I was 16 when my favorite cousin died at the age of 15. I was unable to grieve. It worried me that I wasn’t crying, I thought perhaps there was something wrong with me. I even went to the school chaplain, who reassured me that people often have trouble grieving for a sudden loss.
A few years prior to that, I had rescued a baby robin from the cat and had carefully tended to its care. It nestled in a box in my bedroom, I fed it earthworms, and helped it practice flying from my hand. The night before I had planned to release it, it died. As I held its stiff little body in my hands, tears poured down my face. I was inconsolable. (I describe this episode in my book, Passage of the Stork)
Getting back to my cousin’s death, when I look back on the event now, I realize that, as a 16-year-old, I was incapable of handling the emotions of shock and loss. There was no closure; I was unable to attend the memorial service which might have offered a release of emotions. The reality of her death remained an abstract concept. As the years went by, I grew accustomed to the fact that she was no longer there.
Although my grandmother was a formidable woman, she was very fond of me, and I was very attached to her. After she had moved to a nursing home, my mother discouraged my seeing her. My mother wanted me to remember her as she had been when she was healthy and clear-minded. When my grandmother died, I had already moved to Europe. Once again, there was no closure. Her death remained an abstract concept. The space she had taken in my life was empty; that was all.
Modern Western society has tried to smooth over the ugliness and the shock of death. We even use euphemisms like “passed away” to gild the bitter pill. On rare occasions, we witness the raw reality of death. Often, as I describe above, it’s the death of a pet or other animal. The sight releases the raw emotions that need to be released, to have some form of closure.
Because there is so much pent-up grief for our bigger losses, the emotions can seem to overwhelm us. Are we crying for that single death or are we crying for all the deaths that went before, that we were unable to mourn? Or perhaps even all the deaths of birds and wildlife caused by human failing, all the human deaths caused by violence, that we are unable to prevent or even comprehend?
Recently, tragedy struck the Hog Island Osprey Nest. For the second year in a row, the nest was attacked by Bald Eagles. This time, the chicks were almost fully grown and ready to fledge. One of the chicks was taken, the other two remained safe. Because of the size of the chicks, the attack received national, and even international, media interest. But, to the hundreds of viewers who had not only seen the chicks hatch and grow but had also seen the attack via the live cam, it was a deep, personal tragedy. Every reference to the attack reopened painful wounds and felt almost unbearable.
Even though the grief is real and palpable, it’s often amplified by old grief, tears that could not be shed previously. And this is a good thing. So, the next time you find yourself inconsolable about a death that doesn’t seem to (rationally) justify the strong emotions you’re feeling, give yourself the chance to delve down deeper and sense where – maybe – the deeper grief is rising from.