“Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that.”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
Toward the end of the workday on a Monday, I got bad news. But not bad news directly related to me. Someone important to the man I love had died. The day before. He had just found out. I had never met this woman and yet my heart ached. A big booming thrust of an ache.
She was the sister of a man who was probably his closest friend. A man who had died about seven years ago. Sister to a man who was like a real brother to him. Like a sister to him. Both dead. Both dead too young. Way too young.
My aching, at first for his own pain, came on with a boom and then spiralled out and out until it was about death in general and getting older and the ways that life is just one big suckfest of good people suffering through horrible things. Melodramatic? Sure. How I roll? Yes.
Were her parents still alive? How do you survive losing two of your children? So young and to cancer? How much can one family take?
The questions circling larger and larger until it was as though the thought of her was surrounded by at least a hundred dead, hundreds of ghosts looming large around her, the pain of those left behind like a dense fog enveloping them all.
Death. A reality. For all of us. An inevitability. As we get older, a far more common reality. The news out of the blue almost to be expected.
And nothing can be done about the pain of death. Nothing. At least not to stop it. There’s just getting through it. Waiting until it wanes enough to feel less disabling.
Feeling deep sorrow yourself is horrendous. Awful. Missing someone dead is a completely helpless feeling. You can’t change it and yet the ache is mostly the desire to do just that, the heart wrenching urge to make them undead, radiating in your very bones and muscles.
In this sadness, this time, I can feel the weight of all of those future aches to come. With time, this kind of loss only seems to get worse. There’s no getting used to it, no sense that you’ve been through it and so it doesn’t hurt as bad. The weight piling up of all of those people you’ve lost and will still lose before all is said and done can start to feel like a weight that will never be off of your shoulders.
When it is your own sadness, there is at least the illusion that you have some control over it. It is an illusion, no doubt, except to the extent that we can prolong our own sorrow, make things worse or heavier or more crippling for ourselves. But our own sadness at least allows us to feel in control.
Watching someone you love feel that deep body ache has to be right up there with one of the worst feelings a heart can hold. To see it and hold them and know that there’s nothing to be done. Nothing at all. You are incapable of making it all go away, of taking it from them, of doing anything to minimize it at all.
When someone you love is reeling and all you can do is be there, it feels like an enormous amount of not enough. You can’t make someone cry less or more or speed up or slow down the waves of sorrow. You can’t close up the hole left by another person. We try, though. We try. Again and again and again.
So you hold them when they cry. And you make jokes about how extra salty really manly tears are – and in that flash of a moment where there is laughter, the weight feels smaller. For just a second. You touch them when they can’t sleep. You wrap yourself around them in the wee hours of the morning when they toss and toss and toss. You touch them as much as you can, remind them, anchor them to you. It’s all we can do, any of us, in the face of sadness. And somehow, it is enough. Probably because it has to be.
Our hearts, aching and helpless and old, grow arms and spin themselves out, in any way we can, and we hope against hope that it matters. When not enough is all you’ve got, then it’s what you give. And somehow, for those we love, it becomes enough. It becomes the thing that helps most.