Reflections On Grief and Loss

Sometimes life isn’t what it appears to be.  Sometimes loss is actually gain.

When I was a newlywed, my father-in-law died unexpectedly.  With less than 2 months of marriage under my belt, I felt ill-prepared to play the mature role of wife to the aggrieved.

Husband and I were supposed to be figuring out little things like how to co-exist, compromise, and negotiate whether one should squeeze a toothpaste tube from the middle or roll it up from the bottom.  Instead, we were thrust into decisions and actions that catapulted us past the fun frivolity of young adulthood.

In hindsight, the events of that summer were serendipitous.  Being immersed in grief, Husband and I had no inclination to trifle with each other.  When peers voiced their stage-appropriate struggles and discoveries, I would listen with the ears of an outsider, unable to relate.  From my new perspective, there were much bigger things in life than, life.

The blessings amidst loss are difficult to see.  Even with an open heart and willing mind, clarity may never arrive.  The darkness surrounding grief is thick and impossible to penetrate with the naked eye.  If one has any hope of experiencing the full range of possibilites, one must abandon conventional thinking and principled resistance.

In situations such as school shootings, it’s tempting to stir the pot of grief with anger, regret, and demands for retribution.  We want someone to ‘pay’ for our loss.  When it hurts so badly that it’s too much to bear, we share the pain, hoping it will make us feel better.  And sometimes it does.  There’s no greater love than that from another human who can hold our grief, if even for a fleeting moment.

But healing and transformation will never arrive in the midst of hate.  We can’t hear the wisdom within whilst venom is spewing forth.  Anger is a catalyst to be sure.  It can be helpful to light a fire that will enlighten the world.  But true change needs a safe entry-point.  When our intent is to burn those from whom we need help in order to move mountains, we all lose.

It must follow, if one is to go on living after loss, that we pick up the pieces of a shattered delusion of order and justice and put it back together in a way that suits a new paradigm.  This is true no matter the circumstances of loss.  This is one of the gifts to be garnered.

During my recent experience with grief following the loss of Beagle’s 19 year old friend, I found myself privy to a fresh perspective of sorrow.  It was intense and heart-breaking, as one would expect, but it was also magnificent.

Beagle and company filled up an entire church pew, standing shoulder to shoulder in their dress clothes without space enough to slip a piece of paper between them.  Parents stood behind, watching their sons’ bodies tense and tremble, listening to tears flow, and observing, in warp speed, the transformation from boy to man.

These boys, the embodiment of healthful youth, processed through protocol and were received with enthusiasm by their friend’s family.  They toasted the boy who no one had ever seen in a bad mood. They poked fun at their late friend’s expense, just as they would have if he was there with them, solidifying his lasting place in the brotherhood.

The gifts of grieving unfolded with every ritualized, as well as every unscripted, step.  Never was the congruence of love so evident  as it was in this group coming together, supporting each other in grief the same way they bond with each other in celebration.

Life is never the same after we lose a fellow human.  Each puts a personal stamp on the world that cannot be replaced. And there’s no prescription for how to go on living.  But one thing is certain: allowing yourself to experience loss for all its potential will inevitably lead to grace.

Support For A Child In Grief

I didn’t need to answer the phone to know that something was wrong.  Teen sons, in my experience, don’t just call Mom out of the blue.  A trembling voice confirmed my fear – something terrible had happened.  Beagle’s good friend, one of his posse, has died.

I find myself telling the news to everyone I cross paths with – not for any hope of consolation, but rather to solidify the truth.  Repeating the words moves me toward acceptance.  Beagle doesn’t know why, but he’s doing the same thing.  He didn’t want to talk at length about the tragedy, he just wanted to tell me, then hang up the phone and tell the next person and the next, until he could believe what he was saying.

In the hierarchy of horribleness, the passing of a child trumps the list of losses that one could encounter in a lifetime.  Few things are more cruel and bewildering.  When a life is cut far too short, the facade of relative safety and structure that outlines our typical days explodes, leaving us exposed to the elements of reality.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Life does not belong to us.  If it did, we would get to decide when it ended.

I have been around this block before, of course, and I know my way through grief.  But Beagle does not.  He is barely a man-cub and not yet fully versed in love and loss.  The time has come for Husband and I to teach lessons we had hoped would not arise for many years.

We cannot spare our boy any pain.  We can only hold a space for it, allowing it to express itself in any of its wildly varying forms.  We begin to paint a picture of grief, leading by example with unrestrained tears, voiced regrets, and demonstrations of strength and support.

We show and tell Beagle that no matter how mature you become, you will struggle with death.  The very fact that you have dared to love and connect to others means that you will suffer loss.  Try not to hate love for loss.  Try not to hate life for death.  Keep your heart open.  Don’t construct walls where doors should be.  And promise me you won’t subscribe to outdated stereotypes of masculinity.  Real men DO cry.

Beagle, you were meant to cross paths with your friend who left so soon.  The chapter of time with him is done, but the story doesn’t end.  The two of you will eternally be connected.  You will remember him and integrate him into your future with stories and rituals.  You will find ways to honor him.  You will introduce him to people who will never meet him. 

Eventually, happiness will touch your sorrow.  You will smile when you think of your time together instead of feeling drawn into the pit of your belly.  Don’t rush the healing. And don’t prolong it for anyone else’s sake.  Let it evolve in it’s own time.  Trust your heart to guide you. 

We were all lucky to have known this sweet boy.  Thank you, Beagle, for bringing him into our lives.  Know that we are here for you, supporting you as you leave the innocence and carefreeness of your youth behind.  You are now part of a club that no one wants to belong to.  You are far from alone.

Love, Untethered by Death

grieving-parents-004A man lost his mother to illness and old age. He hated his mother. In childhood she criticized him relentlessly. In adulthood she pestered him mercilessly.

The man wished for his mother to be gone. As she became increasingly dependent, he became intolerant. ‘Why won’t she just die?’ he wondered aloud. Very soon after uttering the words, the man’s mother did die and regret descended upon him. For so long he suffered his mother’s life. Now he would suffer her passing.

Death was not the relief the man expected. It brought forth a jumble of buried emotion that washed over him like flood waters, upending previously conceived notions rooted in anger. Long-standing stories with deeply entrenched beliefs crumbled under the force, like houses and trees that have been knocked flat.

Where once the man saw his mother as a burden, he saw glimpses of blessing.
Where once she was a villain, he saw a martyr.

This confused the man. He wasn’t willing to admit to tenderness and softening toward his mother. Love, untethered in death, floated to the surface. Its appearance was frightening and overwhelming to the unsuspecting mind. The man didn’t want to look love in the eye, but it was there, staring him down, glaring at his ignorance, daring him to ignore it in favor of the need to hate, to be right, to hold onto grievance.

A thorn had been removed from the man’s life and he wanted – expected – relief. But the wound was raw and awash with the sting of struggle. He would disperse his struggle to anyone who would take the time to indulge his need to purge. His loved ones listened with patience and irritation, for they were the ones who had borne the brunt of the man’s conflicted relationship with his mother for years. They tried, as best they could, to follow this new storyline as it unfolded. But it was difficult to string it together. Only the man could do that in time.

The man’s anger, without it’s familiar target, was misdirected toward those who would help. The sadness, which he loathed, was drowned in his work. The wounded archetype of an orphaned child was used to his advantage.

Eventually, the man would spend down his negativity and allow love to work its miracles. Time would open the door for love to slip in and heal his pain, showing him that despite his failure to acknowledge it, love was present all along, in a place where he was certain it could never have existed.

Love, it turned out, was his for the keeping.  It would prove over and over that no matter what we cover it with, nothing can eclipse love’s power.  Especially not death.

hidden-love

 

The Club

PeoniesWhite_FlowerDear Mama,

You have joined a club that no one wants to be a part of.  With regret, I welcome you into the company of those who have lost babies in pregnancy and birth.

I remember standing at that same entrance, unwilling to move; unwilling to acknowledge my membership.  Fear entices you to run and hide, but there is no visible exit.  And you cannot tear through these walls that now enclose you.

My dear woman, you are safe, even though your earth is shaking.  You are surrounded by loving arms that are ready to catch you if you fall.  Come, sit a while, and I will hold a space for your sorrow.

My love is all I have to offer.  I am devoid of the healing you seek so early in your loss.  There are no tricks to make it all go away.  No express train to peace.  But there is a path out of the sorrow.  I promise.  You cannot see it yet.  But you will.

At first, you may wander aimlessly,  grasping at reason and cursing life itself. You will scramble to pick up the pieces of the belief system that used to fuel you.  You may grieve louder than is comfortable for others and perhaps longer than people hope you will.  Or withdraw into a space so dark that even you cannot find yourself.

But eventually, like fireflies at night, hope will emerge in flickers.  Little bits of sunshine will seep into the cracks of your broken heart.  Until one day you stop having to chase the light.  Instead, you find yourself standing in it, unable to resist its warmth.

A token flower on your doorstep.

A bird splashing in a puddle.

And yes, even a baby crying.

Love will return. Resiliency will reign.

There are great life lessons that are exposed only through the experience of tragedy.  They are yours for the taking. Allowing yourself to experience loss for all its potential will inevitably lead to grace.  With compassion and confidence, I invite you onto this new path.

May you be blessed on your journey and know that you are never alone.

Eddy Out

white-water-rafting-rapids_03I wasn’t at the Boston marathon this year.  Nor was I with my parents in my childhood home in Watertown.  But I watched, along with the rest of the world, a week’s worth of terror on my turf.  I wake each morning since April 15th feeling violated, as if my own home has been robbed.

During this week of evolving tragedy, husband and I checked in with our brood to allow for debriefing.  Nine year old Peach responded with a casual dismissiveness, leaving us to wonder if her detachment from fear was self-protective.  When she emerged from her bedroom in full-blown tears, we assumed it was bombing-related.  Instead we got this:  “Blubby (the goldfish) is dead!”

Stifling a smile, I offered my deepest sympathies.  As words of comfort flowed, it struck me that these same condolences are being uttered throughout our city.  Be it animal or human, when a loved one has passed, we are called to support each other.

I tried to disconnect these two incidents, assigning weight where it was due, but the two were entwined like the two sides of the ‘Best Friends’ necklace that Peach asked me to disentangle.  She wondered about her fish’s passing, “Why me?  Why are brother’s fish still alive?  What did I do wrong?”  To which I replied, “Death is not personal.  It happens to all living things.  It’s part of the deal.”

This detached truth is the tiny light that burns eternal.  Death, illness, loss…they are simply part of the risk of being alive.  We are no more immune to them than we are to joy and abundance.  When we engage in life, we are equally at risk of experiencing overwhelming love as we are at experiencing loss.  Life doesn’t play favorites.  When we try to assign reason to life, it makes us suffer and keeps us stuck in confusion.

At times like these, I am reminded of the instructions given at the start of a white water rafting trip.  If one falls out of the boat:

  1. Don’t panic
  2. Don’t try to swim – it’s futile to fight the river
  3. Put your feet up and let the river take you.  It may toss you around, but eventually it will spit you out.
  4. Look for the rescue rope.  Someone will throw it to you.

This week felt a lot like falling out of a boat – again.  There was panic and fear.  We scrambled underwater, searching for terrorists and demanding resolution, trying to stop the hurt and climb back to safety.  At last, the river of life spit us out, heads above water, and we could see hope.  All around us, ropes were thrown – expressions of solidarity and generosity coming from near and far.

I used to marvel at Anne Frank’s famous declaration that, “Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart.”  But now, witnessing the collective response to the Boston bombings, I too, am certain that there is more good in the world than evil.  There are more people trying to save the world than hurt it.

It is certain that life will toss us into the river again and we will lose precious possessions in the process.  But we can also be certain that we will be rescued.  We just need to stay centered, release our resistance, and reach for the ropes.

Boston is eddying-out after negotiating a wicked rapid. It still has a long stretch of river to travel before finding its footing on dry land.  Knowing Boston, it will take on the rest of this river with a vengence.  Then it will climb back in the boats, ready to show the river who’s boss.

Is Love Alive?

candle2After hearing about the school shootings in Connecticut, I tried to fight the lump in my throat, but it threatened to choke me if I didn’t release the sadness welling up inside.  I’ve never cried so hard for someone I didn’t know.

As a rule, I avoid news-viewing of this sort.  But this day I am fixated like the proverbial moth to a flame.  And I am singed, feeling the sting of another’s horror.

This blog post will not pretend it has answers.  Nor will it join in the cacophony of anger towards guns or politics or school systems or even God.  As it likes to do, this blog will remind us to pause long enough amidst the chaos – even if only for the blink of an eye – to glimpse a spec of clarity.

At the funeral of an eight-year old that I attended years ago, the priest offered a metaphor that has influenced every challenge I’ve faced thereafter.  He said that life, at times of tragedy, is like a pot of boiling water.  When we are plunged into it, two very different things can happen.  If we are like an egg, we will harden.  Our shell remains unharmed to the naked eye, but inside we react to the heat with hardening in the form of bitterness and anger.  In contrast, the same boiling water, to a carrot, has the opposite effect.  The carrot becomes soft, allowing itself to be stripped of its rigidity as it gives way to a new form.

Therein lies our only choice.  For we cannot escape the pot.  Not one of us will coast through life without taking our turn with loss.  Which will we be, egg or carrot?

When I lost a baby to the treacherous business of childbearing, I cracked, like the egg that couldn’t stand the heat.  At first I raged against life.  Then I abandoned it.  Time became irrelevant; joy non-existent.

One morning I lay awake in a familiar state of numbness and noticed that the darkness of the room and that of my soul blended together.   The void that was me was so vast, it had no boundaries.  All that had once defined me was gone.

Vaguely, I was aware of my curled form, head down, no more than a lump on the ground.  Out of nowhere, a voice commanded me, “Look up!”  When I did, I heard one more instruction, “Remember who you are.”  With that, rapid screen shots of my life flickered before me – distant, fleeting reminders of purpose.

This was the day I began my healing.   Like the lame man in the Bible who was told to get up and walk, God had reached down from Heaven and picked me up by the scruff of my neck like a cub.  ‘Enough,’ He seemed to say, and sent me on my way with a gentle nudge.

This is how I learned about grace.  When I began to examine the depths of my experience, I became privy to the great life lessons that seem to be reserved for the experience of tragedy.

I saw the courage and loyalty of friends who refused to let fear withhold their extension of love, even when it meant doing nothing but be present.  I saw the tears in their eyes and the heard the sadness in their voices as a reflective measure of my own sadness and it comforted me.

I learned the value of family – the ultimate crutch.  The ones I can curse to or curse at and still expect their love.  The ones who pick up the pieces long after most people think the puzzle is back together.

And I saw the resiliency in myself.  No matter how far I had fallen, I could always rise again.

In the face of loss, I found these reasons to have hope.  When I allowed myself to experience sadness for all its potential, it led me back to love.

This is what I know to be true:  that grace exists for all people.  That we are never abandoned.  That healing is always possible.

We, friends and strangers alike, will gather around this enormous loss trying desperately to fill the gaping wound in humanity.  We will pray and think and do, yet still the wound may refuse to close.  Life has its own plan, its own clock.  Sometimes all we can do is wait for grace to arrive.

This is my winter song.

December never felt so wrong,

Cause you’re not here where you belong;

Inside my arms.

Is love alive?

I’ll be your harvester of it

And send it out tonight

So we can start again

Is love alive?

-Sara Bareilles/Ingrid Michaelson

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