As the holidays approach, I’ve spoken with several people recently who have shared how much they are dreading what to do about family issues, unresolved grief, and their ongoing struggle to do things “just right.” Friends, I was inspired last weekend to speak to this in writing. I thought of every conversation and all the shared moments I’ve been privileged to participate in among friends and acquaintances. Here are my thoughts:
Sometimes grief feels dark, a distant sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. It rises up from time to time, reminding you of its presence. You don’t want to face it yet. Why isn’t it gone? Will this black hole ever be filled? Will you find light again? Your grief is in the shadows.
You are dreading the holidays, because there is family division and strife yet unresolved. People have taken sides, and you aren’t in a place where you feel comfortable with the tension. All of these old wounds somehow are dredged up each year, and everything feels raw and new once again. Your grief is in the past.
This year has been hard for you. You were diagnosed with a serious illness. You lost a spouse to death. You experienced a nasty divorce. You are struggling with infertility, miscarriage, or infant loss. Your children have grown up and are out of the house. Your grief is in the present.
Sorrow never seems to go away. Your losses are compounded, and at times they are overbearing and overwhelming. You can’t breathe. You can’t think. Everything is swarming around your mind. The tears may come some days, but other times, they are dried up like a desert. Nothing feels alive right now. Your grief is in the sadness.
When you are suffering, friends often scatter as quickly as possible. This is the moment you need them more than ever, but you find yourself going through this alone. You are a caregiver to one with Alzheimer’s. Your adult child is struggling with addiction. You have a child with a disability. And no one can be found to console or comfort you. Your grief is in the loneliness.
Peace is elusive right now. All you know is that restlessness, that wrestling in your heart – the ups and downs, vacillating between the present moment and your “what ifs” or “if onlys.” War is raging inside you, but you cannot escape yourself. Your grief is in the struggle.
Somehow, somewhere, there is a warrior within you. You don’t want to succumb to darkness, doubt, and despair. Yet you know that grief must become a welcome part of your life. From now on, it will never leave you, so befriending it makes its company more bearable. Perhaps grief can be your teacher, your mentor, throughout life. Your grief is in the journey.
Where can one discover goodness in so much suffering? Not only yours, but the suffering throughout the world – the senseless tragedies, the horrific abuse done to children, the violence and narcissism and hatred. You grasp at anything to make meaning of it. Where is God in these troubling times? Then joy peeks from the shadows.
You start to see your past as if the holes in your heart are the very windows that allow light to peek in. There were moments of goodness, of laughter, of shared happiness. You see those who have hurt you with more compassion as you ponder their own brokenness and wounds so unfortunately projected onto you. Joy shines through your past.
Today has been hard. You haven’t had a moment to catch your breath in between phone calls, doctor’s appointments, and the depletion that comes from all the difficult emotions that seem to sweep over you without warning. But you look outside for a fleeting moment and hear the songbird in the trees. You notice the delicacy of the flowers in your backyard. You smile. Joy is in the moment.
You don’t want to cry anymore. Your heart is too heavy, and it is too draining to keep sobbing uncontrollably. But suddenly the tears do come, and they are healing you. They baptize you as they gently roll across your cheeks and down your neck. Something is different this time. You feel release, relief. Joy comes through the tears.
Loneliness is one of the greatest poverties of our modern world. You need a hug sometimes – that gentle physical touch that strengthens you. But it doesn’t come. Then one day you find yourself alone but not feeling lonely. You are basking in this momentary silence, which brings you clarity and peace. Joy is in solitude.
Grief waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows. It seems to arrive out of nowhere, when you least expect or want it. It’s during those times when you become most frustrated, because you think that perhaps it has left you. But it never does entirely. When it disappears, you are granted brief respite, but when it comes crashing upon you again, it seems as if you never worked through anything at all. Joy is in the mess.
Healing comes gradually. Our hearts retain the memories of so many intense milestones and moments: our wedding day, the day we got divorced, the birth of our first child, the fact that we never could bear any biological children, childhood innocence and childhood neglect or abuse.
All of life is this journey, a composite of light and dark, good and bad, holy and unholy, suffering and healing. But the reality is, as we get older and continue to permit grief to reside in us as it wills, we understand that suffering and joy can coexist within us. That’s where true healing begins.