Grief can make you very sloppy. The other day I was reading this great essay “Falling” by Betty Jo Buro about coming undone around strangers. The story is a one-two sucker punch of grief — the death of Buro’s mother and and an impending divorce. (Take a moment. Read the essay. Regain your composure. Please continue.)
I love this passage:
In the elevator, there’re just two older women and me. After a couple of minutes, they tell me, in the kindest way possible, that I need to push the button to make the elevator descend. I apologize and say, “That woman reminded me of my mother,” and then I start to cry on the elevator in the mall with the strangers, holding the bag with my ridiculous jeans.
It made me recall my own sloppy encounters with grief. I remember many months after a friend’s suicide breaking down at a Home Depot in front of the demolition saw display. (He had been a carpenter.) Do you know how mortifying is it to be reduced to muffled sobs by a Milwaukee Sawzall? Very.
Grief is like carrying an invisible bucket of toxic slop on your head. You balance the bucket so carefully, constantly aware of its presence, fearing it might spill. But despite your best efforts, sometimes you trip, and slop pours out all over everything, and you have an embarrassing mess to clean up.
A couple observations on sloppy grief — 1.) Sometimes people will help you clean up. 2.) When you trip and spill, the burden isn’t quite so heavy any longer.
One of the most startling things after heartbreak is the kindness of strangers. Especially after infidelity, because there is no way to take that rejection other than deeply-to-the-mitrochrondria-of-your-soul personally. How can the person who knows me best discard me so completely? How awful am I that this happened? So it’s a real shocker when someone who doesn’t know you at all treats you with kindness.
WTF Universe?! There are GOOD PEOPLE? Hmmm. I may need to rethink my present miserable condition.
The stranger on the elevator who says, “It’s hard” and “I know what it’s like to miss your mother” and doesn’t look away from your vulnerability and grief, has just validated you. Okay, they may be trapped on an elevator with you, but in that moment, they’re able to be present with you, because they’ve suffered loss too. They get it.
I think it’s our job as humans to get it. As I’ve written about being chumped before, the experience changes you if you let it. The pain will crack open your heart, but with that pain comes the ability to walk into other people’s cracked open hearts. After this grief, you will see things in Technicolor. You’ll be grateful for the kindness of strangers, and when you recover, you will be that stranger who comforts, who won’t look away on the elevator, but will say “Hey, I get it” as you both fumble awkwardly for tissues.
I know it’s mortifying to spill your bucket of toxic slop. I have spilled that bucket in a Home Depot. I have overshared. I have emotionally vomited on total acquaintances. (“How was your summer?” Me: “I left my husband. How about you?”)
And I while I do not recommend the experience, (we’re all about dignity here at Chump Nation), I know that the messy grieving stage is finite. And I forgive myself for it. Because the fact is, when that bucket falls — it empties.
An empty bucket is a lot lighter to carry, especially with a friend (or a stranger) to help you carry it.
Have you been comforted by a stranger? Tell me about it.