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When the Grief is Not Your Own

And Why That's Okay

I have been fortunate enough to not have someone extremely close to me pass away (knock on wood). But those that are closest to me have lost people extremely close to them. My mother lost her father and her brothers. My father lost his mother. My brother lost two of his best friends. My husband lost his brother. My mother-in-law and father-in-law lost their son.

And I grieved every single one of those losses. Maybe we weren’t always extremely close, but we were a part of each other’s lives and they all made tremendous impacts on my life and I cared for them all very much.

But I’ve always had this odd feeling when I mourned the loss of all those beautiful people. I feel like the grief isn’t my own. I feel like the pain and heartbreak I feel belongs to someone else. It almost feels like it’s inappropriate for me to feel so sad.

I’ve spoken to other people about this and mostly everyone relates to the strange feeling that I have. It’s apparently pretty normal to feel this.

Basically, it comes down to this: while we feel the pain and the absence from the loss of those that have passed away, what we are mostly feeling is the grief for those closest to us. It’s genuine sympathy. And this sympathy stems from our own selves. We put ourselves in the shoes of those that are truly grieving. Our brains work to understand what our loved ones are feeling based on our own experiences.

For instance, my mother-in-law is currently mourning the loss of her amazing son, my brother-in-law. Though I didn’t know him very well, every time I saw his mother at his funeral, I couldn’t hold myself together. My heart broke every time I saw her face. And it’s because I kept thinking about my children. My daughter, Maya, specifically.

About a year ago, Maya got really sick. She had the flu and what we originally thought was dehydration turned out to be scarily low blood-sugar. So low in fact that it wasn’t even detectable. And I just remember every moment so vividly. I remember going to wake Maya up that morning and she was laying on the floor surrounded by her own vomit. I remember lifting her up and trying to make her walk to the bathroom so I could clean her up and she couldn’t even stand. I remember taking her clothes off and laying her down in the bathtub to clean her up, expecting the water to wake her up a bit and it didn’t. I remember rushing her to the ER, holding a pink Wizard of Oz coffee cup (the one my husband and I bought as a souvenir when I was pregnant with Maya) for her as she vomited blood into it. I remember sitting in the waiting room, sobbing over my unconscious daughter as I waited for the triage nurse to call us in. I remember vividly as I laid her down on a bed in the ER while dozens of doctors and nurses rushed in to help her thinking, “my baby is going to die and there’s nothing I can do to help her.” And that feeling; that feeling haunts me almost every night. Almost every night I have nightmares of that feeling alone.

So I would look at my mother-in-law and I would remember that feeling and my heart would shatter to realize she has to live with that feeling for the rest of her life. She has to live the worst nightmare that any mother could ever have. And on top of that, she lost her mother less than a year ago. Her mother was entombed six feet away from her first-born child.

And I felt grief for everyone in my brother-in-law’s life. I felt grief for my husband, I felt grief for my father-in-law, my brother-in-law’s wife, his cousins, and friends, and everyone who loved him.

But I felt it most for his mother, because I am a mother. I felt the grief for her, even though the grief was not my own. Because even though we may not have been close to those that have passed on, we understand that their absence is tremendous to those we love. To know that our loved ones are hurting so tremendously is enough to break our hearts. And to know that we could so easily be the unfortunate ones to have to go through the most horrible thing imaginable is enough to make us break down and fall apart completely. Such a lucky and unlucky feeling all at once.

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When the Grief is Not Your Own
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