The Emotional Overwhelm of Others’ Grief

One of the surprising gifts of being widowed is that I feel more connected to others who are grieving—and these days, it seems like that’s a really big group. When I learn of someone else’s loss, I immediately soften toward them and feel deep empathy.

Sometimes, though, that deep empathy becomes intense enough to trigger my own grief and I find myself suddenly distraught. This has happened a few times in the past couple of weeks:

  • I was talking to a close friend on the phone whose mother recently died. At one point, my friend mentioned the challenge of getting her father, who has limited mobility, to the graveside for the service. I was already thinking of my friend’s loss; that was compounded with the realization of her father’s loss. I found myself choked up and unable to speak. While she was talking, I went from open, listening friend to devastated widow, from patiently holding space for her grief to completely immersed in mine. It happened so quickly and dramatically that I was momentarily disoriented and had to remind myself where I was and who I was on the phone with.
  • I was catching up with a colleague over coffee. She mentioned that she had lost a sibling years ago and still finds the holidays difficult. My eyes were instantly filled with tears, thinking of the big photo of Tom I had taped to a chair at every holiday dinner I attended so he would not be forgotten. For a few moments, I was physically looking at my colleague, but what I was seeing was the photo of Tom—him holding a giant martini glass with a pitcher’s worth of martinis in it, a smug look on his face. I thought of my colleague facing a similarly monumental loss and perhaps not having the strong support I have had of loved ones welcoming my quirk of taping a picture of Tom to a chair.
  • I was scrolling through social media and saw a friend’s post about his dog’s terminal cancer diagnosis. I thought of the desperate grasping at every moment that’s left my friend would surely feel in his dog’s remaining months, like what I felt after Tom’s stroke. Thinking of the immense comfort I had gotten after Tom’s death from our two dogs, I thought of how my friend’s house would feel oddly empty after his dog’s imminent death. I had to put my phone down and walk away to collect myself.

My practice of leaning into my grief means that I notice these reactions in myself but don’t try to contain them unless, like in the first situation, I feel like it would do some harm for me to let my grief run its course in the moment. In that situation, I needed to be present for my friend, so I shook my head and pushed my own grief aside until our call was done.

In the other instances, I just let my grief express itself. My colleague knew about my husband’s death and didn’t seem to think it was odd at all that I reacted the way I did to her disclosure about her brother. My own tears didn’t derail our conversation and I suspect that just as I felt closer to her knowing of her loss, she probably felt closer to me seeing my vulnerability. In the third situation, I was home with my daughter, and she’s used to seeing me fall apart at random moments now. She and I both have random moments of tears and emotional overwhelm and that’s pretty normal at our house.

In each instance, the grief of another brought my own grief dramatically to the surface, and my own grief allowed me to resonate more deeply with the loss the other person was experiencing. I am grateful for that deeper connection with others.

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