There is a sameness to every loss. Every loss is different.
Jerry Sittser, in his book A Grace Disguised, says that all loss shares similarities. It doesn’t matter the kind of loss or the degree of the loss. It is fruitless, he suggests, to play the game of comparing grief.
We have friends who lost a home in a terrible fire. They had built their dream home and were preparing to move in, when, on Christmas Day, it burned to the ground. Their loss was severe.
We have friends who have struggled with childlessness. Is that a loss? Can one lose what one never had? In their case, they lost their dreams. They lost the fruition of lifelong and deeply felt expectations. Yes, this was loss.
We have friends who struggle with life-long illnesses of children. Is it a loss if the child is still with you, but chronically and perhaps terminally ill? Dreams and expectations may be lost, or at the least changed dramatically.
But isn’t all loss like that? We lost our daughter seven years ago. But the loss is really of the times to come that you plan for and dream of. We expect to have this future time with our child, and then she is gone. Yes, we lost her. But perhaps what we really lost was the her that had not yet come to be.
Or, put another way, the nine-year old Anna we were doomed to lose anyway. Had she lived, she would have never been nine again. She would be sixteen if she were still with us. She would be in high school. She would be getting a driver’s license. She would be (gasp) dating boys.
Sam is eighteen years old. He has grown into a (very large) young man. He works. He goes to school. He has his friends and spends a lot of time with them. Timberley and I spend a lot more time by ourselves than we did a year ago. Sam is not three, or four, or eight anymore. That Sam is lost to us. We can remember, sure, but we don’t have the precocious toddler anymore. He is gone. We lost him.
Our memories still work. We can remember the Sam that is gone. We can look at pictures. Sometimes, if we look really hard, we can look at grown up 18-year-old Sam and still see the toddler. But it’s not quite the same. In the same way, we have our memories of Anna. We can look at pictures. But that precious girl is lost to us, just as Sam the toddler is lost to us.
So perhaps what we lost was the Anna we never had. Anna the 16 year old. Anna the college student. Anna the wife. Anna the mother. We lost the future.
Is it in this way that all loss is the same? We have an expectation for tomorrow, but that expectation proves fruitless. We don’t get the job we want. We don’t get into the school we expect to. We don’t get asked to the prom, or we don’t get asked by the person for whom we hoped. Our child does not live to the age we expect and we lose the lifelong relationship we planned for.
Perhaps in understanding the sameness of loss, we can better come alongside others who are grieving. We know their pain, because we remember our own pain. We don’t compare the loss or the grief, but we let our own experience of loss drive us to come alongside and support the other person.
I said at the beginning that every loss is different. To this point I have been thinking about the similarities of all loss and grief. I want to think now about how each loss is unique.
When we lost Anna, we lost a very particular young girl. There was no one quite like her. I don’t say this as a proud parent (which I am) or because I have over-sentimentalized who Anna was (although I do), but simply as a statement of fact. Every person is unique. Each individual has the idiosyncratic quirks which make that person distinguishable from every other person.
Just as Anna was unique, so I am unique. I am different than every other man, every other husband, every other father. So it is only natural that in the meeting or joining of Anna’s uniqueness and my own uniqueness, there emerged a relationship that was unique. There was never a daughter and a father like Anna and I. Together we were one of a kind.
That unique relationship that I lost no one can quite understand. No one else is me. No other child is Anna. And no other father-daughter relationship was Anna’s and my relationship. And so there was no loss like my loss.
It doesn’t make my loss better or worse, or deeper, or more tragic, or anything of the sort. It just makes it different. And that difference is what makes talking to those who grieve so difficult. None of the things you prepare for quite work. You try to let the person know that you know how they feel. Well, the truth is, you don’t know. “I understand how you feel. I once lost ______.” What does that matter to the other person?
Instead, perhaps it might be good for you to ask the grieving person to talk about the uniqueness of their loss. Since every person is unique, ask about the person who passed away. Ask about what made that person unique and interesting. Perhaps ask about their relationship. What was lost in the absence of that relationship. To my friend who lost his house in a fire, I could have asked for him to tell me about what made that house their dream home. In other words, explore the uniqueness of this person’s pain and grief. Don’t assume it is just like your grief, because it isn’t.
Let the sameness of grief drive you to compassion, empathy, and, perhaps, silence. Let the uniqueness of grief drive you to inquisitiveness. Perhaps out of the union of the two a beautiful story will emerge.