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 https://widowersgrief.blogspot.com. Twitter @MarkLiebenow2
Oh Mark. I just get this about greif. Thank you. Just thank you.
Thanks, Annie! And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed “greif.”
*GRIEF. *Was excited to post comment! (Reading your blog now)…
You nailed it, Mark. It’s a wonderful creative and wise article. My biggest loss after my husband’s death was losing 75% of my hearing a few years later. What? At a time I needed and wanted to reach out to others, I had the isolation of both deafness and grief. I worked around it through focusing on writing and hanging on to a stubborn insistence that I could manage hard things like telephone interviews (where I couldn’t read lips) and leading workshops. The most important thing was to tell people (repeatedly when necessary) and not pretend I could hear when I couldn’t. “I am mostly deaf. Please help me read your lips. And even if we’re talking about our tender feelings about grief, don’t whisper.”
Thank you, Elaine. Not pretending to be other than what we are and how we are feeling is crucial, both with grief and with a hearing loss, because people only have what we share with them to deal with. There are some physical clues, of course. Tears being an obvious one. But people aren’t going to helpful if they stumble into another person’s sorrow and they don’t want to be there. If we are honest with them, and they truly want to help in some way, then that’s when the magic of compassion happens. And with hearing, sometimes we have to slow people way down or move to a quieter place so that sharing can happen.
Such a great article. The comparison between grief and being hard of hearing is something I never would have thought of. So sorry about your hearing loss. I just wish people understood the depths of grief better and articles like this help so much.
I wish people understood grief better, too, Sheila. I do think that matters are getting better for grievers in terms of sharing with each other, but I don’t know if the insights are getting out to those who’ve never lost someone close. I hope so.
Thank you for sharing your loss, Mark. I still struggle with the complexities of losing my mother twice – first to alcohol addiction, then to her ultimate, horrific demise. I am plagued with guilt, sadness, anger, and such intense fear of my grief that I can’t seem to move through it (yes, I’m in therapy). Fortunately, I have two wonderful daughters and a loyal dog companion to soften those fears, allowing me to live as fully as possible, but I have distanced myself from nearly everyone else. I’m doing okay, but so much inner turmoil…
Hi Michelle, your post just made it to my inbox. I’m sorry to hear about your mother and the complexity of emotions with losing her twice. Grief is like wrestling with a bear; we feel so out of control so much of the time. I’m glad you have your daughters and well as a dog companion. My two cats did much to keep me going. I’d talk about my grief and they’d just listen, then curl up next to me without telling me how I “should” grieve. Something I found that was tremendously helpful for dealing with the early months of grief is an online group called Refuge in Grief. They have a 30-day course where every day a new prompt comes for exploring/expressing your grief by writing. You don’t have to share anything you write, but it helps focus the chaos of grief. You also develop community with others who are struggling with grief. I think a new group is starting next week. You can check them out on Facebook as well as their website.