Living Past Grief

“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough.”– Toni Morrison

To all of us will come grief. There are small griefs—a lost purse or wallet, a missed plane, an accident—that we learn to put in perspective. There are middle griefs: the loss of a job, financial losses, rejection. Life experience teaches us that we can recover from these events, despite the pain.
There are deeper griefs—the loss of a love, alienation from a partner or adult child, a disability—that we are forced to accommodate. These are harder to accept and work through. The loss of love can be so hurtful because it is such a hunger, wanting to love and be loved, to feel safe.

The deepest grief—the loss of a child, a diagnosis of terminal illness, the loss of everything through war or displacement—can only be softened with time and replacement. We are programmed to heal even horrific blows, but it requires our commitment. A Cambodian refugee who worked for me said he lost everything: people, possessions, places, flowers. He planted a lotus in my pond.

At our age we have learned the costs we pay for feeling, for caring. Deep grief requires far more than time and perspective. We have to heal ourselves; it is a lonely assignment. Our heart may feel like an empty house, a cupboard that has been stripped bare, and it is up to us to gently, slowly put things back on the shelves.

We will always be aware of loss. We can work to make it grow smaller and push it to the back of our mind, but it will remain a shadow that follows us and in some ways defines us. It takes effort to push ourselves to replace such losses to add to our life, not subtract. The temptation is to add up all our dark times because we fear the future.

The last words I said to my late husband, as we went to sleep the night before he unexpectedly lapsed into a coma, were, “You have helped me be a better person.” He smiled, he hugged me, he was easygoing, never critical. His death changed me because I learned that when someone we love dies, we must live our life with their spirit, not just ours. Life becomes more precious.

When my husband died I bought two lovebirds and put their cage in the kitchen. I drew the curtains to shield them from the windows and opened their cage door to let them fly. I needed life, new life. Birds require gentleness, as did I.

Grief batters your entire body. You are not normal, so remember to breathe, watch out for accidents, avoid big decisions, and go walking every day. Being outside keeps you connected to the world just as caring for your body and staying clean keeps you connected to yourself. Sometimes strangers can help more than friends. As I fought a depression brought on by loss, every morning I pushed myself to walk along Lake Washington near my home. One morning a busload of tourists drove slowly by. They waved so I did, then they smiled. I felt loved. They thought I was normal.

Parents who have lost a child find that remembering them and their spirit with random acts of kindness can turn grief into compassion. The note when a bereaved mother paid a stranger’s bill said, “For Emily. This is a loving gift from the child we lost.” She was healing her pain by remembering and giving.

When I was robbed at gunpoint in my home it filled me with fear. The next morning I ran around the house filling a box with canned and packaged food, then I  got in the car and took it to the food bank. A small loss for me, a small kindness for someone, but it helped rebalance my emotional equation.

Profound grief has gifts, the deepening of self and expansion of compassion. We become more aware of the depth and richness of our emotional core as we age. Life becomes more passionate. The patched heart is stronger, the touched heart is kinder. Those who have felt the deepest grief understand life in ways others may not.

I recently sat at a dinner party with my new husband, grandchildren, friends, and an ex-spouse and I realized, at 76, that this is the happiest I have ever been. How could I think such a thing after so many failures, so many mistakes, so much grief, my painful disease? I am covered with patches, with more to come.

I could think it because I decided my life has been so rich, a cornucopia of emotions, adventures, risks, hard work, grief, hurt, and always, always, trying to love and be loved. I’ve had to start over so many times, yet each time I built, bit by bit, a personal paradise out of friends, water, colors, textures, plants, and animals. Once it was only a room with just enough on the shelves. Now it is a home and a garden.

Somehow, if you stay open to life, accepting the pain, eventually you find your true self. You start to believe all that has gone before was a fair price paid to arrive home and know it for the first time, as T.S. Eliot has written.

If you are hurt, treat yourself with kindness. No one else can do it for you, and yours is the hand you will hold the longest.

Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and master’s degrees in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.

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