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.


Sherry Carr-Smith said...

Amazing post. I think a big part of not letting yourself be put in the corner is realizing that we can never understand someone else's grief. You could pick two people whose grief looks the same on paper (same age, same way of dying, same number of kids, whatever) and you still won't have the same two feelings. I try very hard not to judge people by my experience. It's never going to work. So, you take how you felt and say, "I know how hard this is, and I hope it will get better." Or I could have completely missed your point...

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I've commented here. I've been reading your blog and other widow blogs for about a year. I'm not a widow. I've read over and over about how those like me don't get it, can't get it, etc. I suppose that is true.... but I'm here reading, trying to learn about this experience and these feelings, as I watch a good friend of mine at the cusp of this (her husband has stage 4 brain cancer.)

Now, I'm certainly not out to point fingers or criticize widows for saying others just don't get it, but as someone who wants to be as helpful, sympathetic, etc. to a friend as I can, it is discouraging to have these labels so black-and-white. Thank you for acknowledging that there might be some gray mixed in there; thank you for saying that the "just don't get it" label has some of its own judgment thrown in (even though a very, very common lament in widow blogs is the judgment that is thrown their way).

I very much appreciate you opening up the "club." (Yeah, yeah, I know it is a club nobody wants to join...but still, when you call it a club, and someone is not in it yet loves someone who is, the exclusion still hurts a little.)

Great post.


Alicia said...

You already know what I think of this post: Glad to see it hit the light of day!

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Sherry, you're taking it even a step further, but on the right track. All I'm saying is that we don't need to build another wall with non widowed people if we don't have to, though I am not sure I did so very clearly!

Anonymous, good for you to sticking with your friend. The culture I speak of it born from most of us NOT having friends like you... though it becomes, I believe at least in my case, a bit of a circular game.

Alicia, :-).

Merry Widow said...

Interesting post. I've sometimes thought that as I go through this experience I'm actually less black and white. It is as if I used to think "widow" had one definition and now I'm realizing that just isn't the case. Someone used to say "her husband died" and I would think "her life is over, how can she go on?" Now, I just don't know what to think. The experience of loss is so individual and so varied.

So, it was interesting for me to read your perspective (which I guess proves both our points).

Thanks once again for sharing.

Jen said...

Wonderful post. I especially resonated with the observation that polarization happens most when you're feeling low, and the realization that the after-effects of loss -- the reinvention, rebuilding, recreation -- last much longer than the grief itself. I'm in that phase now, at three years out, and in some crazy way I actually miss the clarity and single focus of the first year.

Anonymous said...

In the week after we learned my husband's cancer had spread to his brain but we were waiting for the specialists to decide what to do, I went down to the hospital newsagency to grab a couple of drinks and a chocolate bar for my love. A young girl at the counter was using sticky tape to stick notices up on the wall behind the cash register and, as she ripped a length of tape off, she cut her finger. It was a scratch. Hardly bled. She turned to me, made a face and said 'Oh, I'm having the WORST day ever!'

I laughed, but it was kind laughter. I felt so glad for her that she didn't know what it was like to have a loved one seriously ill in hospital. I would love to be in her shoes thinking a paper cut was the definition of a bad day.

I don't resent the people who don't understand where I'm at. I'm glad for them. I hate sharing what I'm going through with them because I dislike bringing doom and gloom into someone's day. Yes, it's tiring for me sometimes to pretend I'm ok, but the question is asked with good intentions. I'd give anything to have that innocence back.

Great post, Supa. Hugs.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Thanks, all. Glad to provoke thought!

CW, Nice story. This is how it looked to me recently: do I want to become that person who gets upset at a broken nail again (not that I ever was... but say, someone whose day is ruined by the wrong restaurant order?)... At 1 to 2 years out, I would say, NO. I LIKE BEING DEEP.

Now, I am moving toward possibly saying Yes. I want to care about little crap again.

And you know what? Having some spare compassion for the people in Japan would be okay too.

Being human can hurt in all kinds of ways... who am I to stay stuck in just one?



annie said...

It's all relative. And it hinges on where we are at in space, time and experience that either allows us to be see the many angles of the world and humanity or blinkers us to tunnel vision.

I don't believe in "dgi". It never really had a ring of truth for me and I hate the polarization that goes along with it.

The "little crap" is a matter of your proximity. Nothing is little in the immediate unless you are the Dali Lama maybe. Being able to stop, think, walk through something and put in perspective separates the greys from the b/w folks, imo.

There are way more than two kinds of people in the world.

Sandy said...

Great post. I do believe in DGIs but I don't believe that all who have not been there, done that are DGIs. I have been blessed with some fantastic friends that really stepped up to support me. There are also some that I never see or hear from any more. What I found most amazing is some that I thought would be my rock have disappeared but those I had very little association with before are now the friends I count on the most.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Yeah, I don't think very many would disagree with the idea that our friendships get reorganized. But I am learning to have more compassion for those who dropped off -- not thinking that I can understand the reasons why, or that those are simple, or romanticizing in any way that I have been easy to deal with or a good friend to MY friends.

Cause I haven't been. :-(

cathy b said...

A well written post with very good thoughts behind it. Many people have "forgotten" I'm a widow, presumably because "I am doing so well." They don't see, they don't know, they don't get it...do they. Not really, no, they don't. They can't. I'm sorry, but they really really can't. And that's ok. It has to be.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, thank you. I am new to reading your blog, but not new to widowhood - 3 years and change for me.
The DGI Phenomenon is a curious one. Like you, I acknowledge that that's what people experience and it can be real and true. And I also think that some foster and encourage the isolation. They enjoy the tangling with inlaws and former friends who've been set up to disappoint again and again.
I don't mean to sound snarky, but some of us have been surrounded by love from family and friends from "before" and have forged new relationships in the "after" life.

Thank you.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Hi Anonymous,
I'm jealous, but I know that most of the issues with my own friendships are my own responsibility. I'm just getting out of isolation now...


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