The Burden of Specialness

January 11, 2010

The other day at the gym I ran into our childhood friend, Zoe.  We were both attending a spinning class my sister Amy teaches.  As the three of us stood together in the lobby cooling down after exercising, Amy told us about Marvin, another childhood friend’s father, who had died the night before.  I reminded my sister to let Melody know that I am available to sit with her whenever she’s ready.

“I think it’s great, by the way, that you help people in grief,” Zoe said, defying her characteristically satirical take on the whole self-help culture.

“Well, I don’t exactly console them,” I explained.  “My approach is, ‘As long as this terrible thing has already happened to you, what are the transformational fruits you might be able to harvest here?’”

My old friend, thank God, seemed to get it, and she nodded her head encouragingly.  This affirmed my belief that you do not have to be “religious” in order to recognize and be willing to explore the spiritual possibilities inherent in grief and loss.

Zoe recounted how frustrating it was for her when people tried to make her “feel better” after the stillbirth of her baby a few years ago.  “The house filled with people who wanted to comfort me, which was great,” she said.  “But they were all tip-toeing around and speaking in hushed tones, which made me want to scream.”

I knew exactly what she meant.  I had a very similar experience after Jenny died.  I mean, I understood exactly why everyone was treating me as a fragile flower, and I felt compassion for the fact that they all they wanted to do was shield me from the pain and that they had absolutely no idea how to do this impossible thing.  But I felt mysteriously strong and clear, willing and able to face the reality of my devastating loss, and I wanted to be affirmed for that.

Zoe went on: “Then my friend Ellen came over, plopped herself down at my kitchen table and said, ‘Will you make me a sandwich?’  I was so relieved.  It made me feel like myself: I’m someone who makes sandwiches.  This was a turning point in my healing.  I wish more people understood this.”

So, my silent friends, I am here to say: do not be afraid to treat your grieving loved ones like normal people.  And mourners: don’t be shy about letting your loved ones know that yes, while you are shattered beyond repair, you are paradoxically and simultaneously whole and capable of seeing the irony and the beauty of life and death in a deeper way than ever before.

Grieving people get the Cosmic Joke, because gratuitous sentimentality has been stripped.  We don’t want to be seen as special – specially broken, specially tragic, specially pitiful.  It’s lonely to be special.

And it’s also not accurate.  In the wake of profound loss, we often become vibrantly aware of our interconnectedness with the suffering of all beings.  We take our rightful place in the Human Condition, and find both solace and inspiration there.  We are not unique, and we are not alone.  We desperately miss our loved one who has died, yes, and in this we are nothing more and nothing less than another member of the great tribe of humanity.

4 Responses to “The Burden of Specialness”

  1. Bob said

    Another exquisite post. Keep them coming.
    One of my favorite lines in this one is, “Grieving people get the Cosmic joke”. Yes indeed, the joke is on us or I guess we are the joke–or life is the joke that makes us laugh and brings us to tears. Once again your words (especially your presence) reminds my mind to think through my hear.
    What you are saying here is poignantly true in my experience. When we are in the presence of those who are stripped to the core by grief, how do I tiptoe compassionately while at the same time put my foot down on the ground of the relationship I know.
    Humor helps a lot.
    I’m thinking your posts ought to be shared with grief groups. They are helpful beyond measure.

    • Thank you, my friend! You are always so affirming. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be around when grief has divested me of my tolerance for inauthenticity than the very real, very loving, very funny Bob Thompson.

  2. Hello Mirabai,

    I just “met” you and your work in October, 2009 through a Caroline Myss website with video of you reading your book on Teresa. I used the prayer you read, “Let nothing disturb you” for a women’s retreat I was leading that next weekend. I was able to spend a bit of time here at your blog and was saddened to see that you had suffered the death of your beloved daughter.

    I am a hospice social worker and am always honored when I get to travel the sacred road of death and dying with one of my patients and the family. But having lost my brother to death this summer, I am much aware of the difference in companioning someone who is not of my close circle/family and one who is.

    It has made me even more compassionate and humble.

    Your work and mine share many similarities. If you ever are traveling out in the San Diego County area, please consider coming and sharing some quiet time here at our place.

    It’s called The Center of Creative Transformation and it’s a very beautiful and peaceful spot to stop and rest a bit. And of course I would love to share time with a kindred soul!

    Blessing on you and your journey! Verna

    PS I start leading the adult group for our Mourning Star program here in Murrieta, CA next month. If you haven’t heard of the Mourning Star program for children who are grieving, it’s worth exploring. Our program is modeled after the Dougy Center and is an amazing support for children who are grieving. Talk about not knowing how to help; when it comes to kids, people really don’t know what to do.

    • What a beautiful message, Verna, and a lovely invitation. I hope to be able to take you up on it one day. I am so sorry about the recent death of your brother! Many blessings on the brave and loving work you do. I will explore your program on the internet, and we’ll be in touch.

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