Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lessons I've Learned From Grief -- Part Two

Life is full of grief.

When I was little, I grieved over my cat running away or breaking a toy. When I was older I grieved because the boy I liked didn't like the girl with frizzy hair and braces, because my grandparents had the German shepherd I'd grown up with put to sleep without letting me say goodbye.

By high school, it seems I grieved over everything.

I still remember how bad it hurt to find out that my first date had stayed for the second show at the movies and hooked up with someone else. I grieved the loss of my two best friends when the ex-boyfriend of one of them asked me out, turning me into a social pariah my senior year. I grieved that the boy who sat behind me in social studies and aggravated me would never ask me out because we were just friends.

Then real life came rolling along and I discovered there were bigger things to grieve about and bigger hurts that lasted longer, like a marriage where I was the only one who was ever at home, first in an empty house and then with a baby. I grieved for the dog I'd had since I was a teenager, the cat who wiggled her way into my heart then ran across the road, another dog, for the end of that marriage, the loss of my paternal grandparents, the loss of the job I wanted to do for all my life.

But I picked myself up and went on to another marriage where I learned about addiction and pain and the grief of loving a person who couldn't always be the person you loved, until I couldn't love him any more and be safe or sane and I grieved another marriage. I found another job I loved, and another, and wound up grieving for them as well. I grieved the loss of more dogs, a few more cats, my maternal grandparents.

I thought that each grief helped prepare me for coping with the next one, and maybe it did. Grief was brought on by losses that were harder to get over, harder to pick myself up from. Yet even as I mourned the loss of my Jack Russell terrier Al last spring I thought, "How do people survive those really big losses without some training from the little ones?" Saying goodbye to hamsters and cats and dogs, teaching our hearts about mourning and recovery, surely has to help when it's our grandparents, our parents, or someone else.

And maybe it does, but it seems that we're in training for those foreseeable losses. We have to be able to envision a world where we say goodbye to those people. It's part of the reality we accept as we grow older and those comparatively little losses, while they may stagger us at the time, are like the training wheels on our bikes and they teach us to balance and keep going.

I've learned, however, that nothing trains you for losing a child. Nothing prepares you, even the doctor's diagnosis, the sudden silence of a fetal heartbeat, standing by the bedside of a child who is no longer really in the body you've bathed and cherished, or watching them slip away through years of addiction. Nothing.

No matter how much you think you're prepared, as a parent, all you do is hope for a mistake, a miracle, even misidentification. It cannot be your child that is dying, or your child that is dead. Even now I wake up some mornings hoping it's all been a bad dream. I go to bed at night hoping I can dream about him, just so I can see and hear him again.

Losing Ethan taught me that there is no way to be prepared for dying, no real way to be prepared for living. Love opens us up to the most incredible pain that destroys us in ways that no physical trauma ever can. Yet we do it, and do it again because it also brings us unmatched joy and because it is who and what we are meant to be and do.

But just as I learned about grief, I learned about myself. There were lessons I learned on that morning six weeks ago, lessons I've learned every day since, and lessons I continue to learn.

I didn't know I'd be able to share my pain. Really. There was a while when it felt like something I should lock into a box in my heart and treasure as something that separated me from the world. It wouldn't take the place of Ethan, but I could love my pain and suffering. I could keep it to myself and take it out when I was alone to wallow in self pity. I could wall it up and, without meaning to, let that wall stand between myself and the people I cared about and who care about me. I could let that wall keep me from moving forward down the path I've been given to walk.

But somehow that didn't happen and I know from messages and calls, from unexpected hellos and hugs, that God is using me to help other people. I never aimed to be used in this way, but I cannot deny it and turn away either. I've always had words in my heart and although I've never used them this way, it was because I never had these words to use. There was a reason they were always there and perhaps this is it. I didn't know that so many people were hurting, and that my words would be more than a salve to my own battered heart, but perhaps the words that they needed as well.

I know that is a singular lesson of my grief, but there's a greater lesson in grief that many of us learn unexpectedly. As my capacity to endure pain has grown beyond anything I expected, I've found that I not only grieve for myself but for the world around me. When I learn of someone else's loss, I stand at the brink of the same pit they are falling into and remember the pain of the plunge. When someone is in pain, battling a difficult diagnosis, struggling with an issue in their lives, I want to help. I want to reach out and tell them someone cares, even if it is someone they hardly know or don't know at all. I pray for people I've never met because I cannot reach them to let them know I care.

It seems in tearing down the wall that would have held my pain in, I've also torn down the one that kept the world's pain out.

When I manage to leave the house, I realize that I see the world differently. I don't feel as harsh toward the less than perfect people around me, more caring toward the seemingly disenfranchised, a desire to hug people who look as though they need one. I'm less inclined to be judgmental because I realize so many people are like me, burdened with things that not everyone knows.

The world is a tougher place than we realize when we are living our blissfully unaware, day-to-day lives and dealing with the easy things like getting where we're supposed to be on time, doing household chores, paying bills and even fighting over the things which turn out to be inconsequential.

When we finally have to cope with the hard things, we realize we're actually not as tough as we thought.

If we're lucky, we realize that about everyone and like many things about grief and loss, it changes who we are.

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