365 Grateful: What I Understand About Grief

Captured from a drawing at Cleveland Clinic.

Just the other day, right after 2019 had rolled into 2020, my cousin’s wife went to bed. She never woke up.

I gleaned the news from my sister and found the condolences filtering onto Facebook, to which I added my own. A few minutes later, his response pinged, and it took my breath: “Thank you, Jenny. I believe you know.” I sighed. “I do,” I wrote. “Hang in there.”

Grief lies heavy on my mind right now. Not so much the act of grieving, but more the noticing of new thinking about grief itself. And I’m thinking I wasn’t honest with my cousin.

January 3 is not, for most people, an auspicious day. It is, after all, only the third day of the year, a mere two days past the heavily celebrated New Year, three days before Epiphany. To be sure, it’s one of the 12 days of Christmas – the 10th – noted primarily for leaping lords.

It’s just another day, and yet … it’s not. For me, it’s a transition anniversary. In 2018, my husband died after a year-long battle against cancer. Oh, yes, I do know grief. But do I know my cousin’s grief? I’m not so sure. Certainly, I can identify with grief, but my grief and his grief are infinitely different. That either of us understands the other is, perhaps, more likely to be only a half-truth for us both.

It’s easy to lump grief into a one-size fits all experience. After all, we have a road map, courtesy of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and the newest addition, finding meaning. We have plenty of material from counselors and experts, support groups, friends and family, and the internet. We have self-help books that can either help us navigate the waters of grief or make us feel like failures when we don’t follow the textbook steps in what seems like the appropriate amount of time.

We have friends and family who are well-meaning but who want to see us return to who we were before the trauma. Hell, we have a society that says we must move on – and quickly, now! – to always be doing, doing, doing and never taking advantage of that winter of the soul that will (trust me, here) exact its price unless we linger and do the work on ourselves we’re called to do. Society exhorts us to tamp it down, ignore that time of hibernation and introspection so we can get back to life as we knew it.

Ah, but life as we knew it is no longer viable. Life as we can discover it shimmers in the air around us, not yet discover-able but waiting for us.

Today it seems exceptionally clear to me that grief is a multi-layered wilderness that we must all find our way through. And the path I blazed will not be my cousin’s, just as his path won’t be familiar to me.

I had a year to mourn before my loss, time to prepare (not that you can totally prepare for death). My cousin had no such luxury and he must now begin the mourning and deal with whatever undone thoughts may intrude and parade through again and perhaps again.

So which is better? I have no clue.

To know you have time to say or do those things that leave your conscience less burdened? Or to live day-to-day without foreknowledge until death takes your loved one, and THEN to wish you would have had some time to say, do, be with them?

To mourn while life still dances, making time bittersweet for both? To know that your relationship, the things you did and said, the experiences you had were conscripted by the knowledge that life would end soon for one of you?  Or to live fully in the moment up until the moment life changed?

I daresay both have their aspects of heaven and hell.

What would Charlie’s last year of life been like had we not had that sentence hanging over our heads? What would my cousin find useful had he had time to say goodbye? By the same token, would I have had the chance to really learn how to live fully in the moment otherwise? Would my cousin have lost his ability to be in the moment otherwise?

Surely it’s a tradeoff.

But to say that I know his grief? Ah, though I am well acquainted with grief myself, I don’t know his. I don’t know the path it will take, what it will exact from him in the days and weeks and months to come. I know how long it took me to wander that wasteland, but I have no clue of his terrain. I cannot show him any well-worn footpath to follow nor offer GPS coordinates for the end of the journey. I cannot walk with him because I would be as lost as he: it is not my grief journey.

What I CAN say is this: I understand grief (at least my experience of it). I found my way through, and I am confident that he, too, will emerge, although I have no idea how long that may take. And I can say that I believe he’ll be fundamentally changed, too, if he is strong enough to allow the journey the time it requires to remake him.

What I CAN do is let him know that I will happily hold space for him should he need an ear, a presence, someone to witness his grief – a safe harbor as he moves into the winter hibernation, turning inward, doing the work of introspection, trying this path and that trail, back-tracking, running at times, crawling at others.

What I CAN offer is this seasonal metaphor, because nature is wiser than we: like a caterpillar, he will leave behind what once was to create and enter a wintry cocoon. He’s likely already building it. And, like that caterpillar, he will devolve and evolve while in there. Then at some point, he will emerge changed, like a butterfly, into what’s next for him – into the light of spring. And I (or others) can simply be there for him from what once was to what’s next and celebrate with him when he emerges in his own time.

I know that as surely as I know my own experience of grief. And oddly enough, I’m grateful for that.

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