It was a strange, late summer afternoon.
We lived in a red brick building among many other red brick buildings. The sun hitting the sides of those buildings was the highlight of my day.
It felt like the slightly rundown buildings were crackling and alive and kissed by the rays. I needed the beauty on that particular afternoon. The night would be heavy.
My days were spent as a mother to three, but the nights, in my little kitchen with the drape separating me and the people who came to me from the rest of the apartment, were sacred, hushed and tinged with some joy—but mostly sorrow.
I hadn’t tasted devastating death yet. I didn’t know what that kind of death would feel like.
The people who came to me, though. They knew.
Maybe it was some kind of serendipitous event that the years leading up to my own nightmare, helped me to understand that the rug can be pulled out from under you at any moment.
As they sat in front of me, one after the other, I would tell them about their mother, father, sisters and brothers, best friends, cousins, nieces, nephews, sons and daughters. I would tell them about their lives and their memories and I could relay the message to the right person at the right time. I would pass the tissues and sometimes I would hold their hands.
After a few years of doing this, a depression landed on me, a malaise without a name.
I was overwhelmed with a fear of death when, more than anybody, I should have accepted that life did go on after we are released from this mortal coil.
But that didn’t happen. The acceptance didn’t come.
Although I could relay messages in detail, I was left with the people whose tears flowed easily and whose hearts broke as I passed on the memories and the details given to me by their loved ones.
It was the grief I didn’t know how to deal with until I was up to my elbows in it.
Grief is a strange beast.
It can go into hiding, into some strange cave of denial and we can linger in that cave for a very long time.
Our psyches seem to know what we can handle and what we can’t.
Grief can pay an unexpected visit when we think we’re doing well, sitting with our cup of coffee in a favourite mug, listening to music that had our toes tapping a few minutes before. Then the tsunami hits full force, knocking the wind out of us, bringing tears that don’t seem to abate.
Sometimes we want to go to bed, but bed is not practical when there are children to raise and jobs to do and so we get through the day as best we can, but we’re irritable and everything rubs us the wrong way.
Some of us go into full blown existential crises for which there are no concrete answers.
What I have learned is this:
Grief is like life. It has its ups and downs. It is a great mystery. It is the full moon.
It brings us to the edge of nothingness, lets us hang there for a while and then it pulls us back to where guilt might linger because smiles found our eyes. Grief, being the bringer of great confusion, taps us on the shoulder and says, “why are you smiling, you are supposed to be grieving?”
Grief is like every job interview or new relationship. It is like every birth and every death. It makes us afraid and it makes us vulnerable.
Grief is life.
That means we know that somewhere along the spectrum of feelings, we will land somewhere soft and beautiful. We can rest there for a while. We’re allowed to rest there. We’re allowed to play soft music, curl up into a ball and wallow in the loss for a while, in fact, for as long as it takes.
Our psyches are smart.
We should trust that although in one moment, we feel gutted, we also know that that feeling will pass, just in time for the guilt to come in and ask us questions. Real questions.
Why are we feeling guilty?
Are we experiencing guilt because we are relieved their suffering has ended or relieved that our suffering about their suffering is over? Are we feeling guilty because we said that one thing we can’t take back when we thought we were being mistreated?
Nothing is wrong with any of it. Grief is a magnifying glass of love and life and all the things that go with being human. We’re not perfect and this life is not perfect. We are perfectly imperfect.
This magnifying glass takes us to a land of memories that threatens to do us in. It sends us music that reminds us of the one we lost. It gives us words and phrases that they used to use. It sends us pain to pick the scabs off so that it is left raw and exposed.
This is grief’s job.
It’s job is to expose all that is real in us and strip us down to our core. It is to bring us down to the ground so we can look up at how wrenchingly beautiful and temporary this life is. Grief exists to get us to savour every possible second, to get us back on our feet, better able to help each other.
Beauty and music and movies and books and hills and valleys and untraveled roads are not going away. At the same time, everything is temporary.
Everything is ours for the taking if we reach for it but not grasp at it too tightly. We own nothing but ourselves. We will leave too, one day.
Even though people remain in our memories, our memories become a mantle of peace after a while.
The memories will become the stories we will pass down to our children so they can understand themselves better and so they too, can become storytellers.
They will learn as we weep and wail and retreat and come back up for air, that being human is feeling it all. They will learn as the waves recede and we breathe again, how to allow grief to do its thing.
They will learn that laughter is not a betrayal but part of the dance. We’re just learning the steps.
They will know that as humans, we will survive it. We do.
Letting ourselves fall into the arms of life, knowing our strengths and our weaknesses, knowing that we have a role to play here even in telling our stories, is grief’s secret.
Surrender to life and its mystery.
This is grief’s gift to us.
Author: Glynis Barr
Photo: Jem Yoshioka/Flickr
Editor: Lieselle Davidson