Absolute Proof That You are NOT Alone in Your Struggles
by Wendy Keller
I was seven years old when Caesar died. I remember his cold, lifeless little body curled up in the corner of his Habitrail. I went to pick him up after school and he felt like a baseball. I ran to my mother sobbing.
I felt guilty beyond all belief. I’d really meant to refresh his water bottle before school! Had I killed my precious pet? I felt incredibly sad, even though the noise from his squeaky wheel kept me up some nights. I stayed sad for days, maybe weeks. My grief over that little hamster was 100%. It was the worst loss I’d suffered so far.
And that’s where you come in.
This is what the late Caesar taught me, but I wouldn’t learn it until 19 years later when I was grieving the deaths of my children and people kept saying to me “Your suffering, your loss is so much greater than mine.” He taught me that No. No, it isn’t greater. It’s different, it may take more or less time to return to some version of emotional equilibrium, but ALL LOSSES ARE 100% painful if they are happening to YOU.
Imagine this. You’re cooking dinner. You’ve got the TV on and one of those commercials comes on about the kids starving in South America. You’re feeling sad looking at that hungry, dirty little street urchin. You’re thinking about that as you carry your plate toward the table, not paying attention. WHAM!!! Suddenly you slam your toe into the table leg! You put your plate down and hop around in great pain for a few minutes! Ouch!
What hurts greater? The kid in South America or your stubbed toe?
Your BRAIN says, “Of course that poor kid. Maybe I should make a donation…” but YOUR body, YOUR emotions instantly diverted completely to your throbbing toe, right?
That’s because the stubbed toe is happening to you. We all feel the same basic emotions: sadness, pain, loss, anger, etc. And because everyone feels the same emotions to a greater or lesser extent over the things they suffer in their own life, you’re never alone. You are surrounded by people who “get it”. You can’t tell the heart of someone whose wife just left him that he shouldn’t feel bad because his children are still alive. Pain and grief can’t be measured like that. Your suffering is 100% real and consuming to you. Your brain can say, “Oh, what’s she’s going through is worse” but that’s not going to make you feel better.
So now what?
If everyone suffers, then anyone can be comforting to you and show you compassion. And you can practice showing compassion and giving comfort back to people. Pain is pain, suffering is suffering. What you’re going through may seem no big deal to someone else, and you may not understand how they could be upset about what’s happening to them. But you’re both enduring negative emotions. Those emotions can increase your ability to engage in a caring way with humanity. (Not that that’s compensation for suffering! It’s merely a by-product!)
Try this: let other people comfort you without discounting their qualifications or their understanding of your pain. And practice showing extraordinary compassion with all the people you encounter, because even if what they’re enduring seems “small” to you, for them it’s likely to be a big deal.
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26 thoughts on “The Hamster of Happiness”
I disagree with the different amounts of pain people suffer from some is way deeper than others
Dianne, I respect your point of view, of course. But can you imagine that a seven year old losing a hamster – her first loss – is the worst thing she (I) had yet experienced? And can you imagine that to a person married for two years, no kids, going through a divorce, it might be the worst thing ever – but to a person married 25 years with lots of kids, they’d think their own situation far worse? My point is that it is unhealthy to judge your own suffering as “greater than” or “less than” that of another person because 1) it isolates you from compassion (received or given) and 2) you have no idea how deep that person’s pain really is because you are not them.
Debbie Heffron says:
Dianne, I understand the point you are trying to make. There are some people in this world that have not had to experience, illness, pain or death of a close loved one….and then there are some people who seem to get their unfair share of these experiences….one or the other is not worse or less except to that person….that is why God has equipped us with the emotion of empathy. No one can truly understand what someone is going through at the time…. I lost my daughter to congestive heart failure in 1990…the worst pain I have ever felt and probably ever will feel. My friends and family comforted me the only way they knew how, they felt helpless because they wanted to find just the right words to make it all better when there really isn’t any. So…when you were 7 losing your friend Ceasar was the worst thing that ever happened to you at the time and should not be discounted.
I remember after my children died, people would send us photos of their dead dog or cat and say, “I know what you’re going through, because I lost Rover (or Fluffy).” I was FURIOUS with those people! How dare they! I’d never once left my kids in the back yard with just a bowl of water all day! Or in the house for two with a litter box! I was SO ANGRY! It took me years to realize they were being kind and relating my loss to theirs the best way they knew how.
That’s my whole point with the story of Caesar. Thanks for knowing that. I’m so sorry your daughter died. I actually do NOT know what that was like for you, even though we’ve both lost children. But from the pain I’ve experienced, I feel great empathy for you and send you my love.
Debbie Heffron says:
Thanks Wendy,my experience was different because she was ill and at the end relief came to her because she was in pain and it was hard for her to breath. Your experience was so sudden and so shocking and I am so so sorry for your loss too.
I remember shortly after Heather passed, I was out shopping and saw people around me going about their business….I got ANGRY because how could life be going on when I just lost the most important person on earth? How could people be smiling, laughing as if nothing ever happened……..it was so hard.
I send you a big hug and I will tell you from experience, you will never forget them and never forget the hurt but I found after all these years that the sweet memories soon outnumber the memories of all of that other stuff…..I still have what I call my Heather days when it just seems unbearable not being able to hear her laugh or hug her or have a giggle fest with her…but they do get fewer and farther between…bless you Wendy and your family with love and hugs Debbie
Thanks again, Debbie. I sure do miss Jeremy and Amelia, too. When I was still on crutches – about a year after the accident, I guess – I saw a woman whack her four year old son with her purse in a store. The little guy fell down crying. I went nuts! I had been shopping with my mother-in-law, but I hobbled right over to that mother – who was screaming at the kid – and began screaming at her, crying, yelling at the top of my lungs. A bunch of people just stood and watched us. I took my crutch like I was going to beat her with it! I was SO angry – how could she abuse her four year old son and my four year old son was dead? I scared her. Truth, if I’d tried to do it (and I’ve never been violent!), I’d have fallen over, but she didn’t know that.
I forced her to promise to be kind to him or let me adopt him. The police came and I told them the story and they wrote up something about her. I think of that little guy – now a grown man – sometimes. I wonder what his awful mother taught him.
Anyway, thanks and love to you.
You have hit the nail on the head…..I was married for a very short time to someone I think of as my soul mate who was 29years older than me….His death was totally unexpected a sudden heart attack, I think of him most days, and am trying to move on, but no one will ever be able to replace him because what we had was so special…..but it gives me hope that I may find similar in someone else….because of the age difference I knew I wouldnt have him for long, but it was about the quality of the time we spent together not the quantity of time. He brought so much happiness into my life in the time we had together, and that nothing can take away.
Death is just so final…. but memories are forever.
What a beautiful expression! “Death is just so final…but memories are forever.” Well said! Isn’t that so very true!
I hope you do find that amazing guy and spend the rest of your days in joy and love.
So glad I stumbled across this. I agree with you. It’s kind of like trying to race injustices such as racism or sexism. It’s just not terribly productive and seems to be missing the point when we engage in such weighing of oppressions or of pain.
I recently read Mary Beth Chapman’s book “Choosing to SEE” – you might want to check it out if you haven’t. She also lost a child in a tragic accident and discusses at great length the healing process and what other well-meaning people offered up as their point of comparison, while quite often missing the mark. 🙂
Yeah, Angie, I think the “missing the mark” is common, whenever one tries to comfort another. I’m reminded of how when I was getting divorced, people would feel sorry for me, but I felt like doing jumping jacks of glee! I try to always be delicate now when comforting someone else, because you really can’t guess or know what they’re feeling. Odd, huh?
Thanks for writing. I hope your life overflows with joy, peace and love.
Eye somthymes mack tiepos two.
I have said these same things for years – although not so eloquently. I have said them always to others, but rarely to myself. When I have most needed my own empathy and compassion for feeling flattened by life, I have frowned down upon myself for allowing “small” things to matter. I have refused to believe that others could understand and felt that they would only judge me. I have almost wished for great tragedy to befall me just so I could say “now I have got a good reason for how crap I feel”. I have been working at turning this around, and “hearing” others say these words helps greatly. Thanks for being a shining example.
Oh, Allison! That negative voice in our heads is sometimes the sound of a harsh parent. A friend of mine was raised by Holocaust survivors. Unless he’s lost a limb and is bleeding to death (and perhaps even then!) he can’t allow himself a moment of compassion toward himself. He’s one of the most desperately unhappy men I know, and he’s in complete denial because “how could I be depressed when I have food and no German guards with guns around me?” The irony? He wasn’t born until two years after his refugee parents moved to the USA.
Don’t be like that, Allison. Love yourself first. Read the thing I wrote about the oxygen mask. And in between, know that I love you – even though we’ve never met. I hope you find joy, peace and love – for yourself.
Connie White says:
This makes so much more sense in dealing with pain than hating others that are trying to handle their pain. Pain is pain, no matter who it is happening to or why it is happening, and the actual opening of our hearts to others to help them heal, turns around and heals ourselves. This society has become so selfish, that turning in on oneself in a time of grief is becoming acceptable, even required to prove how much you loved the one you lost! How you treat that or those when you had them is a much better barometer.
I lost my Grandmother whom I grew up with when I was 17. My way of grieving was crying immediately, working through it over a few hours, and then the crying stopped. I actually had others who believed I was “hard and cold” because they saw me after I was finished with the crying part. They insinuated I didn’t love her because I was not crying at the funeral. We were all grieving the loss of this wonderful person, but we had different ways of grieving. Wendy, I want to tell you how much I appreciate your sharing the grieving process as you see it, it makes more sense to me than letting grief take another life…
Connie, I’m honored and touched by your share. I posted something a while ago about my beloved grandfather. Losing a loving grandparent can be SO difficult, can’t it? I also think people grieve things in very, very different ways. The point seems to be that one DOES deal with it, not HOW. (Well, within reason!)
Sending you my best wishes. May your life overflow with love, joy and peace.
Thank you for posting this. In May of last year I lost my baby due to pre-eclampsia. He was stillborn at 28 weeks. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. People reached out to me by comparing their miscarriages in the first trimester. It infuriated me! An early miscarriage and a stillborn child that you actually deliver and hold are two very different things. But… I also have a friend who lost her daughter at 5 years old, which in my view is so much worse. I can’t seem to stop playing the comparison game. And like your precious story to another reader, I go ballistic thinking of all the undeserving, abusive and just mean parents who get to raise their children. Thankfully I refocus on my beautiful 3.5 year old son. His little face brings me back into the present and makes me feel grateful for all I’ve been given instead of focusing on what I lost.
Oh Candi! What a terribly sad story! My former sister-in-law lost her baby in utero (cord issues) at around the same time as you – about 28 weeks. They dressed the little boy and put him in a coffin and had a whole funeral. It was so sad! Where my children are buried, there are literally hundreds of babies and many of the headstones have just one date on them. My heart really goes out to you.
As you may know, I eventually had another baby. She’s 20 now (or will be in July!) As much as I love her infinitely, I know that her existence cannot salve nor replace the loss of her siblings. She’s her own person. I know you meant that you focus on the charming antics of your 3.5 yr old son, as his own person, but like you probably are, I’m really careful to always tell people there is no replacing a lost human being. It doesn’t work that way!
I send my best wishes to you and your son. May you have many, many happy hours together.
Oh, much love to your sister-in-law, too. It’s devastating because that far along you are truly “expecting” and then you come home empty-handed and have to plan a funeral. And buy an urn, in my case, then go pick up your baby what’s left of your hopes and dreams a few days later.
I did not know you eventually had another child! 🙂 I have just recently found you and am looking forward to devouring everything you’ve written! And yes, I meant the love for my son pulls me back into reality and keeps me from completely falling apart over the one that I lost.
The one year anniversary of my second son’s “birthday” is coming up on May 11. I want to honor and love him but I don’t know what to do. I have thought about releasing balloons with little messages on them. What do you do, if anything? If you don’t mind me asking.
This is a wonderful article and I understand the point it’s making, but I essentially disagree. I don’t think we can quantify pain as such, but I do think some people create more pain for themselves, and therefore others, through wallowing, self-pity and not actively changing a situation. For example, a friend and I have recently had a disagreement due to how we each cope with pain.
I’ve been threw a hellish few years – my parents got divorced very messily, I got stuck in the middle and ended up moving out of my mum’s after social services became involved, my mum was clinically depressed, my sister became clinically depressed, my mum’s epilepsy returned and she had a fit, causing me to return home to care for her after it caused a nasty head injury, my dad was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is still struggling to cope, my younger sister is struggling to understand what is going on, my older sister (having recovered from depression) has now got a heart condition that has caused such problems she’s had to drop out of uni, my great grandma has developed dementia…the list goes on. This is how things stood for me in one week.
My friend became upset the same week for over a week due to her father not attending her 18th birthday party. Instead, she had a party organised by myself and another friend, then a party organised by her mother, then a meal out with other family. At the time, that was her one and only grievance, beyond mild daily hassles such as “darn, it’s raining”. I’m sure that her father being absent was very upsetting, but he was ill – it wasn’t out of choice that he wasn’t there. She chose to dwell on his absence for over a week, during her birthday parties, being sullen with her friends and generally being a negative presence.
Meanwhile, we were all coping with our troubles and maintaining a happy exterior to keep the mood light.
Whilst I think it is extremely important that people acknowledge and deal with sadness, it’s also extremely important to then try to overcome that sadness through keeping yourself happy – after all, you deserve not to be sad. But comparing just my friend’s story and my story, do you think that the pain we had to overcome was of the same level? That it was equally as hard for us to remain upbeat in each others presence? I’m not talking 24/7 here, there are of course times when it is highly appropriate for us to grieve over what is happening. But who do you think has more reason to be sad and to be a more negative presence over that week?
I’m not saying this to gain pity, I’m actually asking to question my own reactions to my friend and gain another perspective! Also, I don’t think either of us had the right to be more negative – but I do think one of us had a harder task being more positive judging just by what each of us was dealing with.
So, whilst I agree that what appears to be a smaller, less negative event to one person can cause an equal amount of pain, I don’t think that anyone should accept their sadness as a permanent fixture and decide not to resolve the issue, by changing something or accepting it cannot change. When people remain upset about a small grievance longer than someone who has a large grievance, I don’t think the latter should endure the prolonged sadness, just because the pain is equal. What do you think?
I think neither of you deserves prolonged sadness! I think neither of you should have to sad. But sadness is a common human emotion and therefore, a fact of life. If the worst thing that happened to her is her dad not coming to her 18th birthday, which she might see as just one more instance of his lifelong abandonment of her, then of course she’d be sad. The point of my article is this: EVERYONE suffers. And pretty much EVERYONE believes that what is happening to them is extremely painful…because it’s happening to them. I can’t really feel your pain except intellectually. Therefore, since I don’t know the nuances of your relationship with your family, I can only barely begin to imagine. This is also true: someone else in your same condition would have a completely different reaction than yours.
Do remember that you deserve to be taken care of, too. It sounds like you’ve got your hands full, so please take care of yourself if there’s no one to comfort you. Care giving is a rough job!
Wishing you a life of peace, love and joy from here forward.
I think it’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently and that it doesn’t happen all at once. When my husband died from terminal cancer fifteen years after he was diagnosed, many people said they figured that it wasn’t a surprise after that long and I must have been ready for it. But he had cheated death for so much longer than espected that it was still a shock when it happened. After his death, it was at first a relief that he was out of his pain. And I was so tired after caring for him as his condition worsened while trying to support my teenage children. I think it was a couple of years later when I actually found the time to grieve. It helped then to realize I was grieving not for the loss of him as he was at the end but rather for the loss of him as he was prior to his illness and for our lost future together. My daughter was conceived and born after his diagnosis so she never knew him when his illness wasn’t an issue. I remember her talking about being with her teenaged friends when one said, “The worst thing happened to me! I was caught on the phone after curfew and now I’ve lost phone privileges for a week!” She had her foot in both worlds and understood what her friend meant while also understanding there are a lot or things that are worse. I agree with Wendy that comparing pain is not a fruitful endeaver. When my children use to get in one of those arguments about who had the worst day or who had the most homework or whatever, I would remind them that there is no prize given at the end of the day for “Most Miserable”.
Ha ha! Sally, how right you are! No prize given for “Most Miserable”!
Thanks for sharing.
Sending my best wishes for love, joy and peace to you and the kids.
Thank you Wendy – words of such truth and liberation. I always say its about perspective and relevance to those who are experiencing their “stuff”. It’s a good day when people understand that they have a right to feel their “stuff” their way and to be okay with it.
Very true indeed.
People will feel & experience things in different ways to others. There is no metre that would be able to measure the amout of pain an individual feels after a loss.
Like you say, pain is pain and suffering is suffering. All grieving processes are different, some can be lengthy & some not so. Nobody is the same.
I’ve just lost my hamster about 20 minutes ago gasping for breath while I was stroking him. I am a mess. A bit time on the sick would do me, I wish.
He got me through a lot, he will be truly missed and I appreciate the time I got to spend with my little best friend. It feels like a part of me has died with him, the bestest friend I could go to for comfort regarding anything and he would never judge.
Looks like a hell of a long grieving process for me as I have more of an attachment to animals than kids, possibly because I aint got my own.
R.I.P Joey xxxxxxxxxxx
(My little jojo:)
I have to say I never thought anyone would write me about an actual hamster when I used it as a metaphor. I hope by now you’ve come to terms with the loss of your little Jojo. Pets can be so important to humans!