It seems odd, doesn’t it? To even consider that there may be a single gift to be found in grief? It’s almost counterintuitive to think there would be an iota of redemption found in a process that is, by its very nature, heart-wrenching and emotionally depleting. Yet, the experience of loss does not have to be the defining moment of our life. It is our response to that loss that matters. In short, it’s true that what happens to us is not nearly as significant as what happens within us.
All of the course work I’d done and books I’d read could not possibly have prepared me for the last few years, when I endured my own personal study in loss. Shortly after I entered my forties, the life I had known and loved suffered a collision course with circumstances beyond my control and changed considerably as a result. “Business as usual” was set aside to process the harsh reality that, in just four short years, both of my parents were diagnosed with stage IV cancer and died within a year of their diagnoses. In addition to this, my 9 year old son was diagnosed with a sudden onset, chronic illness that threatened his vision and necessitated years of monthly infusions at the local hospital, as well as six surgeries. It has been, without a doubt, the most difficult years of my life, but there has been a beauty about it that defies the heaviness, and this is the part that I would like to share with you. A word of caution before I begin…the following is what I have come up with over much time, grappling with emotions that were sometimes overpowering. Grief demands time and attention, and healing through it is rarely a well lit path in the darkness. Often, it requires plunging into the shadows with the hope of light on the other side.
Grief has taught me that suffering is the exchange demanded for loving someone so deeply…and that the trade-off is so very worth it. In the movie Shadowlands, a story about C.S. Lewis and his own wrestling with grief, there is this simple, yet profound quote: “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” We can choose safety by isolating or by numbing ourselves with distractions, but the overall cost is so much higher. Disconnection is a sorry alternative. I miss my mom and my dad every day, but I’m left with some amazing memories with two beautiful people whom I still love very much. I wouldn’t trade a single memory with them to protect myself from the pain left in the wake of their absence. There is a deep gratitude for what remains, for what they taught me, for the legacy they left behind. As for my son, I would wish his illness away in a second, if I could. Yet, I am deeply inspired by his unique blend of strength and sensitivity, born out of these years of disappointment and uncertainty. I am also thankful for a lot of unexpected quality time spent with him in doctors’ offices and infusions rooms, where our tight bond was cemented further over games of charades that left us doubled over with laughter.
If you allow it to, grief necessitates that you reflect on and refocus your priorities; that you determine, without a doubt, what is most essential in your life. When you are in deep grief, the unnecessary simply falls away. Having been abruptly introduced to the fragility of life, I have a renewed awe for the gift of relationship. In recent years, I have spent countless hours in waiting rooms, as well as hospital and hospice suites. Due to the more serious nature of each visit, my phone was tucked securely in my purse and my focus was on a beloved face. I was too busy absorbing nuances, savoring laughter, shedding healing tears, and showing compassion, to concern myself with what social media or my usual news sites had to say. I gave myself long sabbaticals from the ‘information highway’ and found it to be so restorative that I have made a habit of unplugging from the internet the majority of my day, sometimes days on end, in order to be fully present with the people that are right in front of me. Certainly, technology isn’t the only needless distraction; it’s just that as a working mom, there are only so many non-essentials to be entertained in this season of my life. Even so, it seems I am always recalibrating, asking myself, “what do I need to tune out, in order to tune in better?” It is a beauty to lose yourself in the “old-school”, simple gifts of sustained eye contact, a warm smile, the tone of a loved one’s voice, the laughter of a friend. It is a painful, but profound lesson to understand that such opportunities don’t come in infinite quantities and that we cannot know how many we have left.
The heavy, energy-draining nature of grief has meant that my usual ‘to-do’ list may suffer, but can be exchanged for a greater awareness of the beauty of simply ‘being’. While I will be the first to admit that it may be impossible to savor every minute when the inbox overflows and the laundry begs for attention, it IS possible to carve out a margin in your life that allows for unhurried moments, even hours, of awe and wonder. In an effort to literally move through the complex, often daunting, feelings associated with loss, I have taken to walking and spending time outdoors every day. I benefit by the exercise and by the fact that being in nature has a way of grounding me in the here and now. On my walks, I am attuned to what I can see, hear, and smell. I am more alert to the gift of the present moment…the smell of pine needles, the chirping of the birds, the feel of the crisp air against my skin. The symbolism of searching for and finding the unique beauty in cold and colorless winter days is not lost on me, nor is the breathtaking observation of the first buds emerging, a promise of spring. Written into the theme of nature is the underlying message of hope and renewal.
Perhaps the best gift I have been given is a humbling, yet healthy, reduction in my own sense of self-importance. I’ll admit it was my nature to magically think that if I could just control all variables, I would be able to ensure positive outcomes. I have been known to create vast lists, run myself ragged in an effort to complete them, and ruminate on worries of things unfinished or, worse, outside of my control. I want to white-knuckle results, especially when it comes to those I hold dear. There is a certain amount of freedom that arises from simply letting go and recognizing my own limitations. The world may continue at its breakneck speed, but I don’t have to climb on board every hour of every day. I don’t have to be ‘in the know’ about everything- the latest TV shows, the most recent Facebook post, or even the headlines of the day. I don’t have to say “yes” to every social gathering, if my time could be better spent in a one-on-one, heart-to-heart discussion with a close friend. My list of responsibilities can wait a few minutes while I simply soak up some sunshine or pore over pictures and allow the tears to flow. I read. I sing. I journal. I pray. I make time for that which fills me and fuels me, and enables me to be at my best for the essentials. It seems that the world has yet to notice that my pace has slowed and my priorities have shifted; it didn’t fall off its axis while I focused on my own restoration. My faith has grown, interestingly enough, in direct proportion to my humility. And, as I open clenched fists that demand my way, I am more free to receive and appreciate the best gifts that life has to offer…available for a limited time only.
Larisa B. joined Empathia in 1998 as an EAP Counselor. Larisa has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Alverno College and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Larisa thrives on being with her family, has a passion for photography, is always up for a good hike, and is typically in the middle of no less than three books at any given time.