On Collective Grief

Today, on a walk around the block, I ran into the mom of one of my childhood friends. We had the whole gang with us: Linden putzing along in his red and yellow car, Hollis gnawing the strap of his carrier on my back, and Jordan, hand-in-hand with my mom.

The gang

We chatted for a bit, and then as we continued our slow march along the block, my friend’s mom pulled me aside to ask how my mom was doing. “It’s just terrible,” she said, and I realized suddenly that her eyes were teary.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. People everywhere over the last few years have pulled me aside to express their sadness and regret over my mom’s illness. Often, their eyes fill with tears as they tell me what she meant to them, or as they sympathize with what it’s like to lose a family member.

I know this sounds morose, or like it’d be a downer. But actually, I find it inexpressibly comforting.

As we made the short trip home, I contemplated why that is, exactly.

It isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the idea of collective feeling. The more I’ve meditated, the more the recorded tracks that I use have introduced this idea that we’re all universally united by emotion. That sadness, grief, happiness, anger, disappointment–the whole gamut of human emotion–are universal to all of us.

This idea is always trotted out like it’s supposed to be comforting, but it’s always felt kind of empty to me. Negative emotion can feel so very lonely and alienating, but that doesn’t mean I draw comfort from other people feeling it too–in fact, it just makes me sadder, thinking about the idea of universal suffering.

But on that short block and a half back to our house, I had a sudden, soft epiphany.

The idea of universal suffering may not be all that different than the very thing I was being comforted by. It’s a collective grief over the hardships of the world.

Imagine a circle of people holding flashlights in a dark room. When just one person is shining their light onto a spot on the floor, the light is dim. But as more people add in their flashlights, it becomes brighter and brighter, until it shines so brightly that it feels almost solid.

That’s kind of what it feels like when people share their memories of and grief for my mom with me. It’s like we’re shining our lights out into the darkness, and by overlapping them, we can make that old Ellen who I miss so much a little more tangible.

So many people remember my mom–she exists in so many people’s minds, from so many different angles, that it feels like a never ending repository of new information about her. So much so, that it makes the grief over not having that bright, beaming future I’d envisioned with her a little easier to bear.

I don’t know if this makes sense, or if I’m expressing myself clearly, but this idea comforts me, and I wanted to share it just in case it comforts someone else too.

It also made me think about all of the people I grieve for who aren’t my own family. So many people. I ache for my friend, who just lost her mom to the same illness my mom has. I ache for the parent unsure of whether their home country is stable and safe for their children. I ache for all the parents who have lost children, for all of the children who have lost parents. For those facing the terror of illness in themselves or a loved one. For everyone going to sleep hungry. For everyone with unfulfilled longings. For everyone in a bleak and desperate situation.

These collective human griefs have settled deep into the marrow of my bones. Sometimes they feel like fatigue, but other times they make my joy sharp-edged, so that my throat tightens and rusts around the laughter and I squeeze my children a little tighter.

I bet you carry some of those collective human griefs too. We all do. Despite all the differences and divisions between us, when it comes down to it, we are all deeply linked by empathy for each other.

It’s what makes us human.

3 thoughts on “On Collective Grief

  1. Beautifully written – thank you. I worked with Ellen the whole time she was at the NJDOE. We were on the same projects together. We went on Professional Devlt days and weeks together and shared hotel rooms. I still feel as though what happened to Ellen medically during her tenure at the DOE is a mystery. No one at work ever gave it a name or explained it to us. Maybe we all believed and hoped if we didn’t talk about it, it would be temporary and go away – until she was unable to do her work anymore. Then we couldn’t ignore it and she left the job. But I still didn’t really understand what was going on.

    So now I’m asking what is her disease? I’d feel disloyal to guess at what was happening to her but I bet if you asked her former staff very few or no one would actually know what she was diagnosed with or what we were to expect for her future.

    Anyway she was always in our prayers and hugely positively impacted the work we did at the ECE office. I continue to use best practice documents she wrote and continue to marvel at her writing skills. She was extremely knowledgeable, all grounded in important research, on all important early education topics we dealt with. Our major guidance documents were written or coordinated by Ellen. She was our strong foundation and our recipe for healthy growth and success and we all loved and respected her. She was what our office needed as we grew and due to her hard work we grew a strong program that continues to benefit the young children she loved.
    Thanks dear Ellen!

    1. Thanks for writing, Liz! I love hearing these stories about my mom. She was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia, called frontotemporal dementia (or FTD). If you want to learn more about my mom’s particular case, I wrote a whole blog post about it: https://featherythoughts.com/2019/07/18/on-remembering-my-mom/. It was a rocky time for us as a family as we tried to find a diagnosis for what was happening to her, and I can imagine that her friends at work felt similarly. Feel free to pass the post around amongst former coworkers if you think it’d help bring some closure for folks! And if you have any funny Ellen stories, I’d absolutely love to hear them!

  2. To Liz,
    Collectively, we have so many memories, experiences, fun time, serious professional times etc. I didn’t realize you were not fully aware of Ellen’s struggles. Sarah’s writing has been so helpful and open! I was lucky enough to spend some time with them in Florida (prior to CoVid) and hope to do it again here or in NJ.
    Email or call me as I have the same email and cell. Or send me your email as I only have your old work one. Kathie

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