THE WORKSHOP was called "Dealing with Loss." My husband had died a couple of months before, and I was eager to find some way to ease the weight that seemed to fill my chest, a weight so constant, so heavy, that I believed it to be palpable. I presumed that everyone in the group would be grieving.
To my surprise, only two others of those gathered in the semi-circle had come to talk of death.
"I've recently retired," an elderly man sitting next to me said. "All my life I've been productive; I've felt like a contributing member of society. Now I've lost my status. No one seeks my advice or seems to care about my opinions anymore. When I was working, what I said was important; now it seems that my expertise has taken on a different caliber."
"And I'm having problems with the loss of some of my freedom," the man's wife said. "I'm happy Chad's finally getting to relax, but my own routine has been disrupted. He thinks I should always be available, but the things I like to do are going begging."
A small, spry woman with a ready grin and twinkling eyes sat beyond the retiree. "I'm 84 and gradually losing my eyesight," she told us. "I'm trying to prepare myself for the time when I won't be able to see at all by learning where things are in my apartment. I've always been an avid reader; I'm wondering what I'll ever do with my time.
"Oh, I think I'll be able to manage -- I won't have a choice, will I?" She smiled wryly. "But what I can't figure out is my husband's attitude. He's always been kind and caring. Now when I ask him to get me a certain can of food from the pantry because I can't read the label, he gets angry and says I should get it myself. He insists I can see it."
The group discussed the woman's dilemma and decided her husband was dealing with a loss of his own -- the loss of a wife who could see -- and didn't know how to cope. He was, we offered, not recognizing his anger and was misdirecting his feelings at her.
The psychotherapist leading the group related that he himself was trying to adjust to a painful divorce. "It's difficult to have your mate die," he said, "but then you don't have the bitterness, the rejection that one has after a divorce. You have memories of good times and can cherish and savor them. My memories are tarnished and cause even more pain."
I came away from the discussion with new realizations. The pain of my grief wasn't lessened, but I had become aware that there are many kinds of loss.
Since that memorable afternoon I have discovered others. Friends who have had mastectomies or who have had to lose other parts of the body have talked of the trauma of feeling less than whole. Others have experienced the loss of youth in the aging process, the loss of hearing, of mobility following a stroke.
Never having had trouble becoming pregnant when I was a young wife, I had been unaware of the pain involved in not being able to conceive a child. Participants on a television talk show one afternoon were childless couples who had been through all kinds of tests and protocols in order to conceive but were unable to do so. This was the loss of something that had never existed. I won't forget the pain in the faces of the young people as they spoke of their grief and frustration.
Miscarriage is another kind of loss. The couple have known the joy of procreation only to lose the child before getting to see or hold it.
Each of us may think our own loss is the greatest, but who can evaluate pain? Perhaps if we could all put our troubles together ++ and select our own burdens, we would, as the old tale predicts, take back our own grief.
Janet P. Zinzeleta writes from Ellicott City.