Experiences and expressions of grief and loss can be quite diverse and vary significantly from one individual to another. For example, with the death of a parent, one person may grieve the loss in a profound and deep way as if their very foundation of comfort and security were pulled out from beneath their feet or their central identity were fundamentally and forever changed; another may grieve long and hard because they were close to the parent and the loss comes as a monumental blow to their heart and daily life or perhaps because the loss was sudden and much unfinished business remained between them; another may grieve less about losing their actual parent and more about the loss of the “missing parent” who was never really there for them or never truly saw them over the course of their entire life; yet another may experience great relief and even—dare I say—celebration after a parent passes perhaps because the relationship was riddled with brutality, conflict, or criticism; and yet another may feel little at all when a parent dies because there was no real intimacy or feeling connection to hold them together and the person may have found their sense of “family” in other places with people or beings outside of their biological family.
Comedian, actress, and activist, Sarah Silverman, spoke seriously and vulnerably with Terry Gross of the NPR show Fresh Air of the diversity of the expressions of grief in regard to her own mother’s funeral:
“It was such a great funeral. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard in my life where the next day I looked like I had two black eyes and such a headache…. But also laughs…. It’s interesting. Grief is something that…takes so many shapes. My older sister, Susan, who is a Rabbi…she surprised herself that she didn’t cry at all. She didn’t cry for awhile. And she got an email from a friend and it just said, “You don’t think you’re grieving, but you are,” and that was the first time she cried. It is so true that grief takes so many shapes and…it’s not something that you fail or succeed at. It takes care of itself.”
The diversity of grief can also show up among those who feel the passing of a particular beloved animal companion as perhaps a more deeply felt and agonizing experience than the loss of a human loved one. This may be because the bond of love was so unconditional or the animal was an integral being in the person’s daily life. On the other hand, another person may experience the loss of an animal as momentarily sad with sweet memories quickly filling the sense of emptiness, but not as acute as the loss of a beloved human being in their life.
RIDING THE WAVES OF GRIEF
Some ten years ago or so, when one of my cherished teachers endured the loss of his spouse from cancer, he was courageous and generous enough to share some of that intimate experience with many of us in our shared community in the first days following her death. What I will never forget is witnessing his enormous waves of grief and tears that would rise up, flood his face and entire body from head to toe with an uncontrollable and all-consuming presence and then slowly recede once again—over and over, like sets of waves coming in to shore from the distant sea. I had never seen someone grieve so openly before and it was especially unusual to witness a man grieve so honestly in public. This newfound learning that grief comes in waves made a deep impression upon me, one that I will never forget.
When one of my beloved feline companions passed away last year, I was able to call upon this learning in the days, weeks, and months that followed. At first the waves of grief came on strong and intense; they were overwhelming. It felt as though I was drowning, barely able to gasp for air as I bobbed up and down helplessly in a vast and dark ocean of pain, loss, and sadness. It was lonely and isolating. For one thing, no one else felt the loss of her the way I did. Unlike a human being, she didn't have connections in the community, friends, or extended family who could share in the grief with me. To everyone outside my intimate sphere, it was as if she had never even existed because the world continued to operate as normal with few other people even noting the loss. And, being an animal, a "pet", many people could not fully understand the magnitude of the loss of the unique and deeply personal relationship I had with this creature who was as dear to me as any human being could be.
THE UNIQUE CONDITION OF LOSING AN ANIMAL COMPANION
Much of society treats the loss of a beloved pet certainly as tender and sad and worthy of sympathy, but not remotely on the same level as that of human loss. Thus, the isolation I experienced only amplified the pain I felt in my loss. People in a similar situation may also feel the dismissal or minimization of their loss and the magnitude of their feelings not just by acquaintances, but by close friends and family alike. In an effort to offer you solace, people may say or insinuate messages like, “She/he is just a cat (or dog or horse or chicken…). You can get another one.” Such a person, however well meaning, is ignorant of the unique nature and personality of your beloved and the irreplaceable relationship you shared together. You may experience the minimization of your loss in countless other ways. For example, you may find that many people won’t check back in with you in the weeks and months that follow the death of your animal friend to inquire how you are handling such a significant loss in your life, something they might have done if you had lost a parent, sibling, spouse, or human friend. In truth, our society as a whole simply does not elevate animal beings to the same level as humans in a multitude of ways. And this reality bears painful consequences for the human being who is suffering the intense loss of their beloved animal companion when the inevitable moment of death visits.
In my own experience, as time went on, the drowning sensation I had in the first days and weeks lessened as the sets of waves had more space in between them allowing me to catch my breath for longer stretches of time before I went under again. And eventually, after several months, more of my time consisted of having my head above water rather than below. As I approach one year after my sweet companion’s passing, the grief I feel is mostly that of calm waters with occasional glimmers of sunshine from above although I think about her every single day. But still, every so often a big wave will come out of nowhere and unexpectedly take me down, the tears feeling that they’ll never stop flowing, but ultimately they somehow always do.
YOUR GRIEF IS UNIQUE
No matter the loss, there is no right way to grieve. The experiences you feel in grief ought not be compared to what others feel as if there is a right or wrong way, a normal way, or an appropriate length of time to do so. Our relationships with our beloved beings—be they human or animal or spirit or nature—are unique. Therefore, our feelings of loss can look and feel different from one another. All ways deserve to be respected and honored for they are as individual and true as the stars in the sky.
1. “Sarah Silverman Opens Up About Depression, Comedy and Trouble making.” Fresh Air. NPR. Aired on October 22, 2015. Accessed on October 19, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/10/22/450830121/sarah-silverman-opens-up-about-depression-comedy-and-troublemaking