In my last chat with my grandmother, a couple months before she passed away, we were talking about my father’s passing, my family, and the nature of grief. She said, “Human empathy begins when you experience death, when you understand, as you get older, that everyone you meet is grieving in some way”. As I mentioned in a previous post, it was one of those statements that gave words to a feeling that I had felt since I was child, but hadn’t been able to find the right combination of words to express. And last week, when I flew out to Hudson, CO, for her burial and memorial, I thought a lot about that old feeling and her words.
I watched as my uncles and aunts all experienced a second formative loss in under two years. I felt a gnawing, relentless sense that another part of my father’s story, and consequently my family’s story, had vanished and was now irretrievable. And I watched, at the burial ceremony, as my cousins’ children, ranging from under a year to just shy of eight years old, watched the expressions of their parents and grandparents, listened to the hymns, and took in, for the first time, one of life’s inevitable and highly codified traditions. They were silent and perplexed and unknowing. They seemed to mimic the rolling waves of somberness, laughter, sorrow, and joy. And as I watched them, my grandmother’s words were on my mind.
After the ceremony, we returned to my uncle and aunt’s stunning 20-acre property, sitting on the wind-swept Colorado plains at the foot of the Rockies. The adults drank coffee, swapped stories, socialized and prepared, each in their own way, for the coming day’s memorial service at my grandmother’s church in Denver. And the kids ran carefree and wild, with boundless energy. They had seen a glimpse of grief through the foggy glass of childhood, but were now fully liberated by an insatiable lust for the most primitive joys of life: laughter, self-expression, community, exercise, and family.
The last year and a half have been hard, overwhelmingly so at times, for my family and I. I just miss my dad so much. There’s at least one or two times a day where I see or hear something that makes me reach for my phone to shoot a text or share an article with him. I look at Sydney and my brother, regularly, and realize how vastly and permanently the landscape of my life could change in the beating of a heart. I’ve laid in bed, half-awake, my mind spinning with the words of C.S. Lewis: “No one ever told me that grief so felt like fear”. And I’ve fought the urge to bury myself alive in one of the truths that lies at the heart of my grandmother’s words: that everyone is grieving and, when they’re not, you can bet your bottom dollar that grief is waiting just around the bend. There is pain, there is sorrow, there is grief, and there is suffering in this world. It is in the air we breathe. It is all around us, all of the time, as good as we are at ignoring it, at repressing it, and shutting it out. It is as undeniable as it eternal. And despite the comfort of our friends, family, and loved ones, we live alone unto ourselves, solitary witnesses to our own vast, swirling, infinitely complex inner lives.
But that is only part of the truth that undergirds her words, and to deny it, to get lost in it would be to deny the fullness and validity of life. There is a deep and earnest beauty imbedded in the very heart of this world, in this grief, and in this mutual understanding of loss that binds us and that defines just what it means to be human. We are fellow sailors, bound together by love and loss, sailing on a ship that whips through space at 19 miles per second. We are here and we are alive. And it is now and that is enough.
There will be grief, but there will beauty. There will be loss, but there will be love. There will be suffering, but there will be joy. There will be death, but there is life.