The day I returned to work after my brother’s funeral, one of my former students, ‘Trevor’, dropped by to announce that his world had collapsed. His fiancée had dumped him for some guy with lots of money. He was going to drop out of graduate school and he didn’t give a shit what happened him anymore. I assumed, mistakenly, that Trevor wanted me to talk him out of his despair. I’ve never been much good at that kind of thing, but I gave it a shot.
He might see things differently in a few months, I pointed out. Why not finish the semester? Then he could take the summer to decide what he wanted to do.
No way, Trevor said. He was too devastated to go on.
I told him my brother had just died and I was still in shock, but I was teaching my classes. Not functioning at full capacity, maybe, but trying. I doubted it would ease my grief to sit around thinking about how much I missed my brother. It would probably make things worse.
“Sorry about your brother,” Trevor said, and then he added, “Well, at least your brother didn’t reject you.”
From Trevor’s perspective, his grief was more severe than mine because his fiancée’s desertion left him feeling worthless. Yet in ten years — if he didn’t kill himself or become a hopeless drunk — he might meet another woman, someone kinder and more deserving of his love. But no one could replace my brother.
None of us fully understands someone else’s pain or grief. We only imagine it based on our own experience. Although boyfriends have dumped me, none of them mattered as much as Trevor’s fiancée mattered to him. And supposing Trevor had a sibling who died, the two of them might not have been as fiercely close as my brother and I were.
The loss of anyone leaves a hole in your life, and the depth of your grief is roughly proportionate to the size of that hole. What did you share with the one who’s gone? How much of yourself did you give? Nobody knows that but you.
All of this brings me to Westie, my parakeet, who died on Christmas Eve. To many people the loss of a pet is unimportant, especially a small bird. But Westie meant a lot to me. I talked and sang to him every evening before I put him to bed. My husband talked and whistled to him every morning. As a result he knew quite a few words and chattered and sang to us every day until he fell ill. Some of his favorites were “Won’t you kiss me?” and “Smile when you say that,” and “That’s Mr. Westie to you.” He whistled the opening notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Ride of the Valkyrie” and several other tunes.
He spent his last day snuggled against my chest while I wrote and read and watched videos on my iPad. That night I dozed in a recliner with Westie cupped in my hands. At four in the morning he fluttered away from me. I picked him up and he tried again to fly away. He wanted me to let him go. I placed him in his cage, where he died a few minutes later.
The loss of Westie is a small grief, but it hurts.
(The quotation at the beginning is taken from Daemon Seer when Lu’s parakeet, Foster, is bird-napped by daemons.)