Today (well, yesterday, as I write past midnight) marks the one year anniversary of one of the most painful days I can remember, which unfortunately also happened to fall during the most difficult season of life I’ve ever had to weather. 364 days ago, I would never in 364 million years have imagined that this day would not only pass by without a single tear, but that its most predominant and pervasive emotional undertone would be one of utter gratitude. I can hardly believe it, but this infernal little milestone has given me so much joy with the realization of all that is so delightfully different. Party hat? On. Champagne? Popped. Heart? Mended. Spirit? Skipping about in the proverbial rainstorm of a glitter-spitting confetti cannon.
Understandably, time-lapse-Me is gazing forward from the passenger seat of a 2015 DeLorean with a pretty hefty helping of shock and awe. Luckily, it’s served next to a pretty strongly seasoned side of perspective, so as I reflect back on the emotional war zone of the past two years, I can’t help but hone in on some of the most valuable lessons I’ve collected during my travels through grief. Here are a few travel-sized truths I’ve learned crawling my way through the veritable mine field of life:
TIME IS A COVER, BUT NOT A CURE
People say all kinds of things when they don’t know what to say. Comforting someone who is grieving can leave a lot of people feeling helpless, understandably so. As such, dealing with a significant loss tends to set you up for a barrage of adages that, well-intentioned though they may be, you’d sometimes rather just do without. The one I had trouble swallowing was, “time heals all wounds.” If we’re talking about paper cuts and sprained ankles, sure, but the significant loss of an important human being (or in my case, several), doesn’t just leave a scar. It flat out reshapes your whole world, and at some point, you have to start fighting tooth and nail to accept that things will never again be the same. That sense of loss doesn’t ever go away. It just evolves. The way you miss someone’s presence in your life will change as your life changes, but you will carry it with you, always noticing the empty space that only they could fill.
The fundamental flaw in the mindset behind “time heals all wounds” is that it puts something other than you in the driver’s seat. Time is not a healer. Time is a passive entity that will go on passing you by whether you’re okay with it or not. It doesn’t have an opinion on your life, nor does it have any regard for or investment in how well you are operating within its parameters. Time doesn’t heal anything. Time doesn’t accomplish anything. Time is just something that passes sleepily but resolutely by, while YOU actively invest in your own healing… And actively invest you must. Recovery does not happen on its own. Time is a shovel that disinterestedly dumps dirt on top of your problems and buries them further out of sight with each passing year, but believe me when I tell you that time buries problems in very shallow graves. At some point, you have to get down and dirty with your hurt, anger, fear, or loss and stare it squarely in the face. You have to take the broken bricks of your life and figure out which pieces need to be thrown out, and which need to be rebuilt. At some point, the dust will settle. At some point, you will crawl out from under the rubble. Wipe your eyes, grab your wheelbarrow, plaster your trowel, and get to slinging bricks.
YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN, BUT YOU’RE NOT ALONE
The hard truth is that we will all experience genuine suffering at some point in each of our lives. A perhaps even harder truth is that each of our suffering will be just that: “each.” Separate. Individual. Apart. No one can go down into the pit with you. Not really. No other human being has your heart in their chest. No other human being can feel your feels. No other human being had the exact same relationship you had with the person you lost. There are going to be times that you feel utterly alone, even if you have others alongside you wiping your tears or even suffering the same loss. In a sense, you are. No one can do your grieving for you. You are going to have to brave the feels, hug the hurt, cry the tears, bear the ache, and go down to the bottom of the pit all on your own. I promise, promise, promise you, though, that the pit does have a bottom. It really does. And all of those people who love you, sit with you, cry with you, and comfort you? They will be ready and waiting with helping hands and open arms when you start to claw your way back up.
WELL-BEING DOESN’T EXIST IN A VACUUM
Man cannot live on bread and anti-depressants alone. The more studies we run and the more data we collect, the more we learn that our health is wholly integrative. You cannot neglect certain aspects of your health and still be a healthy person. Toxicity in one will poison another. Cultivate well-being in your body, heart, mind, spirit, activities, and relationships. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Eat real, nutritious food. Learn something new. Spend time with friends. Mediate. Reconnect with relatives. Read a book. Get therapy. Take your medication. Talk through conflicts. Punch a hard bag. Help a stranger. Get acupuncture. Laugh. Focus on a new project at work. At the end of the day, the only real gift you have to offer the world and to your loved ones, is yourself. Fight for yourself, and for your opportunity to contribute, by cultivating a well-rounded sense of well-being. When it comes to your health, a rising tide raises all boats.
#4 – THE HARVEST IS YOURS
“Everything happens for a reason.” (Speaking of trite adages that make my head explode…) In the sense that we live in a world that operates on the fundamental principles of cause and effect, yes I suppose everything does happen for a reason, and yes, sometimes that reason may be the hand of God or the workings of the universe. But sometimes that reason is that you made a bad decision. Sometimes that reason is that someone else was careless, or worse, cruel, when it came to your heart. Sometimes that reason is that someone ran a red light and t-boned your loved one in the middle of an intersection. Sometimes that reason is that someone with a hate-fueled heart decided to hang, hunt, shank, or shoot people just because he could. Sometimes that reason is because diseases outpace our medical advancements, and cancer is just the worst.
You can make all of the smartest possible choices about what seeds to plant in the soil of your life, but just as birds might drop seeds from their beaks, or neighbors may trek in their own seeds from neighboring farms, the world will always find a way to plant things in your life that you neither chose nor wanted. We live in a world where the choices of others can impact our lives. We love in relationships where people we trust have the opportunity to hurt us. We exist in societies where fear, discrimination, and conflict can sometimes reign supreme. We can’t always always control what sort of seeds other people or circumstances plant in our lives… but we can control what we choose to harvest.
A toxic relationship that grew in your life might tell you that you don’t deserve to be treated well. Cut it down. Don’t eat that. Dealing with the trauma of disease and death might try to make you believe that it’s not worth loving anyone for fear of loss. Uproot it. One bad crop doesn’t mean you have to starve. A hate crime might steal your sense of safety, or an assault might make you question your worth and your value. Burn it to the ground and call the neighborhood watch to help protect your farm. Don’t harvest those seeds into your life. Let them die where they fell. That power is yours.
#5 – CELEBRATE
Whenever, however, over whatever you can. Let yourself mourn, grieve, and hurt, by all means, for as long and as hard as you need. But if something makes you happy for a second, snatch it up. If you feel a sliver of sun on your face, soak it up. Don’t martyr yourself or condemn yourself to incessant eternal suffering. The human condition is a complicated one, and we are capable of feeling more than one emotion at a time. Feelings of grief mean that you had a loved one who was significant, special, and meaningful. Celebrate that you loved someone so deserving of being missed. Recovering from a harmful experience requires a lot of strength. Celebrate identifying toxic seeds that needed uprooting from your life and having the courage to uproot them. Celebrate your friends who have helped you through difficult times. Celebrate every little thing you’ve done to plant positive thoughts and worthwhile people into your life, and celebrate the harvest you will be able to reap because of those choices you’re making for yourself now. Celebrate the stubborn miracle of an ever-opening heart, in a world where it is all too easy to close it up. As Jack Gilbert once wrote, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
Go on, then.