Grief is filled with so many irreconcilable contradictions, and equally as many universal similarities.
On the one hand, grieving the death of a spouse is unlike any other trauma. Please do not compare the instantaneous loss of my 47 year-old husband to to the loss of your 92 year-old grandmother. Also, please do not compare the death of my spouse to your divorce. You may not have a husband living in your house anymore, but he likely has joint custody and lives not too far away from your kids. And I’m not kidding you when I say that one of my colleagues actually compared my loss to the death of his cat. His. Fucking. Cat. I’m not saying my grief is any worse than those other losses (okay, it is definitely worst than the cat), but it is fundamentally different from and incomparable to those other losses. And I’m also keenly aware that many other people are suffering from grief that is objectively far, far worse than mine – like the parents of the college kids recently shot and killed in a bar in California. There’s no way I could ever comprehend the depth of the loss of a child. So I’m not going to compare my loss to theirs because their loss is fundamentally different than mine.
On the other hand, as much as losses cannot be compared, and as much as I’ve always said that you can’t understand the pain that someone is going through unless you’ve experienced that same pain yourself, there is a fundamental universality about trauma and loss. For instance, when the brother of one my colleagues passed away, I sent a sympathy note that said, “Grief sucks.” As she well knew, I’ve earned the right to speak in such a flip and honest way about grief – because, on the most basic level, I do understand her pain. I can feel its jagged edges. And, as much as I have no idea what it’s like to lose a brother, the universality of loss allows me to process, understand and empathize with many kinds of trauma and loss.
And, actually, lately I’ve been struck by how similar the trauma of losing a spouse is to many other non-death-related traumas. For instance, when my mentor of 20 years recently and unexpectedly left the company, my brain processed this loss as a trauma. Obviously it was not as severe a trauma as losing my husband, but my range of emotions mimicked my grief response: I was shaken, disoriented, and broken. Another example of my reaction to a non-death-related trauma is when our house was completely destroyed by Hurricane Irene, we lost nearly all of our possessions, and we were displaced from our home for more than two years. I didn’t know it back in 2011, but my reaction to that flooding trauma was astoundingly similar to my 2016 loss of my husband. Shaken, disoriented and fundamentally broken. Both times, I was in shock mode, triage mode, panic mode, trying to make sense of my new reality and the rug that had been ripped out from underneath me.
If you’ve suffered any kind of trauma, you have a window into the way my trauma feels. But, remember, it’s just a window. And please also remember, my husband is not your fucking cat.