The Gift of Understanding.
BY JAIMEE HOOD
In my memory of East Texas, it was swelteringly hot even in the early summer.
My cousin and I lay on an air mattress in the cool dark of our aunt and uncle’s house. It was almost midnight so everyone else was quiet, but we were still high on caffeine or sugar or grief. I’m not sure which one.
You see, we attended our grandfather’s wake earlier that day.
You never really think some people will die, do you? Especially not the ones who live 1,000 miles away, the ones you think you’ll get to see just once more.
After a full day of socializing with family members we didn’t know, watching our parents cry, and sweating/freezing alternatively in the heat and air conditioning, we were both bone tired. So we tried to fall asleep, but after just a few moments of silence came the “You still awake?”
We talked about it briefly.
“Today sucked. I didn’t know Grandpa half as well as a granddaughter should know her Grandpa.”
The two of us were quiet for a moment after that, my cousin and I. Then: “So if you had to marry one member of One Direction, which one would you pick?”
It wasn’t that not talking about the death made it matter less. It was just that that weekend my friends from school were at the ninth-grade dance, and I was thrust into mourning a loss I didn’t quite feel vindicated to mourn. (Isn’t it odd, how guilty we can make ourselves feel for feeling?)
There is a time and place for processing loss. But we were worn out. So we stayed up until 2 a.m. talking about One Direction and real boys and the hypothetical house we were going to buy together once we graduated high school. We were able to suspend the weight of grief for a few fleeting moments and just be kids together. Unintentionally, we provided each other with the best gift we could have in that moment: understanding. No one else could really understand the exact emotional roller coaster we were on except the two of us. Having that common ground to stand on meant everything.
This human life is pretty beautiful. There are moments we laugh until our stomachs hurt, then keep going. Sunrises and sunsets. First birthday, first kiss, first time eating chocolate.
At the same time this human life is devastatingly painful. There are cycles of anxiety and death and griefs so deep we dare not speak them aloud.
How do we navigate the two simultaneously?
Despite our tendency to compare sufferings as though there were some universal yardstick by which to measure degree of hurt, it seems we’re all figuring it out day by day.
Although we have the best of intentions, we are often so careless with one another. We tout the importance of vulnerability and empathy and then offer one another blank stares. I don’t think it’s always due to indifference - we just don’t know how to respond. It’s genuinely difficult to enter into the reality of the other.
But the simple phrase “I’ve been there” has the power to unlock those parts of us that have never known sunlight.
So does the voice that says “I’m here, and I won’t look away.”
The urgency of the loneliness all around presses me to gently nudge the both of us: Maybe it’s time to set aside the grand gestures, the expectation, the big sweeping beginnings and endings. For the darkest moments are rarely linear or neat and will require a bit of nuance.
So ask how your coworker's mom is doing even months after the car accident. Grieve with your best friend because the girl he likes just isn’t into him. Grieve with the intern leaving the job she loves for a future she is all-too-anxious about. Ask and then listen with the willingness to accept whatever the response may be. We will never be able to fully enter into the reality of the other, but simply listening goes a long way.
In a broader sense, too, let’s extend the gift of understanding to those we wouldn’t normally hold so close. Let’s extend it to those whose lives look vastly different from what we know - to the immigrant, to the radical right-wing activist, to the PTA mom. Suffering is universal, so empathy should follow suit. So much of our healing will need to be done alone, in the quiet of our own hearts. It is difficult.
Let’s look like hope for one another, showing up over and over with the simple reminder of our presence that everything may not be okay, but we can be not okay together. And if there are days we simply don’t want to talk about it, let’s laugh. Okay? Let’s laugh our guts out. Let’s suspend the weight of grief and enter into that space where we are just kids together. Let’s hold darkness and light at the same time because we’re human - and being human, contrary to popular belief, is what we do best.