… on grief as a teacher (work to do, work to do)


No Shortcuts

On many windows in the Maine House are tin signs with timeless messages.

A man named Vincent tells me that he knows nothing with certainty, but the sight of stars makes him dream.

Another named Henry David reminds me that – like a butterfly – happiness shows up when you turn your mind to other things, and it alights softly on your shoulder.

And an operatic soprano named Beverly tells me, from the sign above, that – to arrive at life’s most excellent destinations –  you gotta do the work.

And – I’m adding – take your time.

Oh! And pay attention.

Granny and I have been up in Maine on our own for many days now. Self Proclaimed Perfect Boy Gabe is heading into his senior year of high school, so he is visiting some colleges with JoHn (a.k.a., the Nearly Perfect Husband), and he also has physical therapy for those breaks in his ankle.

And our Summer of Recovery, spread out in front of us, is opening doors in our minds and hearts all the time.

Grampa has been gone for nearly two months now, and while we were home we found ourselves looking forward to getting to Maine.

And now we are here and learning new rhythms with each other and without Grampa.

On July 3rd, it would have been their 60th anniversary. That was, understandably, a hard day for her. But she made it.

We toasted the next morning with our coffee.

I actually lived with Granny and Grampa for thirty years. More time – nearly double the time – than I spent in my childhood home.

To live with someone for so long, and then have them gone.

Hard stuff.

I tell Granny all the time how I cannot imagine what it is like to be in her head.

And heart.

We talk about it, a lot.

And I am reminded of something I have learned through a number of meetings and dances with Grief.

On the one hand, it is a nearly universal experience.

On the other…

It is different, for each of us, and every time.

In 2001, I lost my mother and my sister within a week of each other.  Well, actually, we – my sister and I – lost our mother, and then two days later my sister collapsed. I sat with her  for days, and was there for her last breath. And her monitor’s last beep.  Just as I had been the week before, in small morning hours, with my mother.

I learned then, but also before that (and also now), that there are some people in our lives that lean into the aftermath of death. They are the emotional first responders. Running toward the catastrophe, with no fear for their own mental safety.

And then…

Then there are people who step back. The emotion, the vulnerability, at the very least uncomfortable, haunting.  And, sometimes, a threat.

Too much.

Some just never show up. Others show up with enough padding to protect them from the initial psychic blast, and any and all aftershocks.  This padding is often in the form of hoards of advice and/or dire predictions, the need to share their own stories of grief or tragedy… anything, really, to avoid talking about, listening to, or simply sitting in silence with yours.

These are not bad people, or broken people. They are human. And, as do we all, have different skill sets. Different things to offer, whether directly, or indirectly… perhaps in the form of lessons, or humor, or even just by being a part of our everyday when we are ready to reconnect.

Not small gifts, any of them.

Here’s the thing.

Grief, like many of life’s experiences if you are listening, doesn’t just teach you about itself.

It teaches you about yourself.

And it teaches you about your fellow humans.

Elizabeth Lesser, in her book Broken Open, urges us to consider the transformative effects of tragedy – whether death or divorce or illness or other super impactful event.

So, if a broken heart is an open heart, I ask myself now, what will I learn today?

What will I let in?

How will I grow?

What is important?

And – sometimes my favorite – what is not?

Granny and I are entertaining all of this.

She is a former psychiatric nurse, so we are having a field day with some of our thinking (and, sure, some of that going on around us).

She is a strong woman, me too.

And we agree that grief is teaching us a few things along the way:

Strong women cry buckets. Whenever we Goddamn feel like it.

We also laugh, a lot, and we don’t care if it’s appropriate (or not).

We roll our eyes at other people’s opinions on how this should go (“should”… shudder).

But we also understand, and forgive the strangenesses in those who aren’t sure how to be, or act.

Grief is the ultimate awkward silence, isn’t it?

Always someone rushing in with words to fill the void.

But, in this case, our void was left by a whole person.

A whole person.

It is, at times, nearly incomprehensible.  Even as it is the most natural thing in the world.

Life and death.

Easy to say.  Hard to live.

But we will.

And, if we are lucky, and we take advantage of this time when we are raw and grieving open, we will emerge blessed.

Better humans.

More knowledge, more empathy, a better understanding of ourselves and others.

Good stuff.

But there is no way around it, no secret path or tunnel to help us avoid or sidestep.

We need to go through the process.  We need to do the work.

Because there are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going.

Thanks for the reminder, operatic soprano Beverly Sills.

And thank you, for readin’.


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