When I was in cosmetology school, I had an instructor that used to say, “hair, is hair, is hair.” He would repeat this as a mantra to demystify our fear of tackling a hair texture that wasn’t like our own. While it’s true that you can’t take the same approach to baby fine, stick straight hair as you would with thick, corkscrew curls like mine, the same basic theory about head shape, geometry, and chemistry applies. That is, hair is a protein that falls a certain way when cut on a certain angle and it reacts to heat and chemicals in a predictable way too. Some textures are more resistant to being processed than others and require special care, but at the end of the day, it is all the same stuff. I think grief is like this too.
Case in point, my son got a new Beyblade Burst toy last week and then quickly learned a difficult lesson about impermanence—that is, that nothing we love will stay the same. For the uninitiated, a Beyblade is essentially an updated 3-piece plastic and metal spinning top based on a popular Japanese manga show where the characters collect “beys” with different strengths and battle one another by trying to “burst” their opponent’s bey. My son is obsessed.
By the end of the day, he lost one of the crucial pieces and it burst his little heart. The depth of sorrow my 5-year old experienced could only be explained as grief. He lost something he loved and it was painful. Thankfully, in this case, it’ll likely turn up, and if not, the crucial piece can be replaced or, in time, he’ll move onto the next prized toy.
As I held my son while he cried, however, I was reminded of my own raw anguish especially in the early stages of grief over my parents’ deaths. While my losses are much bigger and irreversible, the pain in our hearts is made of the same stuff. Like my cosmetology instructor used to chant, “hair, is hair, is hair,” I heard myself saying, “grief, is grief, is grief.” We don’t have to be scared of grief; we just need to learn how to work with it even if some kinds require special care. If we’re human, we’ve had a lot of practice with losing things we loved. To live is to suffer. Yet, somehow, we persist.
Now a week later, the lost piece of my son’s toy is still missing, but he has found new ways to enjoy his toy by substituting pieces from his other beys to compensate for the deficit. It’s not the same; it’s not what he wanted; but somehow it works.
A friend of mine and fellow adult orphan commented that one thing she has learned from her losses is that we’re incredibly resilient creatures! Though its not guaranteed, its possible to rise from the ashes and, like the phoenix, to be reborn as the result of tragedy. Somehow, in the mysterious cycle of life, the gaping void becomes filled again not in the same way, not the way we wanted, but in a way that somehow works. More on what this looks like for me in a future post.
Please don’t misunderstand me as preaching some oversimplified “all things happen for a reason” or “making lemons out of lemonade” bullshit. Another dear friend who, as a bereaved mother, is no stranger to tragic loss, coined the term “toxic positivity” to explain the things people do and say to wiggle out of facing the depth of our pain by trying to move on to the silver lining or happy ending. I’m not denying that pain is unforgivingly and unmercifully real. What I’m saying, like what Ram Dass said, is that the key is to “open our eyes in hell.” To be with what is, in the moment, letting our shattered hearts teach and transform us. It’s facing the raw anguish, like my son did when he lost his toy and like those of us who have lost our people do every day, that, over time, teaches us creative new substitutes to compensate for the aching emptiness where our loved one(s) used to be.
That same friend and I were comparing notes about Mother’s Day and how shitty it can be when your loss touches it. She started to vent about the painful relationship she has with her mother and all the ways their particular dysfunction was amplified on Mother’s Day, when, upon remembering that my mom is dead, froze mid-sentence and started apologizing for complaining about the very thing I’ll never be able to enjoy again—painful or not. Maybe, under different circumstances, I’d consider her ranting about her mom as insensitive, but the fact is, grief, is grief, is grief.
Having a difficult relationship with one’s mom and having a dead mom are both shitty. Assigning degrees of terribleness doesn’t make either situation easier to bear for either of us. Being seen and held in the specifics of how awful it is, however, goes a much longer way to lifting the burden. Check out Brene Brown’s video on empathy for an amazing 3-minute visual of what I mean.
My chaplaincy training program puts me in touch with all sorts of pain on a consistent basis: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. In one day, I might accompany a patient coming to terms with an unexpected terminal diagnosis, in the next room, another patient in extreme physical pain, only to be called away to attend to the family of a patient who has died, and then to return back to my assigned floor to create a safe space for someone to process their doubts about the afterlife. I’d be lying if I didn’t say some visits trigger my, “if you only knew how good you have it,” while others trigger my “I didn’t know how good I had it,” internal reflex. Thankfully, I’ve been through enough to check those thoughts and remind myself to stay present. When I can get quiet and sink into the moment, the mantra returns, “grief, is grief, is grief.” Then, I can get in touch with my own pain as a well of empathy on which to draw from and be with the other person.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t balk when, upon hearing that your person(s) died, someone talks about the grief they felt after their dog died by way of comparison. Yet, in doing my own work, I realize that people who say stuff like this are really only trying to connect their limited experience with grief to what is a universal human experience. I’m not excusing hurtful comments, but as I’ve explored my own initiation into this painful truth, I realize that not too long ago, before my people died, “my dog died” was the best I had to offer too.
So, I thought I’d start a series on my own “apprenticeship with sorrow,” as psychotherapist, author, and soul activist Francis Weller puts it, to explore the different layers of grief’s initiation process. It turns out that my first lesson with grief didn’t start when my parents died, and for those of you dear readers who are also bereaved, I bet your initiation didn’t start when you lost your person(s) either. What richness might we find in these early lessons? I hope you’ll journey with me to find out.