The Thing Is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
I find myself inundated with loss. A new loss occurred last Thursday with the sudden death of our cat. She had been part of the family for more than a decade. On Monday, we received a terminal diagnosis for our dog, and are now preparing ourselves for losing her. Thursday is the anniversary of a most difficult loss, the death of my beloved friend. It will have been one year since she was painfully taken from us. I was ill-prepared for a loss like that. Maybe we are never prepared. But up to this point, I had been able to visit with Grief for a little while and then move on.
I have experienced loss before. My parents’ marriage ended. I have moved. I have been left behind. My grandparents died. My son’s close friend died at 14. All of these experiences brought Grief into my life, and painfully so. But I somehow managed to avoid getting to know Grief. I kept her at arm’s length. I remained a stranger by moving on as quickly as possible. This time Grief unrelentingly took up residence. She would not be ignored. And her presence brought up not only the loss of my dear friend, but previous losses. I thought I had successfully navigated Grief in the past, but it turns out she had left quite a mark. She forced me to sift through pain that was residing deep within me.
Physical pain can be a sign that something is wrong, and it can also be a sign of healing. Emotional pain is similar in that it is not always clear what is going on. It is never an easy journey to take. And pain can be with us for years without our even realizing it. Instead we numb our pain. We eat our pain or spend our pain or sift through relationships always blaming the other for its failure. We think maybe this next accomplishment will assuage our pain. If only I am this size or have this title or drive this car. If only I have this many friends or support this many causes or collect this much stuff. But the If Only’s are just smoke and mirrors. Pain is pain, and lasting pain cannot be addressed until we welcome the presence of Grief to learn what has caused the pain. Only then are we able to adequately deal with it.
As I sat with Grief to feel the loss of my friend, I became aware of other stuff that I had buried: relationships that will never be what I wish they could be, the unsettling of my faith, feeling the consequences of failures and regrets. Even though this was terribly difficult, I chose to stay with Grief in spite of the exit ramps that regularly came. I welcomed Grief, not as my friend but as a needed companion. And rather than be offended by her presence, ignore her presence, or attempt to move her along as quickly as possible, I have learned to sit with her and learn from her. I accept her when she is here.
It is important to point out that there is a difference between acceptance and desire. To desire Grief is to take on an almost masochistic approach. I know people who are like this, who seem to relish their losses and be defined largely as victims. This is not a healthy relationship with Grief but rather a codependent one. My relationship with Grief is undergirded by the reality that she can consume me rather than help me. This is what prevents her from being my friend. I never forget that she is capable of destroying me, and that helps to keep my relationship with Grief a healthy one.
Last week in a blogpost, I advocated for hope over knowledge. I had some great conversations with people in response. For some, it resonated. For others, it was too easy. I have come to the conclusion that authentic hope is anything but easy. Hope is the ability to grab life like a face between the palms of my hands and say, “I know what you are capable of, and yet I choose you anyway.” To give space for friendships when you know what its loss might cause takes courage. To choose love when you know it will disappoint is living. To try again when you know what failure feels like takes guts. Surprisingly it has been my time spent with Grief that has deepened my hope. Grief allows me to accept what is, and hope enables me to see what is possible. Grief and hope are teaching me how to be both alive and free.
I have been deeply moved by others who know Grief. Experiences with her can vary greatly from person to person. To be with someone who intuitively understands her complexity and respects her is comforting beyond words. For those of you who feel alone, overwhelmed, or nearly consumed by Grief, know that you are not alone. Find someone who listens well, listens deeply, and doesn’t try to fix what is wrong. Those people will be invaluable to you as you learn to walk with Grief. And hope will come. Eventually. For we are told and I have learned that troubles produce patience, patience produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4).