Tuesday, January 18, 2011

13. Coping with grief over another person's grief

The woman was radiant. Powerful, empowered, divine, loving, experienced, wise... She preached from the pulpit, and I grasped for each of her lyrical, evocative sentences, trying to cradle them all together at my chest. There were too many; some slipped through my fingers. But I held what I could, letting the words and images warm me from the outside in.

Then, she said it-- and my bundles dropped to the floor, words spilling across the tiles, rolling into corners and under chairs beside people's resting feet.

It was one sentence. She said it so fluidly, no choking or halting or stifled sobs. She said, "Five weeks later, my son was dead."

She kept on talking. Her voice dared me to have pity on her-- she did not want it. She spoke as someone who has felt hurt and processed it, so that she had... not moved on, exactly, but rather reached a space of wisdom and acceptance.

I myself could not reach that space so quickly. I sat alone in the middle of a row of church chairs, and I started crying. Quietly, so that I think no one noticed (far be it from me to intrude on this woman's own articulation of her own grief) but still I cried.

Now, I don't usually cry when other people share past hurts. This is not to say that I don't care-- quite the contrary-- I just usually register my compassion in other ways. I'm not sure what about this moved me so differently. It could simply be that I've allowed my emotions to situate themselves closer to the surface of late, and so they spill over to the outside more easily. But I think it was something more than that: I think it was this beautiful, glowing, radiant woman, who had experienced the greatest pain, they say, that a mother can know-- and here she was: standing beautiful, glowing, radiant. Still.

She had every reason not to be. She could have allowed her grief to hobble her for the rest of her life, and no one would have condemned or even judged her. Not only would this reduction of self, this shrinking into sadness, be accepted, it would arguably be expected of someone in her position.

She defied this expectation. She made her grief her own, and she worked through it. I was (still am) humbled and inspired by her example. That someone could say (without saying), my son died, and my grief will not consume me. I will not let this bring me down. I will instead keep exploring, keep growing my light. I will shine strong-- stronger-- into-- all over!-- the world.

And this, not even because of her grief, not even in spite of it. Instead, her son's death was. She is. Facts of a life-- diverse, rich, well lived.

The woman is an inspiration. That is part of why I cried. But that doesn't feel like the whole of it. I guess, for lack of any other explanation, I also cried because it was sad. Yes, I can see the bigger picture. I can see that life goes on, that her son's life was worth his having lived it, even if only for some eighteen years. I can see that her life is worth living still. I can see that perhaps this event-- which feels so tragic, so cataclysmic to us, with our limited vision-- might have some greater meaning in the larger context of the cosmos. But it is still sad.

And I think another part of it is that this woman was doing what I would have every parent do for her or his child: She was giving her son his freedom. He wanted adventure; she said yes. She allowed for the risk that so many parents refuse to permit their children to take-- and it met with such terrible consequences. Quite literally, the "worst that could happen"-- happened.

But of course, she was right to let him go. A life in a cage-- however lovingly constructed-- is still imprisonment. And maybe this, after all, is why I cried: because boy did that young man live. Eighteen years old, and he was living freer than many people do in a lifetime composed of decades, and decades.
But he did it. He went out there. And yes, we could say: he got torn apart.

But don't you see? To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. You can't go out with fireworks, unless you lived like one.

And so I cried because this life is terrible and tragic and mesmerizing and magical and my-God-holy-cow-huge and because there are people, hardly eighteen years old, or preaching from a pulpit, in their sixties and gray, who are willing to go out and seize it.

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