. Someone who is grieving may have difficulty differentiating one grief from another. They may be detached as they face the death of a parent or spouse and yet feel completely devastated by the loss of a pet a year later. These losses are immeasurably different and yet the floodgate of sadness may open more easily for one event than another. People are often swallowed up in the busyness of the death of a spouse or parent. They are tasked with funeral planning and clearing out their loved one’s belongings. They robotically move through the ceremonies, memorials, and burials while tucking their profound sadness down into several layers of practicality. Perhaps it is only at the time of another loss that an outpouring of grief is allowed for a more catastrophic loss from the past. Others who grieve might claim that losses involving pets are often easier to grieve because their pet was an uncomplicated source of love and acceptance. This allowed them a show of love that is both vulnerable and unconditional in return.
Grief is an individual experience. We can never really know the depth and breadth of another’s loss nor can we encapsulate it with our words. Grief is an intricate web of detail and fine strands, each woven and wrapped around the other. In order to understand the structure of a person’s grief, we must appreciate the nuances of the losses themselves. We cannot say “that person is grieving her husband’s death.” We must say instead “that person is grieving every reminder that her husband is gone from her world and she is forever changed by that loss.”
The French writer, Colette, wrote “It’s so curious: One can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer…and everything collapses.”
Grieving is not a process or an event. Those descriptions suggest a beginning and an end. If grief recovery is measured only by the passing time, then those who grieve will never truly be understood or supported. Although our outward observations of another’s grief might tell us differently, grief is a lifelong experience. It is grieving the subtleties of the everyday losses that we may have taken for granted. The loss of a spouse is the measured by the painful absence at morning coffee, the loss of her toothbrush or shoes in the closet. It is the quietness of evening and the cool emptiness of her pillow in the morning. It is mourning for the person who shared dreams, hopes and sadness and carried an excitement for the next adventure.
Many parents who lose a child will experience a certain level of grief throughout their lifetime. Many describe it as an unspeakable loss that shatters the soul. It is the loss of who the child might have been in life and the loss of relationship. It is the loss of birthdays, graduations, hugs, messy rooms, backpacks, sticky hands, and Crayola artwork. Parents who have lost a young child often wonder what that child might have looked like as an adult. At times, they may find themselves searching a crowd of young faces, looking for one that matches the face of their beloved lost child. Parents who lost a child will describe profound feelings of guilt, believing that they should have protected the vulnerable place within their child that made them susceptible to death. This type of grief is a tangle of sadness, anger, guilt, fear and shame.
While we can not fully understand the nature of another’s visible grief, we may also struggle to comprehend invisible or disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief represents a loss or losses that are not often recognized by society. This can include experiences like pet loss, miscarriage, infertility, or job loss. It can also include the death of a loved one by suicide or drug overdose. Many people who suffer from disenfranchised grief also have a tangle of losses attached to this grief. In addition to the unique nuances of their loss, they may also experience feelings of shame or loneliness related to the lack of support or recognition of needs. They may suffer in silence without the healing balm of community that can offer connection and understanding.
When we can recognize that grief is layered and tangled, we can develop both compassion and awareness. We can move away from judgements or impatience about their process of grief and we can allow them to move in their recovery in a way that honors the true nature of their loss. We can never presume to fully untangle grief. We can, however, follow the delicate threads of sadness as they weave in and out of a person’s story. We can understand how gratitude can be woven with regret or anger. We can let go of steps and models that suggest a simplicity in our recovery that simply doesn’t exist. True grief is a tangled mess but represents the complexity of love and connection to one another. While we may always have traces of grief, we do recover from the initial shock wave that may knock us down. We have the capacity to heal what feels shattered while we honor the memory of those who no longer walk this earth.
Senior Director of Clinical Operations and Community Outreach, Cottonwood Tucson
Kathleen Parrish is a Licensed Professional Counselor and the Senior Director of Clinical Operations and Community Outreach at Cottonwood Tucson. She earned Masters of Arts...