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Claire Bidwell Smith Headshot

Even Though It's a Unique Experience, Losing Someone You Love is Always the Same

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The hardest thing about grieving is how lonely it is. When you lose someone important in your life, not only are you automatically missing one of the persons you would normally turn to during a difficult time, but you simultaneously find yourself walking through a world that you believe no one else is.

While the majority of people in your life continue on with their lives -- going to work, eating cereal, paying bills and booking vacations -- you've suddenly found yourself in an ether world where none of those things even matter.

This is one of the subjects we discuss most often in a weekly grief group I lead. I'm a grief counselor for hospice, and every weekend I gather half a dozen people together who have recently lost someone. The group members have experienced a wide variety of loss. Some of them have lost more than one person and for some of them it's only been a month since the death of someone close. There are several widows and there are others who have lost a parent or a sibling.

For all of them, no matter the details of the loss, it's the same: searing loneliness, unexpected isolation, depression, misguided anger and calculated wishfulness. Each week the members take turns describing how the week has been for them, what the highs were, and of course, what the lows were. Most of them cry as they speak, blotting their tears with carefully folded leaves of tissue as they describe waking in the middle of the night to find that the thing they feared the most is real, that this person they loved so dearly is gone.

I sit at the head of the table and listen carefully as they speak. I take notice when one of them relates to another. I've long since realized this is the thing of grief work, the thing that makes the pain just a little less painful. When, for just a moment, you realize that you're not alone. That the feelings you carry with you each day, the alienation you feel and the emptiness, are not yours alone.

But this is sometimes the best and the worst feeling: this realization that you're not the first person to experience such a loss. Part of you doesn't want to believe that it's true; you cannot imagine that anyone else has ever lost someone as great and as vital to the world as you have. You cannot imagine that it has ever been this bad for anyone else. This must be the worst thing that has ever happened.

Because if it's not the worst thing that has ever happened, then that must mean that it could happen again, and that the world in which we live can be full of a series of losses and disappearances from the very people you could never imagine losing in the first place.

On the other hand, it can be incredibly healing to sit across the table from someone who feels just as you do. It can be comforting to look into the eyes of another who wakes in the morning whose first thought is of loss, and the same true before they fall asleep at night. It helps you realize that you're not crazy, that you haven't gone over the deep end. You have not at all wandered somewhere no one else has ever been.

This is what we talk about in group every week. And as everyone pushes back their chairs at the end of the session and one by one drop handfuls of damp, wadded tissue into the wastebasket, I'm fiercely reminded of the human capacity to love. For if we can lose this hard, that must mean that we can love even harder.

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