We've all heard the quote, 'Be Kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.' For most of us who are grieving the loss of someone we love, we imagine that we are the brave ones on the battlefield, fighting our hard battle in solitude.
My husband and son died within two years of each other. From my personal experience, I believe that if we aren't careful, grief can become a rather self-involved process in which we can become so focused on our own suffering that we miss the opportunity to connect with, and possibly bring comfort to, someone else who may be going through a similar experience.
Six months after my husband died, I was sinking in the quicksand of grief. I could not pull myself out of the misery. I felt like I was completely alone in the experience. Who could possibly begin to understand my pain?
In that moment, I actually believed that my life was more difficult than anyone else around me. Life, persistent teacher that it is, handed me a perfectly wrapped lesson that opened my eyes to the fact that through my suffering I had allowed myself to become blinded by my self-pity.
The lesson presented itself in a health crisis. I had complications from a surgical procedure and ended up being hospitalized for four days. I was in an extreme amount of pain during this time. Between the physical pain and the emotional pain of grief, I was an absolute mess.
I should also tell you that I am a Registered Nurse. As a nurse, it is hard to be on the receiving end of medicine as the patient. But, it is even harder to be the nurse who is required to take care of the sick nurse patient. As all nurses know, we are watching every move the other nurse makes.
The first three nights that I was in the hospital, the same nurse took care of me. She was young, maybe in her mid to late 20s, and she hardly interacted with me at all the first two nights, other than to give my medications as scheduled. I, the experienced and compassionate nurse that I was (inject sarcasm here), judged her to be a poor nurse. She obviously had no idea how much emotional pain I was in. How hard is it to ask your patient how she's feeling? I wrote her off as a bad nurse who had little empathy, and remained absorbed in my own emotional and physical pain.
The third night the young nurse was a little more talkative. She asked me how I was feeling (finally!). I told her that I was struggling with depression and grief because my husband had died in an airplane accident.
She looked at me and told me that her husband had died too, just two months earlier.
I was stunned. Speechless. Shocked.
Never, in any of the possibilities that my mind entertained of why this nurse was so stand-offish with me, did I even consider that she might be in the same pain I was. Not only was she grieving as I was, but she was having to take care of me, instead of caring for herself and her family.
We went on to talk and share our stories about our late husbands and children. I like to think that we helped each other a bit that night.
We had much more in common than I would have believed. We were both widowed single moms with young children, and nurses. But, that was where the similarities ended. Her husband had no insurance policy. She had very little family support. She was working paycheck to paycheck to support her boys. I was humbled. I realized how much I had to be grateful for. And, frankly, I never saw life the same way after this experience.
Although I would still go on to struggle with complicated grief, I would never be so self-absorbed in my grief again. This experience was a life-changing event for me. I had always prided myself on being an empathetic person, but I realize now that I had not really understood what being empathetic meant.
To truly be empathetic, you must be able to see beyond your own pain to be witness to the pain in someone else's eyes. When you only see your own pain, your view is cloudy and your perception of others is skewed.
I never looked at another person in the same way after this experience.
The cashier checking me out at the grocery store who seemed rude and in a hurry? Who knows what was going on in his day, week, life? Maybe he recently lost a spouse or a child. Maybe he has experienced compounded losses. I had no way of knowing what this man was going through. Who was I to judge him?
The woman cleaning tables at a restaurant, groaning as if she was in emotional or physical pain while wiping the tables...before, I might have thought that she was a 'whiner' or maybe even a little lazy. But, I had no idea what was happening in her life. She was fighting her own battle.
I thank death for very few things. The gift of empathy for my fellow man, and understanding that we all suffer in ways that aren't always visible, are presents from death that I will always be grateful for.
Always take the time to be kind. Even when you're suffering with your own pain. And don't assume that someone else has it easier than you. You never know the battles someone else is fighting.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at email@example.com.