This year during my two week holiday break I have had the opportunity to revisit this idea in a deeply profound and painful way. I received a call on the eve of the winter solstice that my dear friend, Mary, was dying. My friend who was way too young to be leaving us, was at the end of the journey. My friend, who was always so vibrant and full of joy and life… I still can’t even conceive how it is possible.
That call set off a long period of crying and such deep sadness. Looking in the mirror as I brushed my teeth, seeing the depth of my own pain, made me cry even more. I couldn’t sleep that night, although I rested and did my best to travel across time and space to sit with her hundreds of miles away. I wasn’t able to say goodbye to her in person because by the next day the decision had been made to limit visitors to family only. I understood. I honored that decision. And I know that it was ok because there was nothing left unsaid, no regrets, no question about how we felt about one another… and yet there was a deep sadness at not being able to sit with her just one more time. My grief journey had begun.
On the solstice, this day of extended darkness, I headed to the lake to have a little ceremony to honor Mary, our friendship, her life, and the start of this grief journey, which I know will move and evolve, but won’t end. I drank some water from a cup she gave me last Christmas, signifying the nourishment this friendship has given me over the past 11 years. I took the dandelions that I found on my walk down to the water (Yes! Dandelions in western NY in December – one bright yellow and one in fluffy wishing form!!) and offered them up to the water – the yellow one signifying the resilience of a friendship that will never die. The wishing one sprinkling my wishes to her for peace and for a peaceful transition surrounded in love. I took baby Snoopy with me – a gift from Mary years ago. I threw a shell lei and a bracelet that says “Aloha” into the water – “aloha” being the beautiful Hawaiian word which means love, affection, compassion, mercy, kindness, or grace and can be used as a greeting or farewell – this time was all of these things for me. I lit a candle that says “I am free,” not wanting Mary to go, and at the same time knowing her body was done with fighting. In some way connecting from my heart to hers, sending out a love offering, a goodbye.
She passed away several days later, early on Christmas Eve morning, and grief settled in as I considered this new impossible reality. There will be no more calls, no more laughter, no more tears, no more venting and pondering the ways of the world. Our world got a little darker that day and sometimes this hits me as an endless stream of grey days before me… days without this beacon of light and love in them.
My sweet sons have both lamented at how powerless they’ve felt, wishing I didn’t have to go through this, wishing there was something they could do. I know now that there is nothing TO DO when someone is grieving… it is enough and it is everything to simply love them, let them know you care and that this sucks. That’s about it. I appreciate their love and concern, and I feel held in the warmth of it. I have so appreciated my husband who has been by my side since that first phone call (no coincidence that he was working on Mary’s Christmas gift at that moment), simply being with me, sitting with me, allowing me the space for my anguish to rise and move through me.
I appreciate the friends who have reached out to acknowledge the depth of this loss and who give me space to be with it in my own way, which changes day to day and moment to moment. Sometimes I don’t want to talk at all – I just want to be alone in my memories, thoughts, sadness over what will never be, resisting the temptation to pick up the phone and call her. In this early stage, at times it just feels like we haven’t talked in awhile and we need to catch up. And then I remember. Her image is always in my mind. Her love is always on my heart. Thoughts of her flit through my consciousness repeatedly and at random times. Signs of her presence are everywhere and while they offer some comfort, they don’t fill the ache. The ache often feels like a cavernous empty space deep, deep within me.
And all I can do is learn to live in this place. I can learn to keep moving forward, even when it feels like a heavy slog, one step at a time. I can learn to carry this grief. I can be very, very gentle with myself as I do.
Why “good grief?”
So, why in the world would I title this “good grief” (aside from the fact that I love Snoopy and it doesn’t take long for me to hear this phrase and flip from an image of Charlie Brown to his dog who always brings a small smile). Isn’t grief painful and therefore bad? Yes, it is very painful, and no, I don’t think it’s bad. Would I prefer not to feel it? Of course. Most of us would. But I don’t think it’s bad. Deep grief comes from deep love. Loving and losing people (and pets, jobs, life situations) is part of this messy human life. We need to learn to do grief better as a people. Grief is the price we pay for having loved well.
Grief, as one of my friends put it, is a new landscape we step into that feels foreign and unfamiliar (or maybe it has a familiar feel to it, reminding you of another time you’ve felt a profound loss). We don’t quite know our way around and we may feel like we’re walking through a fog. Or maybe we just curl up in a corner somewhere and can’t even bear to look around.
Mindfulness practices have helped me to be with this part of life the same way they help me to be with all the other aspects of life. Being able to be real about what’s going on is part of good grief. Not pretending to be ok when we are not. Not letting anyone else tell us how our grief should go or when we should be done with it. Good grief allows us space to feel as we feel, moment by moment. It recognizes that the moments will change and we may even find ourselves smiling or laughing or enjoying some bit of life, even if we feel like maybe we shouldn’t. Good grief allows for the complexity of life and gives us permission to feel deeply sad, maybe angry, confused, lost, scared, as well as happy, inspired, or contented. Grief takes energy and it takes up residence in our bodies. We can’t pretend well enough to fool our insides about how we’re really doing. We need to take time to honor the healing process.
There is no right way to do grief – it’s an individual journey and much of it is probably done alone. At the same time, I have found it helpful to let myself be held and supported, to not have to be strong through this. I’ve said yes to generous offers where in the past it might have been hard for me to receive. In part I just don’t have the energy to say “no,” so, yes. Thank you. Thank you for the healing. Thank you for the listening. Thank you for asking me about her. Thank you for acknowledging our relationship and for trying to understand who she was to me.
Again, yes. Gratitude. Because I am deeply grateful for this person, this friendship that was part of my life for almost 11 years. Because I knew her, my life has been forever changed. Because we loved one another and shared so much, I will hurt and ache. And, I don’t regret a bit of it. I would not have missed out on this relationship to avoid this pain. Mary brightened my days and I loved watching the way she chose to live her life even in the face of an ominous diagnosis. I am grateful for what she continues to inspire in me.
I’ve heard that one of the best ways to keep our loved ones alive is to embody the qualities we most admired in them. In this case that would be joy, compassion, empathy, strength, resilience, and a boundless capacity to love unlike anyone I have ever known. She also lived with a curiosity and open-minded presence because she genuinely desired to understand people and their points of view. As a special education teacher, she worked hard to expose her kids to all kinds of beliefs and to invite them to think critically for themselves, considering life’s big questions. I am grateful that someone like her graced our world for these 48 years. I am grateful for the ripple effect of her love and care. I am grateful to have experienced someone who lived all of this so fully. (If you’d like to experience one teeny tiny bit of it, please listen to her conversation with my friend and colleague, Keith Greer here on The Helping Conversation Podcast).
So, yes, even in times of deep pain and loss we can find things to be grateful for. We wouldn’t be hurting so much if what we’ve lost hadn’t been so very special. Taking some time to reflect on that and soak into appreciation for all that was can be a healing balm.
Grace allows us to find the gratitude. It also allows us to be gentle with ourselves as the tears come and we pull up the covers and hide away. There is grace in a friend’s phone call or text, offering to listen or simply sending some love. Grace is woven into the sweet sadness of a tear-soaked pillow. Grace in random kindnesses that come at just the right time. Grace in a moment of laughter or levity or a moment of insight or inspiration. Grace flows among those who share in the collective loss and love. Grace is the gentleness that says, “It’s ok. You don’t have to push right now. You don’t have to figure this out right now. There’s no rush. Take your time, dear one. This hurts. And, it’s ok. You don’t have to be ok. You don’t have to be anything other than exactly what you are in this moment.”
I invite you to join me in this journey of good grief, gratitude, and grace. What have you lost that you want to acknowledge and give yourself permission to feel? Perhaps it is a beloved being who’s died or maybe it’s the life you imagined you’d have, a job you lost, or perhaps you are grieving the state of our world.
What can you pause to notice that arouses a sense of gratitude from within. Where is grace at play and how might you extend it to yourself or others?
It’s a journey. And, this being human is not for the faint of heart. But here we are. So, let’s walk together into the unknown landscape of tomorrow. Thank you for being here with me. It certainly helps to not journey alone.
If you, too, are feeling some sense of grief, I offer you this poem, along with the reassurance that you are not alone and the assurance that you will not always feel this way: (also, please visit my Resources Page that has many, many supports for you at this time).
by Barb Klein from 111 Invitations
We cannot imagine
how or why.
They grip us
and tear at us
as we clench our heart
and let our tears flow.
How to make sense
of the inconceivable?
Where to begin?
How to go on?
in these moments
But with little to grasp,
to anchor us
to any solid footing,
we flail, lost
into the swirling mist
of confusion and pain.
Knowing not what we need
or how anyone can help.
Only that we are broken
(at least in this moment).
Thoughts? Reflections? Please share. Let's explore these ideas of grief, gratitude, and grace together. It's one way we can grow together and become better at this part of being human.