The Sweet Spot
By STEVE ALMOND and CHERYL STRAYED
This column is an edited excerpt from the July 29 “Dear Sugars” podcast, an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains an extended conversation and more letters. If you’re reading this on a desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).
My fiancé’s 82-year-old grandfather died last year and his mother has not taken it well. She believes in healing through faith, and right up until the end she believed a miracle would save her father’s life. Since his death, she regularly makes long Facebook posts about her suffering, inciting people to comfort and support her. My dad died suddenly 10 years ago of a brain aneurysm on the last day of my freshman year of college. I was 19. I never got to say goodbye. My fiancé’s grandfather had a long life and the opportunity to make peace with everyone before he died. Because of this, my pity for my future mother-in-law is stunted. My heart goes numb when she says what her father should have been here to do. I know grief is not a competition, but I feel that my loss was worse than hers. She’s aware that my father died young and unexpectedly, but I haven’t shared my feelings of resentment with her. How do I stop being so cold and hard? How do I honor her right to grieve publicly when I don’t understand it? How do I respect my own emotions while responding to her with empathy?
Steve Almond Reading the letters we receive, I’m always struck by how much, and how quickly, people convert their pain into self-loathing. My first thought when I read your letter, Heartless, was: Oh my god — you’re in pain. Your grieving isn’t over. The public ways in which your fiancé’s mom is grieving have reawakened the more private sense of shock and paralysis you felt when your father died. Your instinctive contempt for her displays of sorrow, and how she’s been able to elicit comfort, raises questions about whether you received what you needed 10 years ago, when you were so young and less equipped to ask for support, or even understand how to grieve.
Cheryl Strayed Deep grief often gets reignited when big things happen in our lives, Heartless. And I agree with Steve that witnessing your fiancé’s mom’s grief is likely reopening your own unresolved feelings about the death of your father. I think the first step in gaining a greater sense of compassion — for both yourself and your future mother-in-law — is to understand that your negative feelings are probably less about her behavior than they are about your own deepening understanding of the tremendous loss you suffered when your dad died. You say you know grief is not a competition, but it’s clear that you feel competitive about these two losses.
SA The big clue here is your use of the verb “incite” to describe this woman’s efforts to elicit support. That’s envy: the feeling of somebody else getting what you never got, and in this case granting themselves the right to ask for it.
CS That envy is so common. Please forgive yourself for having it, Heartless. My mom also died when I was in college, and even now, more than 26 years after her death, I sometimes envy people who lost their moms late in life. When I feel that envy, I remind myself that I’m comparing experiences rather than emotions, and that comparison feels inherently competitive. Your fiancé’s mom got to have her father decades longer than you did. Her father got to say goodbye to his loved ones, and yours did not. Most people — including, I’d guess, your fiancé’s mother — would agree that your loss is the more tragic of the two. But your tragedy doesn’t obliterate her sorrow. Your experience doesn’t erase hers. And it doesn’t negate the fact that the two of you now have something very big in common: You both loved and lost and grieve your fathers. You both know what it feels like to live without someone who was essential to you. If you can tune into the things you and your future mother-in-law share in your emotional lives, rather than focusing on the vast differences in your experiences, a lot of your resentment will fall away.
SA In a sense, you and your fiancé’s mother are in the same boat. She’s suffering, just like you, Heartless. Understanding your own emotions around the loss of your father will allow you to extend more compassion to yourself. And that will lead you to feel more sympathetic towards your future mother-in-law. You might even find something to admire in her ability to ask for what she needs. The reason this registers within you as ostentatious and proprietary is probably because you didn’t solicit, or receive, this kind of support. If you had, you wouldn’t resent her.
CS I get the impression you think there’s something undignified in your fiancé’s mom’s Facebook posts, but I encourage you to re-examine that. The notion that one should be silent about grief runs deep in our culture. But that silence only isolates the bereaved at the very time they most need comfort. Your fiancé’s mom is asking for her community to console her. There’s no shame in that. You can ask for that, too, if you’d like, Heartless, no matter how many years have passed since your father died.
SA I think it’s also vital to talk with your fiancé about all this. You had a cherished parent taken from you too young, in a way that did not allow you to fully resolve your feelings. You’ve been hauling around those unresolved feelings for 10 years. You’re hauling them into your marriage and into your fiancé’s family culture, in which death and mourning are handled differently. If you’re feeling cold and hard, Heartless, it’s only because you’re guarding a lot of vulnerability. You’re a young woman still bearing the burden of grief. Watching your future mother-in-law grieve has afforded you the dark opportunity to re-examine your own loss. It’s also made clear the necessity of sharing your pain, of seeking the care and kindness you deserve from those around you. That starts with the man you love.