I’ve said already, in regards to me and Beth now having “miscarriage” in common, that misery does not love company, and I believe that’s true: knowing that someone else is suffering has no direct impact on one’s own suffering. It doesn’t lessen the blows of the hand I’ve been dealt to know that someone I love has been dealt a similarly painful hand. It just doesn’t.
However, I have seen, on multiple occasions, how grief and loss can make us more humanly connected. How often have we heard on the news that, in the wake of some huge disaster, “everyone banded together”? During more personal hard times, as in families affected by loss or illness, friends and neighbors bring an outpouring of love in the form of casseroles. Even at the most seemingly superficial level – say, a teenager gets dumped by her boyfriend – friends will come with ice cream and hold a sort of vigil.
At most weddings I’ve attended, there is palpable love in the room, especially during the ceremony, when everything is beautiful and innocent and full of the pomp of a ceremony. But then the reception happens, and all that love seems to channel itself into binge-drinking and dancing. The mood changes from love to lust, and very little human connection survives the night, even between family members and close friends.
On the other hand, when my ex and I sat shiva with my friend, Carrie, who had just lost her mom (the one of the red and turquoise memorial), the air literally buzzed with emotion, even though all we were doing was watching reruns of What Not To Wear. We did drink a few expensive gin-and-tonics with her dad, but that was just another way of sharing his grief and serving him; to me, it was on the same level as my typing as he dictated a letter to his late wife, to be read at her memorial service. I never thought I’d come to see gin-and-tonics as a means of establishing human connection, but there it is.
We are at our best as humans when we, or those around us, are suffering, but only if we can open the portals that will allow us to serve each other during those times. If we believe we aren’t supposed to talk about our suffering, our “personal problems,” we can’t make those connections with other people. I believe that I made that off-color remark to the guy looking for crackers because I hadn’t allowed myself to be held up and loved by those around me. Everyone knew what I had gone through, but I had led them all to believe that I was fine. As a result, I took no extra time off from work and received no casseroles. What I probably needed the most, in the weeks and months following my miscarriage, was a visit from my mother, or from Carrie, perhaps with a bottle of her dad’s fancy gin in tow.
But there’s also something to be said for the kindness of strangers, people who are not obligated to listen to your problems because they’re related or indebted to you somehow, but who care about us simply because we are human, and so are they. I see this at work all the time, from the other side. In my job, I probably ask over 300 people a day how they’re doing. Most say they’re fine, or well, or good. A few say they’re “blessed.” I had one regular customer in Seattle who liked to tell me he was “bordering on sensational” every time I asked him.
But I’ve learned, thanks to that one woman who prayed for me as I bagged her groceries, to pick out the “okay”s. From my own pointed usage of it during my own suffering, I know that “okay” means, “If I wasn’t okay, I wouldn’t be here. But okay is the best I’ve got.” And every once in a while, when I prompt them (“Just okay? What’s going on?”), people will let me in to their own suffering, and our souls, if only momentarily, are able to connect.
A few months ago, I had a customer in her late 50s tell me that I “didn’t want to know” about how her day was going. I left it, gently saying she wasn’t obligated to tell me and we could just do the grocery thing instead, but the portal had been opened. She started to cry, and told me that her grandson had just died on Monday.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” I said. “How old was he?”
“He was born on Thursday.”
Needless to say, I started to cry as well, and so did the woman waiting in line behind her. When I asked what happened, she said the baby just couldn’t get enough oxygen. I didn’t tell her what I had been through – it seemed so little in comparison – but told her I could only imagine how horrible this must be for her daughter-in-law, who had carried this baby, met him, and then almost immediately lost him. I wanted to pause the grocery store game and make her, and the woman behind her for that matter, some tea. Better yet, some gin-and-tonics. Instead, I gave her a bunch of sunflowers, put my hand on her shoulder and told her to take care of herself; that’s the extent of my power as a cashier.
But maybe, in that moment, it was enough.