Two types of people in the world
During my undergraduate class in Homer, I learned there are two types of people: Iliad people (emotion, war, death, loss) and Odyssey people (exploration, magic, critters, homecoming). Our small department taught just one of these each year, and I was thankful to have hit year two when the Iliad was "on" so I could enjoy the language without resisting my grain.
By senior year, after a few real-world jobs and other dabbling in the adult world that "deals," I’d decided there were, instead, two types of people in this world: people who divide the world into two types of people, and everyone else. I was determined to join the latter group though I knew it would be a tough transition.
I was tired of black and white.
And as I aged, through my twenties, fighting depression, married, my vision filled in the grays and occasionally dipped into full color. More and more, people who thought themselves (or me) defined by "D" or "R" affiliation looked small to me. Those arguments became easier to avoid. My rewarding tussles at parties with wine were about perspectives and transcending boundaries. I assumed at the core that our differences were valuable.
I wasn't perfect or consistent, but this was what I was aiming towards: learning something every day, pushing myself to break out of simple rationalizations for distance between people.
And then I had a kid and the world broke into two types of people again: people with kids and those without.
In the first few days and weeks of being parents, Gavin and I crossed that line of being committed to something else in a different way. For months, we'd been hearing the lilts of "your lives are going to change," as a challenge. I remember realizing that all those people actually KNEW they weren't talking about how often we'd make it out to see live music. I lost my stake in proving them wrong. These people inhabited this world of after and they were right. Absent addiction or psychosis, we would never stop carrying our child in that way that all parents (and I'm not limiting this to biological parents) understand.
All of a sudden people who cared whether we got out to nightclubs "didn't get it" and this line seemed too hard to cross, or not even worth it.
Three years later, six months into being a widowed mother, I found another split: widowed people talk about "DGI's," or people who "don't get it." If you're familiar with this little niche of culture, you know that widows often feel isolated and alienated to the point where they feel that folks who haven't had a major loss "can't" understand their experience. At the same time as they feel "those people" are coming from a different place, they still react with hurt to the dumb and insensitive things people say. The implication: we're better because we have BEEN THERE. Grief and loss have set us apart and we can never go back.
A huge factor in building this worldview is our sense, as widows and widowers, particularly those in younger social circles, that we have leprosy. We see others avoiding us, and we think it's about us, and not them.
I'm not going to describe this point of view in more detail or critique any particular aspects of it, because I don't think it's 100% incorrect. In particular, as an observation and set of feelings it can be neither "right" or "wrong."
But in my 5th year of widowhood I've discovered that I might not be as ensconced in this worldview, possibly not forever on the side of "after," as I would have thought earlier.
Because I've occasionally said the wrong thing, too. After all, there really, truly, isn't any RIGHT thing to say. There are innocuous things to say, and there are actions that make a difference, but words, for the most part, don't do a whole lot of good to someone in the darkest throes of grief.
I have sometimes (brace yourselves) even felt that it was hard to see someone else's pain. I've recognized it on the face of someone trying desperately to cope, to stand up, in those early months. I've seen myself in them, and been flashed back to the same time in my experience. And you know… I don't always feel like running towards it with a hug. In those moments, I've thought it might be possible that I was turning back into a DGI.
Spousal loss is big. It's scary. And seeing my reaction to it, today, I have gained some empathy for my community and how they saw ME back when I was doing really badly.
Whether or not these community members (and I"m mostly speaking about people in my UU church) were widowed, they saw me just fine. They were brave. They weren't happy they couldn't make a huge difference… but they understood it and many of them accepted it.
In other words: they didn't need to have "been there" to feel that I hurt and be uncomfortable (to whatever degree) with facing someone they couldn't fix. Grief is painful to see. That doesn't imply fault in the viewer, or perfection in the griever because she (or he) is untouchable. Untouchable, like the Indian caste, and untouchable, because nothing will help, not right at that moment.
The farther along I get from my loss, the more I see that the experience of widowhood (listen up, because this is BIG), is NOT just about the grief. That's where the gray is, and the color: the rebuilding of a new life. The adjustments to life after loss are as big — and affect most of us for a much longer period of time — than the grief, which gets all the press and attention, and creates all the fear.
As with the Iliad and the Odyssey, my point of view has shifted over the years, and it's still evolving (Does that change happen as a war or as a journey? Do we have to choose one?). Now that I've seen a lot of gray (both in other people and in my hair), and from those periods when I've lived in full color, I've learned this: the times in my life when it seemed there was an "us" and a "them" were not my best times. That point of view of polarization, and of distance, is what I have when I'm low and weak. And I don't want to stay there.
While I will hang on to the lessons of loss, and I think grief literacy is a valuable area of culture change, I am going to choose to let go of the black and white view of the world. I don't need to be on both sides.
If I'm stuck in a corner… let it not be me who put me there.