2020 has been one hell of a year for a lot of people. For me, personally, it was not my worst year, but I know that for many people, it has been the most challenging, difficult, and horrible year ever. Much of the worst of it has been punctuated by profound loss, causing large numbers of people to mourn. People have lost their jobs, their ability to travel, their homes, their social lives, and, in some cases their health or even their lives. All of this loss, which has occurred on a worldwide scale, has affected the collective mood of the planet.
Between us, Bill and I have lost three family members since October. None of the people who died lost their lives to COVID-19. Two had cancer, and one had pneumonia that turned into septicemia, complicated by osteoporosis. There was a thought that maybe Bill’s dad had also had COVID-19, but he was tested for that and it was negative.
I think being so far away from my friends and family has made mourning somewhat less challenging. Since 2014, I’ve lost my dad, four uncles, an aunt, a cousin, a cousin’s spouse, and my father-in-law. I lost my dad only weeks before we moved over here. I remember, when I went to Natural Bridge for his memorial a few months after his death, I thought to myself that I was probably seeing some of my family members for the last time. Sure enough, that is what came to pass.
Bill, on the other hand, is newer to grieving family members than I am. He lost his Aunt Betsy last year. Last month, he lost his dad. I remember him telling me in the early years of our marriage, that he dreaded losing his father. He actually teared up a bit as he talked about it. But now that it’s happened, he’s not totally depressed.
The trouble is, he says he feels a little bit of shame for not feeling “sadder” than he does. He said he’d cried more over losing our dogs. I don’t know how or why this happened, but I blurted out, “I think maybe it’s because you mourned your dad many years ago, when your parents got divorced.” Bill’s eyes widened in surprise. It was a new thought to him. It was a new thought to me, too. I think it was a sudden flash of insight that came to me as I realized that he hadn’t lived with his dad since the late 60s and was never able to forge a very close relationship with him, even though he loved him very much.
If I were to die tomorrow, Bill would probably be devastated. We live together, so my presence would be acutely missed. We’re also very close friends as well as partners, and we are a major source of support to each other. But I think that sometimes losing family members with whom you don’t share a close, physical connection can be somewhat less traumatic. A lot depends on how bonded you are to them. And again, living far away from your friends and family can dilute that grief somewhat. Because the pain of missing someone tends to be sharpest at the time of the breakup.
At about this time in 1993, I lost my pony, Rusty. He had been my very best friend. I told him all my teenaged secrets and cried in his mane when I was upset (which happened a lot in the 1980s). Since he was an old horse, I didn’t want to sell him when it was time to go to college. I was afraid he’d end up in the wrong hands and not enjoy his last years. So I found a local horsewoman to take him in. She lived on a beautiful farm in the Northern Neck of Virginia.
In December 1993, she told me that she thought it might be time to euthanize Rusty. He was going blind because of a progressive, painful disease colloquially known as “moonblindness”. The last time I had visited him, he hadn’t seemed like himself. His eyes had little yellowish looking “moons” in them. I was sad when I left him. He didn’t seem happy.
I remember dreading the day when it would come time to say goodbye to Rusty forever. But when that day actually came, I was actually okay. I didn’t cry much at all. My old riding teacher, Louise, told me that she knew I’d already “come to grips” with what was inevitable. In a sense, I’d already mourned. I do miss Rusty. I think of him all the time, even though he’s been gone for 27 years. He really was my best friend. But I knew it was his time to go and it was for the best that he had. He wasn’t in pain anymore.
Maybe some people might take issue with me sharing this story about my pony and comparing that loss to losing a human loved one. But I had a closer relationship with that pony than I did with most of my family members. For several of my formative years, I saw him most days. I spent time working with him and bonded with him. We went to countless horse shows and fox hunts. He was my rock, and I trusted him implicitly. It hurt to lose him, but when it came down to it, I knew it was his time, and I didn’t want him to be in pain anymore. That’s what it’s come down to with all of my beloved pets when it’s been time to let them go, most of whom I would prefer to spend time with over a lot of the humans I know.
I didn’t have an especially close relationship with either of the other two family members I lost this year. I knew them both and mostly had positive regard for them. I know there are people who were much closer to them and are probably dealing with very dark days right now. With everything else going on in 2020, it really is a strain to also lose someone you love, even if they didn’t die of the “plague” that is COVID-19.
But if, by chance, the strain isn’t too rough, I don’t think it’s helpful to feel badly about that. Don’t feel ashamed for not feeling bad. Even if it seems like you should be grieving or mourning more than you are, your ultimate goal would be to get over the pain, right? So if you’re not feeling the pain, there’s no need to force it. Forcing it wouldn’t be a legitimate form of mourning anyway. Chances are, if the grief ever did hit with a vengeance, you’d still need to do the work that comes from getting over a loss.
There may come a day when the gravity of loss will hit one of us very hard. But, for now, maybe it hasn’t sunk in… or maybe we’ve already done our grieving, years ago, when the loss wasn’t permanent, but still felt acute. I know I went through a rough time when I realized that some of my family members, whom I had looked up to and loved very much, were not as wonderful as I’d assumed they were. I went through a kind of grieving when I saw them with adult eyes instead of a child’s eyes. And then I moved away, and the pain faded. When some of them passed away, my feelings ran the gamut. In every case, I was sorry that they had suffered. And I was grateful that the suffering was over. In every case, I was sorry that I would not see them again. And I was grateful that their problems were solved and that there’s a chance I might see them again on the other side… if there is one. Even if there isn’t another side, when it’s my turn to go, I won’t be any the wiser.
Death is a natural and inevitable part of life. We all go through it. Don’t ever let anyone else tell you your feelings are inappropriate. They’re just feelings, and there’s no right or wrong to them. They’re just how you feel, and you have the right to feel things authentically. I know there are some people who are very concerned about appearances and would judge another person for how “appropriate” their grieving process is. But it wouldn’t help anyone else for Bill or me to be falling apart with grief. My husband’s stepmother would not feel better, for instance, if Bill was beside himself with tears to the point at which he couldn’t function. She might think that would be “appropriate” and deferential, but the reality is, it wouldn’t make any real difference to anyone… least of all, the deceased. She wouldn’t feel any better to see Bill devastated by loss. Maybe they could commiserate from afar– maybe there would be a feeling of “solidarity”. But when it comes right down to it, the real process of grieving is mostly a solitary one. Your feelings are yours, and yours alone.
There’s no need to add to your own burdens by trying to feel grief or sadness that isn’t there because that’s what’s considered “appropriate”. I think we need to change our thinking about that, and stop shaming people for not acting in the ways we think are “normal”. Who decides what is “normal”, anyway?
Well… that about does it for my Sunday message. I’m going to dive back into The Crown, take a shower, and maybe brush up on my guitar skills. Enjoy your day.