After a while, we find ourselves clinging to our sorrow, because it feels like all we have left of our loved one.
As anyone who has experienced a significant loss can tell you, grieving is hard work. At a time when you have little energy and limited emotional resources, you find yourself with your cheek to the cave wall moving forward as best you can, slowly and not without stumbling. The signs of progress may be so subtle that it is easy to believe you've made no progress at all, in spite of your hard work and shaky sense of optimism. Yet, the day inevitably comes when you see a spark in the distance and know that your darkest days are over and you are moving into the light of a new beginning.
As painful as grief can be, it is not unusual for people to be reluctant to let it go. Upon losing a loved one our relationship with them moves from the physical plane to a spiritual one. The emotion we feel most strongly is sadness and it seems natural to define our new relationship as one based on sorrow. After a while, we find ourselves clinging to our sorrow, because it feels like all we have left of our loved one. We may even feel disloyal as our pain lessens, thinking, "If I really loved you, how can I ever be happy again?" We feel guilty for moving on. Ideally, our friends and family would be there to tell us that it is okay for us to heal. Instead, we sometimes find ourselves in relationships with people who look to us to keep the dead alive by staying in our grief. As long as we are grieving they can avoid doing their own grief work. When we move on, it is an undeniable confirmation that the dead are truly gone. A friend who lost her boyfriend in an accident confessed that she sometimes felt torn in two by people's expectations of her. She said, "I have some people telling me I need to 'get over it' as quickly as possible and other people looking at me funny when I'm out for a beer with friends as if they're thinking, 'if she's laughing and drinking beer she must not be feeling too bad about losing her boyfriend.' The pressure I feel out there makes me want to stay in bed with the covers over my head." In these modern times, we no longer observe a period of ritualized mourning. And though that type of societal influence can as easily become a prison as an asylum of peace, it at least put us all on the same page. Rarely are people intentionally cruel; they simply don't know what to do in the face of what seems like inconsolable sorrow. Our job is to trust the process and have faith in our ability to know what is right for us.
Healing does not mean forgetting. For most of us, grief takes up residence in our deepest heart space. When we accept our loss, we still drop into that space from time to time, but we no longer experience life through a filter of pain. Becoming whole after a loss takes great courage. We should take pride in our hard-earned wisdom. We should celebrate our new skills. My partner and I had a very traditional division of labor when it came to household chores. When he died I was faced with a temperamental propane water heater, a squirrelly Toyo stove and The Lawnmower. At 40 years old, I had to admit that I had never learned how to operate a lawnmower. I waited until the grass had grown so long that the property looked abandoned before asking a friend for help. I was so embarrassed and he was so kind. It took me three and a half exhausting hours to mow the yard that first time, but my feeling of satisfaction was indefatigable. Mowing the lawn was a way for me to acknowledge the fact that Jon was really gone. It also reinforced the image I had of myself as a capable, independent woman.
We honor our dead best by embracing life not by living in eternal sorrow. When we tap into the joy of laughing with friends or the life-affirming feel of the sun on our backs as we kneel in the good earth readying the garden for planting, we sing their praises. There is no greater gift we can give ourselves or our loved ones than to live with intention and savor every good thing life has to offer.
Mary Cook is a hospice volunteer who divides her time between Juneau and Gustavus.