If you lose a chunk, or all, of your hearing, the world radically changes. You don’t relate to people in the same way. You may not be able to hear the chatter of birds, the scuffling of leaves in the breeze, or the purring of your cats. There’s a constant vulnerability, a distancing from people, a hesitancy to interact.
Ditto with grief.
The loss of hearing has similarities with losing someone you love. They’re both forever, and both are significant losses. The far greater loss is death, of course, and I’ll try not to push the comparisons too far.
Hearing loss is invisible. You can’t tell until you get close to me and see the hearing aids. Then you tend to stare at them. And I notice.
Grief is largely invisible, too. Until you get close, I seem fine. Then you notice the residue of tears on my cheek and the redness of my eyes. When I talk about grief, you tend to look away. And I notice.
At night we take out our hearing aids and the world goes silent.
With a spouse who has died, the house is always silent.
In a crowded room, the hard of hearing have trouble understanding because aids amplify every sound. The cacophony becomes too much, and we want to find a quieter place.
The grieving have trouble coping with the bustle and noise of crowds, especially if we are introverts. Crowds deplete us of energy, and we seek a quieter place.
When your beloved whispers sweet nothings into your ear in bed, you hear nothing because you can’t hear whispers.
With grief, there is no one whispering.
Every day we are reminded of our loss of hearing in countless ways.
Every day we miss our loved ones when we think of something we want to share with them, when we have a question only they can answer, when we see one of their prized possessions, when we hear certain songs or drive by our favorite restaurants.
If you’re hard of hearing, you read lips at least a little to help interpret the verbal sounds you partially hear.
In grief, you read eyes to interpret what people are saying, to determine if they are trying to be helpful or are only being polite and would rather be somewhere, anywhere, else.
If you grieve and have a loss of hearing, this compounds matters. Imagine that we’re sitting in a busy coffee shop and you’re trying to console me by talking quietly so that others don’t overhear. Well, I can’t hear, either.
We already feel partial for not being able to hear clearly. Now we also feel broken by death. And if our hearing suddenly dropped for no reason when we were in our teens, like mine did, then we have probably learned to be quiet in groups and stay on the side of conversations, even though we’re dying to share our witty retorts. We don’t hear well enough to be confident that we know what conversations are about, and by the time we’re sure, the conversation has moved on to something else.
If your spouse has died, not only have you lost someone you love, you may have also lost “love,” feeling that no one else will want to put up with your hearing loss.
It’s not always easy to live with a hard of hearing person, because you have to repeat things. It can also be funny. Sometimes I mishear the words, think it’s a creative way of saying something, and use it in my writing.
Whether it’s a hearing loss or grief, if you are in front of me, all I ask is that you not jump to conclusions.
In regards to hearing, please know that it’s hard for me to ask you to repeat something because I have to ask this of people more often than I’d like. And if I answer a question that hasn’t been asked, please ask again. I’m not dumb and I’m not stupid. I’m hard of hearing.
With grief, even if I’m smiling and say I’m okay, all that this may mean is that I am doing okay, but I don’t want to talk superficially about grief. If you want to talk honestly, then ask a little more, go a little deeper. If I can see the openness in your eyes, then I will share more. I’m not broken and I’m not weak. I’m broken-hearted. And I’m stronger than I’ve ever been because I’ve confronted death and I’ve survived grief. What have you done recently?
Words can be superfluous creatures. They can be signs guiding us safely along an unknown trail, or they can be a pile of bear scat. What I need to see is understanding in your eyes. I need to feel the warm touch of your hand, and when we hug, I need to feel compassion.
Mark Liebenow’s writings on grief have been published in a variety of journals, including “Madonnas” and “Grief Walkers” in The Manifest-Station. His book about hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. His essays have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His grief website is http://widowersgrief.blogspot.com. Twitter @MarkLiebenow2