Ch.177 The Universality of Grief

Ch.177 The Universality of Grief

Dec. 2022

            I attended a program on grief recently during which RoseAnn, a group facilitator, read a beautiful passage that emphasized how each person’s grief was unique. “No two people experience grief in exactly the same way,” she read. RoseAnn's point was that since each person’s grief was distinct from all others, nobody has a right to tell that individual what he or she should do or feel. “There is no right way or wrong way to grieve, just your way,” she said. Rose Anne was making a good point, and in doing so encouraging each of us to ignore people trying to tell us how, when and where we should grieve.

But something felt a little off. The image that came to me at that moment was of Frank Sinatra belting out “I did it my way.” “I did grief my way.” But, if that is the case, then why am I attending a grief group, sharing my pain with others as they share theirs with me?

It wasn’t that RoseAnn was mistaken, I felt. But I believed the author she was quoting was over-emphasizing the individual, particular aspects of grief at the expense of the universal, shared components. The heaviness in my chest; the emptiness in my gut; the loneliness in my heart; the “This can’t be true” disbelief in my mind --- when I mention these experiences to my fellow grievers, they don’t just nod their heads in sympathy. Instead, they say they feel those same sensations in their chest, gut, heart, and mind. I believe them because I feel those sensations when they share their thoughts and feelings with me.

When I was counseling, I studied what is known as the attachment model of human connection. The word “attachment” initially refers to the way mothers and their newborns bond. Normally, the message they share is far deeper than words; the closest we can approach is “You are part of me, and I am part of you. I will never leave you. You will never leave me. We are one, forever.” Fortunately, this bond isn’t limited to mother and child. I certainly felt it and still feel it with all three of my children. And, crucially, I felt this deep loving attachment bond with my wife. Not immediately, of course, but over time we found a place in each other’s souls. Forever.

But there is another part of attachment that is relevant to grief. Think of the infant firmly attached to mom and dad. And then mom and dad try to go away for a while, maybe to a movie. And what does that baby do? She protests. She screams, she gasps for air, she cannot be comforted. She feels utterly abandoned. And that’s perfectly normal. She’s doing what she’s supposed to do, to bring her mom and dad back. Maybe she can convince them not to leave her. Pat and I succumbed, the first time we tried to get away for a break. We paid the babysitter and took our baby with us to the nearby pancake parlor.

Mother and child cannot stay physically together indefinitely, of course. Parents do leave their child; the child protests, then despairs, and then rejoices when her parents return. Unfortunately, my wife will never return. I know that. But still, I protest and despair. “No, don’t leave me.  Come back. I need you. I am incomplete. I am broken without you.”

The attachment bond has genetic, biochemical roots. The conviction that “I can’t live without you” is a normal feeling upon separation. I believe this attachment crisis is the universal element that all grievers hold in common.