”Those who have suffered understand suffering and therefore extend their hand."
— Patti Smith, singer-songwriter
My mother was one of those people who could be standing in a fabric store imagining what she could make out of a whimsical swatch of fabric, perhaps printed with dancing giraffes or swirling batiked elephants, and stray people would walk up and just start talking to her. I witnessed this phenomenon so many times as a kid, then whenever I visited her as an adult.
Often they would tell her a little piece of their life story, something troubling or even traumatic. She’d listen, her deep brown eyes looking into the face of the speaker the way you might look into the center of a complicated flower. Her head nodded subtly, like another flower on a fragile stem. I could sense the seeds of her creative mind sprouting, thinking of something helpful to say.
Her reply might be wise or practical or often irreverent and funny. Once I walked up to her talking to an unknown woman in the grocery store. I missed most of the conversation, arriving in time to hear her say,“well, you know, you always love your children, but they can still be jackasses.” In the moment, I did’t know whether she might point at me and say,“case in point.” No, she didn’t. She simply introduced me, smiling, as her daughter, though I couldn’t help wondering what the mystery woman was wondering.
“Mama, you’re a magnet,” I said, after the woman walked away and I found myself carrying two cantaloupes for her as she headed to the meat counter to checkout the chickens.
I asked her why she thought, out of all the people milling about in the store, that woman chose her to discuss whatever brokenness she needed to share?
“I don’t know,” she answered at first. Then as we poked our way down the baking aisle, she stopped, turned to me, checking first to make sure I still had the cantaloupes, and said something startling, especially surrounded by bags of sugar and silvery cupcake tins.
“I think hurt people see other hurt people.” Looking past me, her forehead furrowed, she thought about her words, as if they surprised her, too.
What do you think? Can hurt help us see each other?
I’d forgotten this snippet of memory until recently, when it suddenly emerged in my mind during a conversation as a guest on a podcast. I’ve been invited as a guest on several podcasts in recent weeks to discuss the challenges and healing aspects of grief.
Here are two podcast episodes that aired last week:
"Returning to Ourselves After Loss," my conversation with podcast host, psychotherapist & life coach Susan Montanaro
"Finding Meaning as We Move Through Grief," my conversation with podcast host, psychologist & life design strategist Dr. April Seifert
Prior to hitting the record button, one of the podcast hosts asked me what I’ve found most surprising since my book on living with loss came out.
My answer? It’s all the personal stories of love and loss and longing that readers and others have shared with me. It’s a strange yet beautiful gift to connect with people in such an intimate way. It’s humbling to be trusted to hear and to witness the pain each person is navigating after the death of a beloved someone who was essential to their life.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote in my journal, “To be a witness to another’s life is to be a sacred space. Yes, you and I are sacred spaces, holding the ones we love. With each inhalation and exhalation, we keep their stories alive within our own.”
Now, too, I hold those very private stories from readers and new acquaintances as sacred spaces inside of me.
Have you ever paused to consider all the stories you carry forward, many of which are not about you, but do become part of you?
My mother’s been gone for 18 years as I write. Time keeps unfurling, yet, surprisingly, I hear my mother inside me more than ever, her tone still wry and pragmatic.“Who’s the magnet now?” I hear her chirp.
She’s passed a trait to me I hadn’t imagined—to be that listener that she used to be.
Is it, as she thought, the hurt I’ve experienced that others see? Is that why I’m a safe space for someone to share their story? I don’t know. I’d like to believe it’s my ability to make joy out of the hurt, because that’s really what I want for all of us.
As a young woman, I read a feminist poet who asserted the importance of honoring the women who came before us.Yes! She also believed that as a woman ages, she becomes her mother. I loved my mother, though we had a challenging relationship, so at 20-something when I read that poet’s prose lines, I coiled back, and may have even gasped out loud,“No!”
But the poet and my mother are right. Part of me is my mother. Now I say,“Yes!” And someday, post-pandemic, when it’s safe to lean in and to linger with strangers, I’m ready to own being a kind of grocery-store whisperer.
Gotta love our human minds, their ability to bring the past into the present so we can hold on to the people we love. Give this practice a try.
Close your eyes, right now, and summon the memory, a happy one, of a moment shared with a person you love. What are you doing together? What does that moment look like, sound like, smell like, taste like, feel like? Bring it fully back to life, into your life, right now.
Memories can bring sadness certainly, but the power of memory—which, hurray, is one of your superpowers as a human being—is the ability to make meaningful moments endure as long as you do.
In this moment, I can see my mother that day as we left the grocery store. Hmmmm, how did I end up carrying those cantaloupes all the way out to the car? I can actually smell them, ripe and sweet. Re-living the moment, it’s a slow walk, because my mother, who would eventually succumb to lung cancer, wants to have time to smoke, to savor, an entire cigarette.
Shuffling side-by-side, I ask, “So, do you think I’m a jackass?” Without hesitation she replies, “Sometimes, but you’re my daughter, so it’s genetic.” We’re laughing and laughing, hard and loud, together.
I'm building supportive resources for living well with loss, working through grief, cultivating joy in your life each day, and fully inhabiting your life by being mindful. To see what I've curated so far, check-out Self-Care Resources by clicking the button below.