My brother is moving to New York this weekend, and I am so incredibly proud of him. He and his wife are taking a big step, both in their young marriage and their careers. Yet it also has created a deep sadness in my heart. Logically, I know that New York City is just a little over a 9 hour drive from the Detroit area, and between FaceTime, Snapchat, and other instant forms of communication, I can connect with him whenever I'd like (Yes Rob, expect random FaceTime calls at 3am just to say hi and reminisce about our ridiculous wrestling league from the late 90's). But the move for he and his wife is also a big loss for my family. Our wives became instant friends and legitimately love hanging out with each other. I think they plan family events secretly just so they can have an excuse to see each other...which leads me to the point of this blog: The Guttersohn family of six became a family of five after my mom died in 2014. Thinking of a Guttersohn family get together post-move means another family readjustment, one that now involves just the three of us. This makes me miss my mom that much more.
I am currently the program director at a grief support organization, so naturally, I should be an expert at this, right? Yet this weekend has been such an emotional time of looking at pictures, remembering incredible family moments, and embracing the tension between smiling and crying as I look through the special memories captured in photos. Technically speaking, the term for what I'm experiencing is "grieving a secondary loss." These are losses that we experience as a result of the original loss - my mom's death. Losing my mom changed my family, yet the five of us bonded and helped each other cope through that loss. Now, my family is changing again, and the pain I'm feeling is a complicated assortment of entangled emotions relating to my mom's passing.
Avoiding The Comparison Trap
One of the most challenging aspects of helping people through grief is hearing stories of tragedy and trying to avoid the trap of ranking or comparing the various types of losses. The other day, a few members of my team went out to a school to help the family, students, teachers, and other community members begin to process their grief after a 12 year old girl died unexpectedly in her sleep. I recently spoke to a young man who's wife of only a year died suddenly, while another person lost their spouse of over 50 years. I know people who've lost little babies and I've spent time with people who've witnessed a loved one taking their own life.
And, despite everything I know about grief and loss, I begin to fall into this ugly trap of comparison: "my loss isn't as bad as what they've experienced, so my pain must not be as valid. After all, it's 'normal' to lose a parent. Everyone loses a parent at some point." I then take off my "lead with vulnerability and share my scars as a source of hope for others" hat, and put on my "I'm a social worker and grief professional here to assist you during your pain" hat. As a result, I devalue my own pain and stop making time to feel it and share it with others. This is so incredibly unhealthy and robs others with a similar loss as mine of having their pain validated and their voice be heard. Ranking and comparing losses is NEVER helpful and only creates more pain.
You're Not Alone
For those of you who have experienced the death of a parent, please hear these words from me: your loss matters. Your pain is real because the love you had for your mom or dad is real. They helped you become who you are, no matter how old you were or what life stage you were in when they died. And during the following months and years since their passing, you've probably experienced a slew of "secondary losses" that have caused you to question why you haven't "gotten over it" or "moved on." It may have been a wedding, the birth of a new baby, a big work accomplishment, or a special life milestone, each of which didn't feel the same without the parent(s) you wanted to share those moments with. It may even have been another loss or painful life experience that your parent would have helped comfort you through.
If you get frustrated by others who don't understand why you may still hurt, you're not alone. If you try and suppress your grief because it's been a few years and you "shouldn't" feel this way, you're not alone. And if you are afraid of upcoming holidays and special days because the pain of facing the void in your family feels overwhelming, you're not alone. You are normal and your emotions are important. Find a safe place to share your story. There are others out there who "get it."
Going forward, my task is to enjoy my family and learn what it's like to have a long-distance relationship with my brother and sister-in-law. Yes, local family events won't be the same. However, we now get to look forward to planning trips to New York City and discovering new family traditions. And by embarking on new Guttersohn adventures, we truly keep my mom's spirit and memory alive. She would be so proud of my brother, and so am I.