What to do when you suffer a loss so great it swallows you whole?
How do you carry on living when death comes knocking, taking a piece of your heart with it?
Who am I to tell you what to do?
Instead, I want you to meet two dear friends of mine, both of whom comfort me through my periods of sorrow and also help me to make sense of it all.
Their names are Grief and Gratitude.
Grief is an old crone, whom I have come to trust with my life.
Gratitude is her young and beautiful daughter, whom I am just really getting to know the depths of.
They are both judged by their covers, often misunderstood, misrepresented, lauded and feared even.
Recently, they have helped me to learn from cancer and to embrace whole-heartedly the certainty of Death (we’ll get to know him another time).
I believe that if you get to know these two dear friends of mine, yourself, you will get all the answers you seek.
Ready to meet them?
The First Time I Met Grief
I remember the day (I must have been 5 or so) when I was called to the bedside of my dying great grandmother. I was told to hold her warm and leathery hand.
I never really knew her, but on this one day, I stood there and saw her spark go out. Her body became empty and her hand cold. Because I did not grow to love her, nor feel her in my heart, Grief did not arrive to greet me that day. The moment was just another event to me, though I saw a glimpse of her surrounding the adults in the room.
A year later, my family and I were on the run as refugees escaping through the Iron Curtain.
I was still a child, but this time I understood what was happening.
When it was clear (at the time) that we would likely never return to see my cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunties — all the people I held dear — I felt the shadow of Grief like a dark cloud closing in on us.
Wholly unprepared, I saw her approach as a threat. If I let her, she would rip my heart to pieces, and destroy my world.
But her touch was gentle and disarming.
Burying my face in her bosom, I started bawling my eyes out, in a public square.
My parents were not embarrassed but terrified, at the time. The situation was that we were about to cross a border illegally, in a few hours. In the meantime, we had to keep up appearances and blend in with locals. Holding close to Grief was causing a scene and alerting people nearby. A policeman came to see what was happening.
The threat of exposure, capture and prison was stark.
My mother quickly wiped my tears and gripped me close. Grief was too dangerous she told me. There is no time for her now. She will betray us and get us killed.
From that day on, I shunned her and ran from her.
I became a dark and somber teen and then youth.
If my emotions were accessible through a tap, I kept it tightly closed, only letting a few drops out a time.
I spent 20 years submerged under the heavy blanket of depression: everything I experienced was only in muted tones, with no depth of emotion. No great love nor pain. Just the fleeting surface of reactions and moods. I felt like a zombie those years, surviving as a shadow of my former self.
20 Years Later…
I took my mom on a road trip to retrace the steps of our escape as refugees.
As we passed the spot where I had bawled my eyes out and then shunned all great emotions, Grief was there at the side of the road, patiently waiting.
My mom and I parted ways as Grief walked with me up a mountain in Medjugoria (now Croatia).
She took me to a spot to sit on a rock, alone. There she wrapped her ancient arms around me. I wept for three hours as thunder raged and a summer rain storm washed over me.
Afterward, I was emotionally exhausted, yet physically invigorated. I ran down the mountain with a lightness and joy. For the first time in my life, I felt something…
That encounter I will never forget. Coming back home, I felt closer to my family. Felt their joys and their pains, frustrations and losses.
Though I heard much about her beauty from others, this is when I first met Gratitude in person. She was not what I expected: sensitive, quiet, down to earth and just like her mother — disarming in her ways. She saw my tears and thanked me for my courage. She bore fresh wildflowers that she’d cut herself.
Spending time with Grief, the wall around my heart had been cracked and demolished.
Getting to know Gratitude, my heart healed quickly. I fell in love soon after…
But then, years went by where I mostly forgot about — er, maybe neglected — my friendship with both Grief and Gratitude…
How we became estranged, again…
When daily life takes over, it is easy to forgot about our friends.
Grief is not easy to hang out with in public. She seems foreign to our modern ways, bearing gifts from the old world.
Meanwhile, her daughter Gratitude is talked about on greeting cards, spoken about with sugar tounges and touted as “good for you”. But, the real Gratitude I came to know, would sometimes make me feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I don’t feel so deeply and fully alive!
Hanging around boys and men, I let their unspoken rules pull me away from these two great ladies.
Boys don’t cry.
Steal yourself, man.
Stay calm and carry on.
The busy and fast paced world we live it, insulated me.
And when loss was inevitable, the hum of our capitalist self obsessed culture, encouraged me to bury my sorrows, and not look back:
Forget about Grief.
Stuff down those bad feelings by eating this.
Numb and empty? Buy somethings to fill the hole.
Here you go… consume and escape into this entertainment box.
But, when the pressure to cry became more unbearable than the prospect of letting it rain?
I called Grief back into my life. It was Grief who truly helped me to become a man. And so when the world around us tries to break us apart, I take it as a dare.
Come my dear, Grief, let us dance.
“There are many fine reasons to be sad…”
That is what my dear friend Grief whispers in my ear.
Knowing her well these days, I trust her to speak truth, always.
There are no small losses in this world were waste and destruction happen on the tiniest and grandest scales — in the same breath.
Even the loss of something that never was — a hoped-for train that never came — is well worth grieving.
There many losses our modern world has forgotten or tried to numb us to. Some of them are truly too big for any one of us to hold alone.
I feel such bottomless waters when I look at the news and behold the state of the world, with of its banal horrors and ageless tragedies.
Sometimes the pain seems to be on distant shores.
Sometimes it washes up at our very feet, and wanting to engulf us.
How can anyone who cares about living beings, not fall to their knees and weep in such waters?
There are other fine reasons to grieve.
Some are intimate and hard to put into words, such as those moments when the full gravity of our innocence having been lost, finally sinks in. Such moments are sharp and shocking — like a part of us being stabbed and left for dead in an alley, to bleed out and be forgotten.
When Grief comes to visit me…
She doesn’t carry a phone nor is she accessible by any tech devices.
If we are fortunate, and if we look for her in times of need, we shall always find Grief nearby.
To the untrained eye, she appears broken and disheveled standing just out of view, off to the side.
Ignored or shunned by many,
she is the most brave of heart.
Who else dares enough to come close enough to hold our deepest pain with us?
She sighs deeply and says nothing. She knows the ocean is vast and the depths can be terribly cold and dark. She also knows the sweetness and vitality of loss and that only after embracing her, her offspring Gratitude has space to enter.
Grief is not full of memes, one-liners or memorable quotes, but she is more wise and powerful than any academic, leader or pundit could ever pretend to be.
When she is around, and the tears comes, I trust that I am not going to drown. She knows that my heart can take whatever pain is within it. That it was built to be broken open.
What I do first is not what is best…
Even though I know and trust Grief.
Even when I know that which I most need in order to be free is to let myself swim with her in the vast ocean of loss…
What do I do first…?
I binge watch.
I stuff my face.
I pace and hope to outrun her, as if she were a force of nature threatening to crack me open.
Eventually, I surrender my complete inability to control the flood that is coming, or to keep her entrance at bay.
Finally, I let Grief in…
When, I am too tired to resist.
When I remember the time we spent on the mountain where she saved my soul. And when I recount the many other times she has knocked on my door. How eventually I unlatched the barriers to my heart and let her in.
How the flood of the waters always came.
Ripped the place apart.
Tossed me about.
Left me unmoored, and then lying naked and bare in the sun.
And yet, how sweet and precious everything became afterward with her and Gratitude both there with me.
I say, “Yes, come in, old friend.”
My mind is the only one who tries to stop us then.
But, because I asked it to — with love and respect — my nervous brain sits back down on the couch in the corner, to witness the miracle.
Meanwhile, Grief and I finally get down to the business at hand. We dance a slow and tender dance.
Each time we do this tango, the intro is less intense and violent.
Gradually, the room fills with an ocean of life, all the way up to the ceiling.
My heart reveals herself a beast best suited for these waters.
Everyone else, the world, the news, and everything else not close to my heart is drowned out.
I’m perfectly ok in her fine company.
In the past, my body has been pummelled and tenderized. But through many such meetings, it has become more limber, more subtle, and stronger for it.
And my mind, though he still does freak out and flails whenever he hears her footsteps approaching, he is also fine now.
The waters envelope us whole and I always resuscitate him, later. He always seems surprised but remembers how he agreed to it, retaining the illusion of control. He has also come to expect and enjoy the weird high he is left with after coming back from near annihilation.
That is how I do it these days.
Then, like clockwork, Gratitude arrives…
I need to confess, despite the ways she has healed my heart, I did not trust her. I used to see her about town — a fine dresser, graceful in her motions and much admired— suspecting her of being superficial, lacking substance.
As I started to fully embrace and tend to an ongoing friendship with Grief, Gratitude started showing up more often and of her own accord. Despite my suspicions, she has always been without any demands or hidden strings.
These days of loss, Gratitude is a frequent guest and a reliable friend, who turns on the kettle and stokes my fire. She also brings me groceries and pours me a drink when I need it.
If I am lucky, Gratitude brings with her an entourage, who are also becoming regulars, like this her nephew, Joy.
and her cousin Grace.
She has many good friends whom I am getting to know. All confident, yet unassuming, smart, yet warm, funnym while self-deprecating, easy to be around and also quite charming. I’m not sure I belong in their fine company but they seem to like me enough to keep coming.
When I steal some time alone with her, Gratitude will often sit me down, give me something warm to sip and offer me solace that it was all worth it.
I wonder why I call on her so infrequently or wait for her to find me only after Grief has gone.
Why I want to deepen our friendship…
Reflecting on these two dear friends, I find myself drawn to spending more time with them.
And I wish to quote Francis Weller, who speaks to their inter-dependence:
The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them.
How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering.
Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.
To deepen my bond with both friends, I need to write and talk about them. To recognize and name someone is to make them real and to speak of them is to keep them alive and close to my heart.
Help me to keep them alive by keeping the conversation going.
Tell me about your relationship to Grief and Gratitude below.
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