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Our Experience of Grief is Unique as a Fingerprint

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David Kessler: I was touring in Australia when I met a researcher who told me about the work she was doing to study the way of life in the northern indigenous villages of Australia. One of the villagers told her that the night someone dies, everyone in the village moves a piece of furniture or something else into their yard. The next day, when the bereaved family wakes up and looks outside, they see that everything has changed since their loved one died—not just for them but for everyone. That’s how these communities witness, and mirror, grief. They are showing in a tangible way that someone’s death matters. The loss is made visible.

In this country, too, it was once common for us to come together as a community to bear witness to the grief experienced when a loved one died. But in our current culture, the mourner is made to feel that though his or her own world has been shattered, everyone else’s world goes on as if nothing has changed. There are too few rituals to commemorate mourning, and too little time allotted to it.

[…] Hope has a very close relationship with meaning. In the same way our meaning changes, so does hope. Sometimes when I work with someone stuck in grief, I will say, “It sounds like hope died with your loved one. It seems all is lost.”

Surprisingly they perk up. “Yes, that’s it.”

They feel witnessed. I often say, “A loved one’s death is permanent, and that is so heartbreaking. But I believe your loss of hope can be temporary. Until you can find it, I’ll hold it for you. I have hope for you. I don’t want to invalidate your feelings as they are, but I also don’t want to give death any more power than it already has. Death ends a life, but not our relationship, our love, or our hope.”

[…] People who mourn the loss of their pets often comment on how little people understand about their grief. In the months that followed the death of my son, one of my dear friends experienced his own loss. His beloved dog died at the age of 16. When I reached out to him to express my condolences, he was taken aback by my concern. “Your loss is so much worse than mine,” he said. I couldn’t see his tears and think that his loss was any less painful or meaningful than mine. Every loss has meaning, and all losses are to be grieved—and witnessed. I have a rule on pet loss. “If the love is real, the grief is real.” The grief that comes with loss is how we experience the depths of our love, and love takes many forms in this life. More here.

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