My elderly mother-in-law died seven weeks ago. It was a long decline spanning the last 18 months and punctuated by numerous and increasing health issues, notably dementia and cancer. The end of her life brought a level of care-giving and involvement for which neither my husband nor I were adequately prepared. For me, taking on such huge, additional responsibilities, though shared, was overwhelming, especially while grieving my sister.
What has stuck me most in these intervening weeks since her death, is the nature of my husband’s grief and how intrinsically their distinct relationship has determined the character and nuance of it. This has, in turn, brought my own grief into sharper relief. Each grief for someone is so very personal. It is marked by all that we were and meant to each other, how we interacted, what was shared and withheld, and how — over time — we grew emotionally closer, or apart, and how we therefore arrived at the time of parting. It all comes to bear at last on how and why we grieve, and how we will face our own deaths.
We also bring these very personal experiences to our expressions of condolence and sympathy. So much is framed by our unique relationships and circumstances, that drawing too much on assumed similarities can, at the very least, render the expression less meaningful. I’ve noticed how my condolences to others reflect my own grief and relationships. Though there are many parallels to be drawn and unities to be embraced as I contemplate death and mourning, my awareness of others’ discrete relationships gives me a richer understanding of my own grief, and hopefully, a more mindful appreciation of theirs.