From my upcoming book on Facing Adversity.
The poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “After the first death, there is no other.” Some have interpreted that line to be a poetic way of saying “we only die once,” but like all good poetry, it is subject to a variety of interpretations. For me, it has always meant that once you truly experience the profound suffering that comes from losing someone you love, you’ll never experience grief the same way again. But that “first death” isn’t necessarily the first time you experience death; rather it’s the first time you experience it in a way that wrenches your heart and soul.
As I write this, I am mourning the loss of my mother, who died at age 92 after a lengthy period of decline. While my heart aches, hers was not my “first death.” I experienced that some years ago when, of all things, a beloved cat died. It was then that I was utterly struck by the pain and loss that death brings and the soul-wrenching loss of grief. Of course, the grief from the loss of a pet, no matter how beloved, differs from that of the loss of a human, as it rightly should. But the one thing that I learned from that “first death” was how I process the stages of grief made famous by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).
The fact is that we all process grief in our own unique ways. Some are stoic, keeping a steely countenance and dealing with the emotions internally. Others are wild-haired and vocal in their suffering, keening and wailing both literally and figuratively. The comfort that comes after once having experienced real grief is that from then on you know your own reaction, the way you will cope and process it. And, in addition, you know that you will get through it. Along with recognizing the stages of pain, you can begin to see the stages of healing as well.
For me, I know that I pass through the stages of denial, bargaining and anger relatively quickly, but become ensnared by depression and deep sadness before I finally come to acceptance. For me, some time after a grievous loss, even the most sunny of days is tinged with grey clouds in my soul. But I know, too, that when I first begin to sense a quickening of hope and a calm, no matter how momentary, that the healing is beginning. It may take a long time, especially when the loss is as profound as that of my mother, but having lived through grief before, I also know that healing will come, in its own time and own way.