The Sea of Grief

Everyone I know lives with grief. Grief is, for human beings, a natural state of mind.

We may find ways to block our grief, or to disguise it. We’re not supposed to be grieving. We’re supposed to lead “happy” lives. As a result of this kind of thinking, we put a lot of work into denying our grief.

I’ve put a stupendous amount of work into denial. As an adolescent I thought I had discovered that “confidence” was the essential ingredient in “success,” which was the key to “happiness.” My notion of confidence included disavowing most of my anxiety and sadness. To be confident I thought I needed to feel safe. To feel safe I needed secure barriers between me and the pervasive sadness of the world.

Decades later I realized that I was refusing to recognize the sadness in others because it called up the sadness in me. 

When I talk about grief or sadness, I’m not talking about depression. Clinical depression is a serious illness. It needs to be treated by the best means available. It’s dangerous and destructive. If you believe you may be depressed, reach out to a professional trained to help.

Grief and sadness, on the other hand, are normal reactions to a world that fails to live up to our expectations. 

Each time our heart expands to contain a beautiful new vision – a fulfilling job, a gracious home, a loving relationship, world peace, economic justice, a work of art, a successful family, a really nice car – it creates a space for a little grief to occupy when those visions are lost. And they are all, every one of them, eventually lost. Every single person and thing we can love on this earth will disappear, some of them while we watch. Some of them may survive until we disappear, as we know we will.  It seems we are designed for grief. We idealize. Our careers, our relationships, our homes, our societies, our idealisms and our bodies all ultimately fail to match our aspirations. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is perfect. And so we grieve.

Our visions of human goodness are difficult to sustain. People often fail to live up to our expectations. We might catch our spouse, or our child, in some small (or large) dishonesty.  Perhaps we obsess over our own moral failings. More often we’re angered and saddened by popular depictions of our species brutalizing one another, and the planet we live on. Five minutes spent watching the news can convince us that the world is a seething cauldron of human greed, lust, manipulation and violence. It isn’t, by the way. As a longtime journalist, I’m well aware of how the news media tend to compress and extrude the ugliest narratives of human affairs. Almost everyone is trying to be generous, moral, honest and kind. And I think most of the time, most people succeed. It’s just that none of us succeeds all the time.

Our idealized visions are not realized in this world. Even when circumstances converge to perfectly support our visions, those circumstances don’t last for long.

In his sweeping book about our present age, “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” the writer John Green says it has taken him all his life to “fall in love with the world.” To fall in love with the world, he says, “is to look up at the night sky and feel your mind swim before the beauty and the distance of the stars. It is to hold your children while they cry, to watch as the sycamore trees leaf out in June.” Then he acknowledges, “When my breastbone starts to hurt and my throat tightens and tears well in my eyes, I want to look away from feeling. I want to deflect with irony, or anything else that will keep me from feeling directly. We all know how loving ends.”

“We all know how loving ends.”

We all know, but we are so often unwilling to acknowledge it. Loving ends in grief.

To love anything or anyone wholeheartedly, we must be ready for grief. If we really want to love, it’s possible that we’ll need to accept grief as our natural, and inevitable, companion.

My dad, Lonnie, was raised on a small, dry, barely viable New Mexico ranch. He was a soft-hearted boy. He loved all the ranch babies: calves, lambs, kittens. He nuzzled the tiny newborn chicks in his hands. He carried lambs to shelter and bottle-fed orphan calves. My oldest photograph of him shows him as a toddler, in bib overalls and cowboy boots, astride a tolerant turkey, his arms around its neck. 

Of course that turkey and most of the other ranch animals were killed for his family’s table. He was wounded by their deaths. At an early age he learned how love ends. He remembers the routine of raising and killing animals as emotionally devastating. As soon as he could, he got out of the ranching business.

He stayed on the ranch longer than he wanted to, though, because he was the youngest of 10 children and by the time he hit adolescence, his aging parents needed his help. He got a license at age 12 so he could drive them. He stayed until his father died. Then his mother moved to town and Lonnie left the ranch forever. 

That soft-hearted boy grew into a gentle and soft-hearted man. He loved and cared for his parents through old age. He nursed his mother-in-law in his home for a decade. Then he cared for my mother during years of struggle with terminal bone-marrow cancer. He watched those people die under his care. I watched him grieve.

As he always had, he recovered. He married a second time at age 80. He and his wife, Mary, enjoyed five years of love and laughter before she began periodically to lose track of things like the day of the week, where she lived and, finally, who, exactly, he was. Now he visits her twice every day in a “memory-care facility.” That euphemism artfully masks the pain and grief that reside there.

Lonnie knows that love ends, inexorably, in grief. He’s ready for that, it seems. And so, he can keep loving.

Big Grief is not rationalizable. When we lose a child, a spouse, a parent or a close friend, grief hits us with a disorienting force. We may find that the grief owns us. For a time, it owned me.  After Noah died, Carolyn and I asked ourselves and each other many times, “Will we always hurt like this?” The answer seems to be that pain, like everything else, varies. It has many textures and dimensions. So we don’t always hurt the same way. But it seems like we might always hurt just as much.

 We say, “Oh, well.” Just, “Oh, well.” We speak it to each other as an acknowledgement and a reminder. We have no words to console ourselves or change our circumstances. But we have each other’s understanding. And we have our lives to live. “Oh, well,” we say to each other, meaning, “Oh, well. Let’s live. Even if living is painful.” 

Until it was destroyed by grief, we had an idealized vision for our lives and the lives of our children. Then those fantasies were swept away and we were left in a painful reality. “Oh, well,” was our way of saying to each other that we could accept that and carry on. 

As we’ve become more accustomed to grief as our daily companion, I think we’ve come to recognize it more readily all around us. Sad things happen to people we know every day. Marriages end. Illness and injury come to carry dreams away. 

The news is full of terrible grief – wars, epidemics and famines rage continuously somewhere in our world.

As I’ve become accustomed to living with my grief, I find myself at least a little better able to attend to the grief of others.

When you open a hard-shell acoustic guitar case, the moment you pull the instrument free of its protective pads you can feel it come alive in your hands. Your touch, the moving air, every little thing draws a delicate, random music from the strings and the resonant wood. It’s a music you can feel more than hear. When you return the guitar to its case, it sings until you force it down between the cushions. 

When my heart was broken out from its hard shell, it resonated in a new, more sensitive and responsive way.

That surprised me. I think I might have expected grief to harden me, to toughen my emotions. We often portray the survivors of grief and trauma as grim veterans: stoic old soldiers beyond the acknowledgement of their own pain, or the pain of other people. 

My experience was quite the opposite. I felt much more sensitive. I resonated in a new way with the pain of others. Even more surprising, I found that I wanted to keep resonating like that. I discovered a world full of people who hurt like me. My heart thrummed in recognition. We share the sweet, sad, music of human life. 

For a long time before I encountered Big Grief, I believed that I could make my world less sad than the world inhabited by other people. I created hundreds of little stories in my head describing the ways I was exceptional (virtuous, smart, hard-working, health-minded, blah, blah, blah). So I was different from the people who were suffering. 

The effort was, I find in retrospect, exhausting as well as uncompassionate. 

Life is a pavement of griefs, most of which we roll right over. As small children we cry and throw tantrums when we’re hurt or disappointed. We show the world our grief, regardless of how trivial its causes. We don’t feel compelled to put our disappointments in any larger context. So we feel no shame when we grieve. Maybe that’s why children seem to recover so quickly. They don’t feel shame over their grief. There’s no need to dwell in it, trying to rationalize.

 When we get a little older, most of us stop crying over every small thing. We learn to control our feelings, or at least to hide them. But we keep hurting. 

We rationalize and create little internal narratives to ease small pains. When a friend cuts off contact, for instance, we may tell ourselves our friend was neurotic and probably had some narcissistic reason for ending the friendship. Or we might decide that ending the friendship was our own initiative. We wanted to focus on new relationships. Either of those stories may ease the pain of losing a friend. 

Yet missing our friend, acknowledging the loss and the sadness, might be less trouble and work than creating and maintaining a story that’s less sad, and less true. And in a way we haven’t really lost our friend until we stop feeling affection for them. If I love you, you’re my friend regardless of how you may feel about me.

How many of us work to maintain a false narrative about our physical appearance and experience a pang of grief every time we catch sight of our image in the mirror? 

Don’t most of us try to believe we’re at least a little more generous than we are? More intelligent? More fair and accommodating? Even more happy?

Our careers provide many opportunities for experiencing and rationalizing disappointments. Almost no one achieves everything in their work that they set out to accomplish. I suspect many of us feel the occasional stab of pain when we contemplate career failures of one kind or another. The temptation is, of course, to create stories that minimize our responsibility. 

“No one could have foreseen those circumstances.” 

“My boss was an idiot.” 

“My competitor cheated.” 

“My employer exploited me.”

It might be a lot simpler and more productive to accept our losses and the accompanying grief, and focus on learning the lessons of that experience. It stings, of course. But if we don’t acknowledge the reality directly, it somehow has a way of eventually penetrating our complacency anyway.

I used to think of this process – the process of creating stories to rationalize and numb painful realities – as a valuable adult skill. I’m not so sure about that any more. It might be more grown up to accept, simply, that life doesn’t usually conform to our idealizations, even though that can make us sad. 

Sustaining our dubious narratives requires attention and energy. We are, quite literally, invested in our rationalizations. When they break down, we are left vulnerable. 

Big Grief thoroughly exhausted me so that I found that I didn’t have the energy for negotiating with my many little griefs. When I was defeated by grief, exhausted and unable to sustain my fantasies, I had a strange and unexpected new sensation of spaciousness. Spaciousness to think. Spaciousness to feel. Spaciousness to hurt. It wasn’t a welcome sensation, exactly, but it wasn’t unpleasant. The boundaries I’d been maintaining to secure my delusions of safety and superiority were both protective and confining. When grief tore them down I was both exposed and liberated. I was liberated to feel what I was feeling, because I didn’t have the strength to do otherwise. And very gradually I found I wanted to hold on to that new freedom, even if it left me exposed. I wanted to hang on to that capacity for accepting my own moment-by-moment experience, rather than constantly trying to replace it with a “happier” narrative.

As new experiences began presenting themselves to my broken heart, among them was an unexpected change in how I felt joy. My grandson smiled. One of our dogs did something funny. A friend called unexpectedly. And then there it was. Joy felt different with a broken heart. It felt more intense and more pure. I didn’t feel my old compulsion to create a story about why I felt joy. It just arrived, in the moment, like a cool breeze on a hot day, and I was grateful. I didn’t need to reassure myself that I could preserve any specific source for the feeling, because I knew that was impossible. I didn’t have to put in the context of my “happy” life any more, the way I used to. I no longer depended on life being “happy.” 

 I no longer believed I could protect my sense of joy, nor that I needed to. If it could show up now, under these circumstances, then it could probably return at any time. Possibly for the first time in my life I could accept and appreciate a kind word, a hug or a gift without making any assessment of whether I deserved it. When my self-regard was based on a complex system of narratives, many of them about how exceptional I was, those narratives also anaesthetized my feelings of vulnerability. I reassured myself that when good things happened I somehow deserved my good fortune.

Regrettably, I was straining to believe I deserved my good fortune more than others would. I deserved to do well. Others deserved it less. And so I was inclined to check on the status of my exceptionality constantly, especially in good times, to make sure I was special enough to keep the good fortune rolling. In my experience there’s nothing more effective in dampening a sense of joy than the absurd belief that we need to be special, somehow, to deserve it. 

When my child died, I no longer believed I deserved good fortune. If I were required to deserve good fortune, then I must somehow have deserved the terrible thing that had happened to me. 

I just couldn’t, for a while, feel special any more. And, to my surprise, when joy emerged in my life again I felt it with a new intensity, unconditioned by the need to justify it in any way. It seems sadness doesn’t occupy a space separate from joy. They coexist in a single space, our mind, simultaneously and continuously. As we recovered from the initial impact of devastating grief, Carolyn and I both began noticing occasional, vivid flashes of pleasure. The joy we felt didn’t dispel our sadness. It appeared there, sharing space with the sadness. 

Carolyn compares the coexistence of grief and joy to the experience of gazing through a glass marble as you turn it between your fingers. Many different colors, lights and apparitions can appear, dissolving slowly from one vision to the next. We turn the marble of our experience and look out at the world through its prism. 







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