the tiredness of sympathy

In An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination Elizabeth McCracken, in talking about the long healing process of grief says, “Grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving.”

I wouldn’t want the same sympathy that we got right after Tiger died. The difficulty of what Elizabeth says for me is when patience runs out- when your hour or month or year of grieving is perceptually over for some. OR when where you actually are in your grief is not considered and then it’s all a throw back to the first raw days. A friend said recently, when trying to demonstrate understanding, “How do you do it Susan? Your whole life has been consumed with sorrow for over 4 years. First Will then…..” and proceeded to tell me my whole story. Wow. I don’t think I was ‘consumed’. People do the best that they can. Ashe (and so it is). In my community, outside of work, I am ‘the woman who lost two babies’. I see it in people’s eyes- much of this is kindness with a lingering fear and often a dash of discomfort. I get that. It’s tiring- being the receiver of that, and still it makes me feel very human, very alive. When I am in a group of new people, who do not know my story there is a strange dichotomy of relief at remembering the me before tragedy and a feeling that I’m a fraud- that I am simply not the person that they see standing before them… Because my boys are here… they just are invisible. And it doesn’t feel right to hide and ignore children.

I could tell the stories of my boys at any moment if asked. No one asks that- why would they? how could they? Last Friday night I did tell a friend, who did not know me when Will was born, the story of Will’s birth and short life and death. He  wanted to hear and was a real active listener. I can’t begin to tell you how satisfying and important this was to me. In the winter I was at a morning ‘open school’ in my daughter’s classroom with other parents. One mother and I got to talking about maternal age and kids…. it just got to a point where I had to say it…. I had to acknowledge my boys and tell this poor woman. I’m so sorry that this mom was a victim of my grief because she was ill prepared to hear this news from an acquaintance, in a kindergarten classroom no less. And so from these two experiences I realize that none of this actually is about the staying power of sympathy but instead the ability to be present for another- to carry sympathy (loving kindness in Buddhist speak) with you for everyone. Also for me, holding your grief in a way that allows you to recognize those who can hear and be present.

I don’t ask for long term sympathy really. I just like my boys to be known. I don’t enjoy saying I have one daughter and a step son- which I do mostly say because it is what is appropriate and comfortable for others. I say ‘mostly’ because I’ve learned to be honest in moments and understand that everything isn’t always comfortable. My dear friend Janine has said of tightrope walking that for her, it is about learning to be okay with being unbalanced. I’m learning to be okay with discomfort- mine and others- when discomfort is the truer moment.

2 thoughts on “the tiredness of sympathy”

  1. One time I was sharing a suite with a woman I’d never met before. She asked me if I had any kids at home, and though my heart cracked a little, I gave her the simplest answer: “No.”

    I went into the bathroom to put some things away, looked at myself in the mirror for a long minute, and made a decision. When I came back out, I said to the woman, “You know, I don’t have any kids ‘at home.’ But I do have two babies in heaven. So I’m a mother, too, if that was your real question.” Her face went ashen and she stammered her condolances, but it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that I had said it. I was proud of myself, for favoring truth over social comforts, and also for letting one more person in on the delicious secret of my children’s existence — which is only secret because they are invisible to all but the most discerning.

    It’s funny to me, the way we go around trying to protect other people from our pain. Sometimes it is really satisfying to give them a peek, though. Sometimes I think, Yeah; stings, doesn’t it? You have no idea. But mostly I just think, I am grateful, for your sake, that you don’t really know what I am talking about. I hope that you are grateful too.

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