A year ago today my beautiful niece left this world. Though doctors tried valiantly to save her, they couldn’t hold her; her soul had seen the Light of the next world. As she traveled toward the Light and was embraced by it, the Light became brighter still. And our world suddenly became dimmer.
Over the course of the last year, whenever I thought of Trisha I would feel such pain for my sister and her husband. What unbearable sorrow to lose one’s only child. This morning as I sat with the awareness of her passing, the tears continued to flow long past what I had expected. It finally dawned on me: I don’t ache only for them, I ache for myself. I miss her, too. It doesn’t matter that I know she’s in a better place; I can’t think away the grief. The heart feels what the heart feels.
After an hour or more of silently falling tears, I finally allowed myself to just bawl. Why contain all this grief in a tight little box? It was a relief to let the dam burst.
In Burkina Faso in West Africa, they believe expressing great grief for the dead is absolutely essential. Unlike in America, it is extremely taboo not to cry. The funerals there are an elaborate ritual in which the tears and wailing are actively cultivated and then released–for all the losses, all the grief, all the individual and collective pain. Malidoma Some tells us in his book Of Water and the Spirit, “Only by passionate expression can loss be tamed and assimilated into a form one can live with.”
How much healthier it must be to have grief so sanctioned. I can only imagine how our bodies must suffer as we submerge our pain so deeply, afraid of letting anyone else see it. Why should we be ashamed of the grief that bears testimony to the love that we have felt? Why should we hide the very thing that makes us most human?
A few years ago I had been a bereavement counselor for two different hospices. I had a lot of compassion and empathy for those grappling with the loss of loved ones, but to be honest I was a relative neophyte when it came to death. I guess I hadn’t yet lived long enough to have experienced losing loved ones other than my grandparents. And sad though that was, I hadn’t been an intimate witness to the long process of their dying. I hadn’t been present as they took their last breaths.
All that changed in the last few years. I was with both my father and mother when they died. There had also been a long string of deaths among my private caregiving clients–several of whom had become dear friends. Two former boyfriends died. Two uncles died. And then Trisha. Suddenly I had become quite well acquainted with Death. But familiarity with death doesn’t mean I can escape the feelings that go along with it.
My friend Carol lost her beloved husband a couple years ago to advanced Parkinson’s disease. This once tall good-looking man had become bed-bound, his body curved and small as his muscles continually contracted. After he died and dear ones were bathing his body, it was reported he looked for all the world like an emaciated Christ.
Carol still actively grieves. She still wears black. She still reads about grief. She still writes about grief. She still aches each and every day. She still marks every single anniversary–their first date, when they married, when he was diagnosed, when he went into the hospital, when he was born, when he died.
She and her husband had found one another later in life. It was a love founded on, not the transitory quality of outward physical attractiveness, but the beauty of the mind. They were extremely close.
She and I talk from time to time. Our visits are often three hours long. She is relieved to have someone with whom she can speak freely. She says people are uncomfortable with her when she talks about David. The unspoken words are: “Get over it.” But how does one get over the loss of a person who was omnipresent in every aspect of one’s life? How does one act as if everything is normal when one’s great love lies buried in a box in the ground?
And how does my sister get over the loss of her only beloved daughter? They grocery shopped together, they picked up take-out together, they talked about Trisha’s struggles with school, her dreams for the future, her love for her boyfriend. Seeing my sister and niece together, I often thought they were almost more like girlfriends than mother and daughter.
And how does my brother-in-law get over losing his precious little girl? He is physically disabled and almost always at home. The highlight of every day was when his sunshiny daughter returned home from school and they could talk about their days.
How does one cope with such a large hole in the fabric of one’s life? How does one continue to embrace life when the one who was most lovingly embraced is no longer around?
Grief is. There are no tidy loose ends to tie up. It lingers and lingers and lingers. The heart feels what the heart feels. The mind can sometimes take control and say, “Okay, let’s get on with life,” but then–often when we least expect it–the heart will roar “NO! I will be heard!” And the tears flow yet again.
One thing is sure, where there is grief, you can be sure there was Love. As some wise person once said, “Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith… It is the price of love.”