Updated: Jul 29, 2022
Last Wednesday morning as I perused Facebook and landed on some family pictures of a friend, I suddenly broke down sobbing. It felt at the time as though it came out of nowhere. But if I’m totally honest, I felt that same overwhelming sadness starting the week before at the end of a 'Blue Bloods' episode. Frank Reagen's family was sitting around their dining room table with love shining in their eyes as they apologized and forgave each other for a family squabble, and BAM, tears! It made me think of my own family and how much I miss those special times with the giant brood of us all together around the table - times of love, togetherness, celebration, and laughter. So much wonderful joy, loudness, and laughter. Then came the pictures last Wednesday morning...beautiful family love captured with gorgeous photography, and it split me wide open. And just like that, I became aware that grief was back for another visit.
That's the thing about grief; you never quite know for sure what moment it will strike. You ready yourself for the expected anniversary, birthday, and holiday sadness, but it's the sneak attacks that can drop you like a wet rag doll. Such outwardly small things...a family around a table, and then the loving, happy faces of extended families together on Facebook, and I was a blubbering mess! Because I had made it through the two recent back-to-back anniversaries of my dad's and brother's deaths in January and February without drowning in sadness, I assumed I was in a better place this year. But as I sit here now REALLY thinking about it (which is to say, actually stopping to take time to check in with my body and tune into my emotions), it registers with me that I've been doing what I had earlier in my grieving process become so very skilled at doing...shoving the feelings down, fighting to hold back the tears when they want to come instead of letting them flow, and pretending that I have far more control than I actually do, because, let’s face it, other stuff is usually going on and it can often feel as though there isn’t time to ‘go down under’ again.
Ah, wait a minute! Now I understand, I quickly realize something…the unexpected breast surgery and cancer scare that I just came out of 3 weeks ago…a different kind of grief, sadness, and thankfully, relief, but another grief all the same, only this time from the loss of a part of my body. Perhaps even more significant though is that it was another loss of ‘what was.’ I don’t quite look or feel the same. My youth is rapidly fading. I’m realizing more and more that the clock is ticking and life is incredibly fragile. I’m losing family, friends, and more and more people I know. I’m getting OLD! And then I realize there’s also the sadness of not having my mom here to help me through this latest trauma…that person that always managed to make things better by putting life’s unexpected challenges in proper perspective. (For the record, I’m here to inform you that you never stop wishing you had your mom). I’m starting to see the puzzle pieces at work again. Somehow, when you get to my age, grief begets grief, and so it goes. I can now ‘see’ the steps that lead me to this newest wave. Adding to the insidiousness of this round of grief, though, is the realization that I’m ‘grief burying’ again. Seriously, I’m still doing this?!?! (Forgetting to check in with those emotions daily, holding back the tears when they want to come, etc.!) UGH!
Perhaps we all learn to block grief to one degree or another because doing so allows us to function, and also to process at a slower pace what can feel so overwhelming in the midst of the crisis or moment, but the problem comes when we begin to ignore it…or to semi-consciously push it into the background of life because, well, it’s not enjoyable...it’s too much…it’s bad timing…it’s exhausting…it’s the last thing we want to do, AGAIN! I get it. I’m still discovering just how much I do this. We live in a society that doesn't embrace people walking around crying all the time. We don't want to see or think about grief any more than necessary because it makes us uncomfortable. And the biggest grief of all, death, tends to make us literally squirm with uncomfortableness. We don't want people to think we are weak or emotionally inept when we are grieving for longer than what seems like an appropriate length of time, and on the opposite side, we don’t know what to say to people who are still grieving weeks and months after loss, let alone years later.
The whole idea of grief seems so often to be handled as if it’s best to brush it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist, or to assume it will simply disappear if left alone or tiptoed around long enough, or to stay busy enough at all times that it can’t find us. And when we run into someone while out and about and they ask how we are, somehow it never feels ok to say, “You know what, I'm really grieving right now,” so we give the usual “I’m well, how are you and yours?” thereby effectively sidestepping honesty out of fear of judgement, while also avoiding putting the other person in an all-around uncomfortable situation. Is it any wonder we struggle so much with loss when it’s such a big part of life and yet we don’t grow up being taught that it is safe to spontaneously share our truth in this way, and to know that we won’t be judged as fragile, weak, or emotionally unskilled if we do?? Why do we always feel the need to give the impression that we are stronger than we feel, or than we actually are? Appearances!!! Ackkk!! Why do we work so hard to appear as though we have our act together ALL THE TIME NO MATTER WHAT WE ARE GOING THROUGH OR DEALING WITH? Why are we afraid to be vulnerable? And why are we always surprised to find out we really don't have the control we have managed to convince ourselves that we somehow should have? Perhaps it’s time that we make a conscious effort to get more comfortable talking about the uncomfortable, especially death. Food for thought. But I stray beyond where I intended to go (soooo easy for this writer to do, I’m afraid….lol). This is a bigger conversation for another time.
But where grief is concerned, for some reason I have convinced myself that I should know by now what to expect. After all, I'm the one who has written so much about heartache after nearly drowning in it. Don't I have this figured out yet? I guess I’m realizing that the answer to that question is both yes AND no. I do know that every time grief revisits, it’s my reminder of two things: 1- that I love deeply and fiercely (which is a good thing!), and 2- that I have more to learn. And God continues to teach me how to be patient with myself, to let go, to fall into being real and exposed and vulnerable at all times...something I've notoriously not been very good at. Weakness doesn’t feel like an option when you have survived trauma and have to force yourself to keep going to hide what happened to you. Nor does it feel like an option when you feel the need to impress all the time (another topic for another time), or when you have a family and a household to still run. And spontaneously falling apart certainly doesn’t feel like an option when you are in helping and teaching professions where you are constantly being scrutinized, held accountable, and responsible for the emotional and physical well-being of others. We need to give people more time to really grieve…and we need to give people permission to not be ok far beyond when we think they should be! (Yet another topic for later.) There is no right or wrong way to grieve!
In my case, after several years in a row of loss and a subsequent struggle with some depression, a therapist helped me understand that a great deal of my grief journey was learning to recognize and unleash the anguish that I had buried deep below the surface, because it turns out that my buried grief was the actual rumbling volcano and the grief that came afterwards was merely what caused the overflow – the eruption. In my experience, it’s absolutely true that new and recent grief has a way of bringing into the light any old and unresolved grief, so it’s no wonder you can find yourself easily overwhelmed and wondering why the weight of a current loss feels nearly unbearable. I don’t know about you, but once I start to cry, I can find myself crying for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with the original thing that brought on the tears! In this case, this time, it was the passing of three family death anniversaries followed by a scary breast surgery, followed by grief over this long term COVID stuff, followed by another birthday passing with missing family members, as well as the looming anniversary of my mother’s death. Annnnd BOOM! Down she goes.
Though I’m no expert on loss, this much I now know without doubt:
First, grief is absolutely lifelong. It’s an ongoing journey, not a destination.
Second, grief is different each time we encounter it, different with each loss, and different for each person. And third: grief is one of the best growth fertilizers in life.
"We are never done growing and becoming, and grief helps us journey into the uncharted places we didn't know we needed to go so we can learn what we didn't know we needed to learn." ©Chris Colyer
(Chew on that one for a minute…lol).
I miss them - my dad, my brother, my mom, my mother-in-law, and all the family members I no longer see – and those I’ve seen less of - because of loss, because of grief, because of change, because of COVID. And I miss what once was...the ‘once was’ that you simply can't in the moment ever imagine no longer having....the ‘once was’ that you know you would have worked harder to memorize had you known it was the last.
And it dawned on me that therein is the beauty, really - the not knowing at first, and then the knowing that comes after you've survived the loss and are able to understand what you before that loss could not: that the ordinary and extraordinary beauty of love -without knowing its expiration date- is what allows us to free fall and face plant into love in all its joy and glory in the first place. We couldn't be heart-centered and joy-filled if we knew how much time was left. We'd be in our head, counting the minutes, thinking about the past, imagining what life would be without us or without so-and-so, and trying to memorize the moments instead of simply experiencing and enjoying them. And what kind of life would that be?
There is such bittersweet exquisiteness and flawless design built into not knowing the final anything. In not knowing when the last time is that you will do something you love, or you will gather with your high school or college friends, or your child will reach for your hand or climb into your lap, or tragedy will strike, or death will take you or a loved one...in not knowing when it will be the last time you experience any of the things or people or situations or routines that bring joy to your heart. And when it does happen that you smack headfirst into the reality that something that was no longer is, it is your sadness and grief that will ultimately teach you more than any amount of happiness possibly can. But more than anything else, I believe grief teaches you the real meaning of gratitude - for God, for life, for love, for all that is - and those grief-laden tears that continue to visit unexpectedly, those are the tears of understanding, the tears of knowing, of understanding the real meaning of love. They are your subconscious acknowledgment that to love wholly is to open your heart to complete and utter vulnerability. It is to open your heart to endings and to the loss that will one day, at an undisclosed moment in time, come to tell you that something/someone you loved is no longer.
The reality is simply this: there is no amount of smooth sailing waters or joyous life moments that can teach you what love really is until the object of that love is removed, gone, never to be again. And when your heart cracks open and bleeds love's loss, or seeps with the poignant realization of time's ticking, that's when you get it...that's when you understand the beauty of life and the price of loving, a price that you slowly come to see is worth every tear you will ever shed for your whole life. And even though in the agony of your pain you will wonder if you can ever open your heart again to love, gratitude for what was and what is will find you, and your heart will choose love again and again and again.
You see, loss is an entity in and of itself, and perhaps the sole mechanism by which we begin to fully comprehend that nothing is permanent; some things simply cannot last forever. It is the change forced upon us by loss that coaches us in the preciousness and poignancy of life - that teaches us what it is to live in the moment and to be mindful of the blessings that surround us every single day. As time ticks on and you experience more and more loss, you come to see that you've actually been learning this truth your entire life, just in baby steps that you didn't process as poignantly as you are able to process them once the losses begin to pile up and include loved ones. All those little and bigger 'LASTS' begin to come back into focus -lasts you simply don't fully register as such until ‘over and gone’ takes on new meaning- but each one a baby step nonetheless. Baby steps in letting go, in growing in awareness and wisdom, in seeing the beauty in God's perfect design, in recognizing that love isn't just an emotion or a feeling; it’s an energy...it’s the very nature of existence...the fuel of life....the source of being....the power of survival...the answer to every question...the reason we are here…the truth that makes living worthwhile.
In short, Love is EVERYTHING. But it's the experience of loss that ultimately brings love's poignancy into increasingly greater focus as it holds us and rocks us through a lifetime of riveting chapters of joy and sorrow, of struggle and growth, and of learning and enlightenment -- chapters that eventually climax in our own departure back into the beauty that is the quantum field of divinity, of God, of the pure Love from whence we came.
So, hold each moment as sacred, for life is an incredible and beautiful story of discovering the presence and power of love -of God- everywhere in and around you. And that story of discovery, love, joy, learning, and forgiveness is so much more powerful and exciting when we don’t know all the answers, or the endings.
Be present in the beauty of not knowing.
Embrace each and every lesson grief brings your way.
Cling fiercely to love.
Because life – every last bit of it - is meant to be an extraordinary adventure of love.
So much love to you,
March 14, 2021
(on the occasion of my 61st birthday)