When we lost our parrot, Barney, I wrote about our grief here in this blog. And I also wrote about it in my column in the weekly newspaper where I work, the Calistoga Tribune.
I have a loyal readership with my column, and am used to positive feedback. My picture runs with the column, and people in town know who I am, and often, as I walk through the grocery store aisles, or wait in the post office, locals approach me and open dialogues about things I have written, sharing their own stories. People also write letters to the editor, on occasion, or send in e-mails through our website.
After Barney's death, I received many heart-felt condolences, including several beautiful sympathy cards. But one morning, I opened the general in-box on my computer and found this note: "Tell Michelle that the column about her dead bird was pathetic. Nobody in town wants to hear about her personal misery."
I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. My grief was still new and raw at that point, and the insensitivity of the statement was a shock. Even worse was the generalizing "nobody in town" line - as if the writer was speaking not just for herself, but for many.
All at once, the numerous positive words disappeared. I could only see and feel this one woman's rancor and animosity. I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear.
Luckily, as the days passed, I continued to receive wonderful support from animal lovers, people who wanted to hear stories of Barney, people who wanted to tell me about their own sweet animals, people who understood that I was going through a loss as real as if this were a child - Barney had been, after all, in the family for over 20 years.
But it made me wonder - why was I so easily unsettled by this woman's unkindness? Why was I so quickly thrown off-center by that one hostile voice, in the midst of so much support? Is there a human tendency to gravitate towards that which is most painful, instead of that which is most comforting? To expect the worst, instead of the best?
And I also wonder - what inspired her to lash out at me, a stranger, in that way? She had to have known that her words would be wounding. Is she just so angry and uncaring that she doesn't mind the damage she causes along the way?
The e-mail was signed. I did write back to her, when I had calmed myself, and simply said, "Tell me, was it just this column that bothered you, or have there been others?" My hope was to open a dialogue, to introduce myself to her as a human being, to give her a chance to say what was really going on.
She never replied.