The people at Hospice take grief seriously. Serious grief? It sounds comically and tragically redundant, and I didn’t want any part of it. They told me counseling was offered as a benefit. Grief counseling sounded like being sad on purpose. I didn’t want that either. It was bad enough that I’d lost my mother and my sister within two years. I wondered how I could honor them by taking sadness seriously. As if I had a choice .
I have had four immediate family members lose their bigger-than-life lives to cancer. Because of this, a grief counselor explained that I was high risk for something called “complicated grief.” I found out this happens with multiple losses and can be as severe, and with the same symptoms, as clinical depression. I knew I didn’t want that. So I did as I was told. I took grief seriously and accepted the counseling. I avoided complicated grief, but I learned there is no escaping grief itself. As a friend pointed it out, grief is like the children’s chant about the Bear Hunt: “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, have to go through it.”
Grief is like a scavenger hunt. One intuitive clue unlocks the next. Day after day. I couldn’t see where I was going, I just did the next brave thing. Intentionally. I read the poem, wrote the poem, walked the woods, and walked the dog. I got the massage, cleaned out the refrigerator, organized the pantry, and went to the ballet. I cooked my way through my mother’s cookbooks and wept on the beach. I read my mother’s essays and read my sister’s journals. I sobbed my way through dance documentaries at night and somehow stood cheerfully at my classroom door in the morning. My husband and I hosted holiday dinners and upheld our family traditions and planned family vacations, just like we always do. He held my hand tightly and I laid my head on his shoulder. Life goes on. Life is different.
Grief is like a tide that moves in and out with a fog of sharp edges. I learned not to be afraid of the sharp edges of grief, those unpredictable chards that could and would poke through any moment unannounced and uninvited. They cut deeply, but they did not scar. And, oddly, they did not preclude joy. That is the mystery. Joy breaks in much the same way pain does, and with the same unpredictability. I began to recognize joy with a new kind of familiarity that reminded me of the people I’d lost– but in a good way–and helped me celebrate the people around me. I couldn’t create joy, but I could make room for it. And I could keep my eyes open to it.
Grief comes with a map that has a cryptic warning and promise. “Do not get stuck here and you won’t get stuck here.” I had to believe it. We are creatures of habit and I worried that sadness would become a habit too. Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t get stuck in grief as long as I sought the reminders of life’s richness every day.
The months rolled on, but grief’s fog continued to roll in. I discovered I needed a transitional bereavement policy that didn’t exist. Yet. So I decided to create one. I gave myself permission to put my students and their instruction first and excused myself from faculty meetings and arbitrary deadlines. I wrote my own excuse. To make room for the work I needed to do, I stopped writing this blog. People said it was a mistake. They knew what I knew: the way to kill a blog is to not post on it. But I didn’t trust myself to write for the public. My writing needed to be private. It was a risk. If someone is reading this now and is helped by it, it was worth it.
I poured what I had into my teaching and my students. I worked to model the truths I learned from my mom and my sister. Happiness is a choice. You can’t compare loss. Everyone is worthy. Feelings are not right or wrong, it is what you do with those feelings that matter.
June came. We did well as a class and the year was a success. In the summer I could fling open the doors and breathe deeply. I had time to take it all in, and to begin to give back to those who had given so given so generously to me. Morning by morning, I woke up and chose life.
September came and with it a new class of incredibly wonderful children. I find that I love teaching as much as ever and that my teaching is informed by last year ’s deep reflection on what is most important in the classroom. The calendar page turned and I waited. The people at Hospice told me that the thirteenth-month mark is significant in the grieving process. It eases. Life is established as a new normal.
I hit the thirteenth-month mark last week. My map is worn, but the direction is true. Grief can still roll in like a fog and the chards can still pierce and bring tears. My life is made more beautiful by the people in it, including those whom I have lost. Last week, on the thirteenth-month anniversary, I was in Chicago and held my new baby granddaughter. She is my mother’s great-grandchild and my sister’s great-niece.
How do we both honor grief and honor those whom we have lost? The same way we honor the people around us. Love and joy are life’s greatest and most healing tributes. And it is love and joy that help us round life’s sharpest corners.