I went to visit my father several weeks ago. While there, the 14th of the month occurred. I didn't realize that my dad observed the 14th of each month as the commemoration of the "monthly anniversary" of my mother's death. When he mentioned it to me, he was crying and so I started crying as well. I said to him, "Gee, dad, it feels like she only just died, doesn't it, not four months ago?" My father's response overwhelmed me with sadness: "It seems like an eternity for me." My heart ached for him. I realized that I had assumed that we shared similar feelings and I was so wrong. (As an aside, whenever I use the word "assume" in a sentence, my dad always reminds me that, "you know what assume means..." And, I say yes, remembering "The Odd Couple" TV show, where Tony Randall shows Jack Klugman that "assume makes an a-- out of u and me.")
As a professional chaplain, I know better than to assume anything! I never assume that I understand what a person is going through let alone feeling. I also never assume to know what they mean when they use a word that could have multiple meanings. I always ask what that means to them. Assuming is not helpful because there is no way to compare what I, or someone else is feeling to how another person is feeling, even over the same or similar situation.
Comparing grief and loss can send one down a slippery slope. I remember on 9/11, I was the director of pastoral care at a hospital in Westchester County. I was called to the room of a woman who was dying. Her daughter was with her. When I walked in, the television was on with coverage of the events of that morning, as people were still trying to figure out what had happened. The daughter looked at the TV screen and then looked at her mother. Then she started crying, and said, "I should not be upset about my mother's dying. I cannot imagine what the people are going through who had a loved one in one of those towers. I can't complain. At least I am getting to say goodbye. I should not be upset and crying." I turned the TV off and said to the woman that she had every right to be as upset as she needed to be. Her mother was dying and she was entitled to feel the grief that was coming over her. I suggested that she try not to compare her loss to the loss of any other person. Giving her that "permission" seemed to enable her to acknowledge her sadness and allowed her to express what she was feeling to her mother and to herself.
I had a similar conversation with a family after Superstorm Sandy. They were commenting that they even though their loved one was dying, they felt guilty about being so upset that their loved one was dying -- at least they still had a home to go home to. Again, I found myself telling this family that it was OK for them to be upset. Their loved one was dying and it was natural for them to feel what they were feeling and that there was no reason for them to feel guilty. They too seemed to feel relieved when "given permission" to feel what they were feeling.
When someone we love dies, it doesn't matter what else is going on in the world. What matters is that your loved one is dying. You have every right to feel upset no matter what else is going on around you. Your feelings are your feelings and you are entitled to them. Just as I should not have assumed that my dad felt anything like what I was feeling, no one should assume that their feelings matter more or less than anyone else's. What happened to people after 9/11 and after Superstorm Sandy is tragic. The death of someone you love may also be tragic for you.
So, the next time you find yourself comparing your feelings to someone else's, stop for a moment and remind yourself that you are allowed to feel whatever you are feeling.