We are the patrons of grief. We bear the burden of loss embroidered into each of our lifetimes. The consolation prize is that no matter how bleak things are or how isolated we feel, we all have experienced some fractal of tenderness in the greater prism of love that also exists in our lives.
I know that it is possible to accept and move in the world with a different understanding of abundance, but if we focus on the inflamed fear that results from great pain, we miss the potential for salubrious progress. There is a way to unpack and come to terms with current loss and endure future loss without feeling we are losing more of ourselves. To climb or dance to that place, we must work doggedly to slay fear within ourselves. We must rethink what “loss” is. We must also work simultaneously to redirect every fiber of our being and every spinning electron in the atoms that define us to focus on the rapture of our drawing breath. We must give thanks.
Good vs. Bad
Our pride is buffed when good things happen to us. We attribute “wins” to good behavior, our shining personality, the divine blessings we believe we are meant to have on this path and things we can control. When bad things happen, we scour ourselves and the world and reconsider if we are — or anything around us is — whole or worth something or anything at all. The closest place to go when handed the receipt of loss is fear. Its compatriots of self-recrimination, regret, angst and terror lie before you with slithering, unctuous arms, beckoning you closer to the netherworld of emotional paralysis.
Standing in the empty wake after losing someone or something you loved, it’s impossible not to wonder, “Why did this happen?”, or, more accurately, “Why did this happen to me?” You feel singled out. You hear and know that others have gone or are going through different forms of the same alarm, heartbreak and tortured grief, but you feel isolated and crushed in your own loss. In some moments, a conversation with others is the pinprick of light that you can tear open to join the living again, and other days, no amount of deep breathing or communing with others will pluck away the gigantic emotional tick secreting spirochetes of dread into your mind.
In dealing with disasters or what I interpreted as the universe’s unfairness, I used to believe that not every loss made us see things more clearly in the end. I used to think that not every strike of the bad luck ax would bring us revived color and outlook. I thought not every raincloud had a silver lining, not every terrible thing or trio of terrible things meant there were better things around the corner. But, standing in the residue of my own great losses over the past few years, nadiring in the terminal affliction that is the death of my sister, Hannah, I am shedding the ways I used to think. I am being peeled back.
I am here to say now that there is truth and good that still comes through and after awful circumstances. I suppose we’re encouraged to believe that, but more and more — and often in spite of myself and my misgivings — I also do believe that. In the face of loss and pain, we can — we must — push ourselves to spin on abundant joy and curiosity and not on fear.
Nothing will convince me that it is right that my sister died at 28. Nothing will make me think of this as a good or correct outcome for her life. But, she is dead. I must settle with that truth. It’s not easy, and by the day, and sometimes the hour and the minute, I remind myself another time that Hannah will never walk through the door again and smile at me. She will not be here for holidays. I will not watch her body change as she becomes a mother. We will not grow old together. I will never hold her hand in mine again or hug her. So, I must determine a way to make beauty for her and in my life again.
If we can so easily go to the place of fear, I have to believe that we must be able to also seek comfort in the waiting arms of love, joy and acceptance. I have to believe that we can gain some sort of clarity, even if our life ends up looking absolutely almost nothing like we predicted it would a year ago, ten years ago or yesterday. I have to believe that because I have laid in the den of sorrow and terror, and it has brought only more fear and upset. Layer upon layer of loss during these past years has taught me that there is overwhelming loss, and there may — and will — be more. In order to understand it and answer to it, we have to step away from fear and reframe loss and what we can take from it.
I wrestle now more than ever with the mega questions of “What is the purpose of life?” and “What is the purpose of my life?” The answers come first in the negative spaces. My life’s purpose is not to make other people feel bad for me, for what has happened to me randomly or for the decisions I made that did not work out, even when those outcomes are sometimes so impossibly far from what I could have imagined that they march around my mind like sinister, bloated cartoons. Life’s purpose is not to be housed in this fear place that crimps my middle section. My purpose is not to shout further to the universe about perceived unfairness or “too muchness” that feels it’s been dumped on me. For, even if my last shred of clothing is taken from me, I have my essential self and my soul. I have my daughter. I have my family. I have my friends. All the other cosmetic datapoints and benchmarks I may have used to gauge myself and my “progress” in the past have been rendered impotent and unimportant in the greater scheme of the lessons I need to learn and the more fundamental impact I want to leave on others.
And, for those that doubt this and are concerned with the public legacy they lead, exactly no one at any funeral I’ve ever attended heralded the vast accumulation of wealth or decried the lack thereof or focused the attention of the crowd on superficial accumulations or deficits while standing at the podium. Every eulogy from every tear-streaked spouse, grandchild or friend focused on the shape of the person’s soul. They may have mentioned a favorite car attached to that person, the lovely beach house where family gathered or the significant contribution their career made to the larger world. But, that was never the entirety or even the bulk of the memories. At no point were people crying or missing the dead because of the watch they wore, the fine tailoring of their suit or the undercolor of their shoes’ soles. At no point were the grieved bemoaning a life not well lived because their now dead loved one did not have or did not care for those things. If mourners referenced the physical trimmings, it was only in referencing the visuals that accompanied the loss of the person they loved. We are visual people, after all, who use physical objects to help orient ourselves, but we love on things we cannot see.
Change: shedding & transplanting
I know a consummate and lifelong salesman who says he loves to hear the word, “No” (for him, “No” is only the first step on his path to “Yes”), but no one I know rejoices fully in unexpected loss. When that kind of loss comes, life is disobedient to your plans. That kind of loss shaves you down; it forces you to shed. It feels like you’re being stripped of your skin long before you are ready. But, reptiles like snakes can’t grow larger without losing their outer layer, and that shedding process lasts from days to weeks for them. It’s a process of renewal, growth and re-exposing latent vibrancy, and it’s a process that asks the snake — over and over throughout its lifetime — to endure discomfort and even temporarily diminished vision. That process is change incarnate.
Prior to shedding, a snake’s skin looks milky and dull. As it prepares to shed, its lymphatic system produces a lubricating layer between its spent and fresh skin, clouding its eyes and impairing its vision. As it starts to peel off its old, faded layer, a snake swells and narrows its body and rubs its skin against hard surfaces until the outer layer peels off entirely. After shedding, its skin is clear; its colors and patterns are bold. Change is the essential, dynamic process that helps move along and develop our vulnerable, fallible selves into the more substantial, clearer embodiments of who we are and who we can be.
When I think about other examples in nature that illustrate what is uncomfortable to understand about our human experience, I consider again the timeworn lesson of the design of the butterfly. It’s trite, but where else can we find a more useful example for some other life that sequesters itself in its own handmade swaddling and then loses its one form almost entirely for another? It loses its ability to crawl for its ability to fly. It loses its complete cylindrical shape for looping forewings and hindwings. It loses subdued hues for brilliant patterns and colors. It loses itself for something that is partially itself and yet completely different: a new figure almost unrecognizable from its former form. And, yet, that new birth is only possible coming from the completion of its prior self. It becomes exactly what it is meant to be, and then it changes entirely. How can one life contain such extremes? Its example is the epitome of radical and necessary change.
As I pulled out five twenty-year-old shrubs this week, some in mortal dance with vines, I thought of how change is also the same slow process of transplanting old, embedded shrubs. A consummate gardener, my mother taught me years ago the methodical process in which you go around the bush, shoveling out the dirt that houses and protects it and then locating and cutting both the thin and thick roots that kept the shrub in place in order to prepare it to move. Yes, change is the caterpillar/butterfly example, if we want to believe that severe and significant change morphs us into something more beautiful and freer (and don’t we all wish we could change to fly?). But, change is also the agonizing surgery of taking out the shrub, full of cuts and cuts again. The first layer you must penetrate is the shallow but thick webbed netting of lace-like roots at the surface. It is easier to rip your hands through, but it’s extensive and makes a kind of blanket on the epidermal surface of the dirt. Deeper than that are the long roots the width of pencils that have a deceptively dominant hold on cinching the plant in place. Further down the root system vortex, you have the strongest roots anchoring the plant.
And, why is this like change? You may accept change, and you may deeply want change, but the entangled surface netting of yourself is nearly defiant to change. It’s the network of thin but strong overlapping layers that you’ve worked to build and that secret your anchors and the deeper, stronger parts of yourself. That slab of thread-like roots covers and protects who we are — from ourselves and from others. But, true change cannot be had — I could not rip out those bushes — without digging and cutting around and around again. True change is an endurance effort to slough and carve away the person you seem to others and the person you believe you are to get closer to the actual core of yourself. True change is not fast. It is change in stages and over time that requires rigorous effort and that will not work unless the protective cushion from the place you’ve situated yourself is peeled back. True change demands lopping off. It is change that most often happens exogenously to you and frequently without your permission. For, how often do you see a shrub that uproots itself to replant itself?
Change is faith and patience. When we were working on my parents’ yard this week, my mother pointed to a rhododendron that wasn’t doing well in her garden and that she had removed to the side woods. She told me that it floundered both in her garden and for a long period after she moved it, but she continued to water it in its new location and two years later, it arose from the dead and began thriving. Two years. I asked her why she kept caring for it and how she knew it would come back, and she told me she kept saying to it, “Come on, you need to live if you want to come back into my garden.” This says a lot about my mother, but this is not an exegesis on belief or the loyalty of someone else’s conviction of your spirit, your growth or your life. All of that is nice, but while my Mom helped it along, it was the tree itself that arose from dormancy to turgid green pedaled life again to flower in its new place in the dark shade next to a large stone. I think of this example as I think about the things I have ostensibly “lost” and how considering them loss is an untruth and redirects me from the patterns of change that are so self-evident in my life. When you butt again and again against the same challenges, the path is turning for you away from your idea of yourself to who you truly are. All of this just requires time, and often it feels like interminable time.
What makes us who we are then? What made my sister Hannah who she is or was? It would be easy to make Hannah into a deity, a radically gregarious super-being or a warm eternal light, but that’s not entirely fair. Hannah is not just a lesson or some parable or caricature of herself. Death strips us to our base, and she is an essential human, just like the rest of us. Hannah lived a life as filled as any of ours are with pain, disappointment, fear, hurt, rejection and judgment from others. She was trapped in ways, as we all are here, but she was also free because she celebrated the pure parts of other people. She focused on the essential, and when she was with you — and there’s no other way I can say this without sounding mawkish — she brought the great, earnest, glowing ball of her light. She focused on you and loved you in a way that you felt shined upon, and she was able to bring that same incandescence to everyone she knew. I am still amazed at how many other people feel about Hannah exactly the same way I do. Other people recognized what she saw and how she loved, and that is why people continue to talk about and mourn her. It’s the reason my mother gets cards still from Hannah’s friends, from my parents’ friends who met Hannah and from random shop owners that Hannah visited. Hannah honored the other souls in the people she met, and she illuminated them.
We know things and people are impermanent, and we know that none of us are spared loss, so why do we have such a hard time dealing with it? When other people say their siblings have died — even if they are fifty years older than Hannah — I feel the great tragedy of our collective loss. It makes me wonder if I would have ever been prepared for Hannah dying before me. We are engaged in cycles: natural cycles, life cycles, personal cycles, historical cycles. We know death and loss come eventually and more often unexpectedly (otherwise we could prepare better, or so we tell ourselves), but still we can’t accept it. It’s because most of our lives are made of very small moments stitched together; they are made up of daily things that are probably throwaways to our memories but are actually what binds us to each other. We lose the person we love, and the cadence of our lives is upended.
I heard Hannah’s actual voice for the first time in a long time when my mother played a video for my daughter in which Hannah is narrating off-camera a scene from a coop of chickens. Hannah and my mother raised those birds from tiny fluffy chicks. In the video, Hannah talks and laughs to Buddy, their rooster that my sister tamed and would carry around like a child. Hearing her voice again, I forgot how much I missed her. I forgot how funny she was. I forgot the lilt in her voice, the sing-songy way she told stories or talked to animals. I feel like I am working in and through loss, but I’ve hidden things even from myself. Bits of the fabric of my hold on Hannah are fraying, and that is an entirely new dimension of loss I have not yet considered. Hearing Hannah’s voice again is also the gift that brings us back to the joy in Hannah that we covet and celebrate.
I know it is a luxury to look into your shedding as you are shedding or being shed. It is a luxury to think about this and to contemplate it. It is also harrowing to wonder whether some sort of personal “enlightenment” is drawn on the back of my dead sister and to wonder how much her death catalyzed or forced me to consider life in ways I was too afraid or too deluded to do before. But, I must be grateful for small things, up to and including the luxury of sitting in this library writing about loss, thinking about the hyper-realistic dream I had with my sister in it last night, being her inimitably funny and real self. I am grateful to still see and hear her clearly in the reward of an occasional dream, even if when I wake up, that vision becomes fuzzy and slowly draws away like a recessing tide.
It is because of my sister, the way she protected and shone on me when she was alive — and the way I feel her still — that I began to have the feeling through my fear and grief that there is something else and something more. I tried to block it initially, because I didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to endure more change, but it is becoming clearer that this sloughing is necessary for the potential for peace.
So, you must be brave when you want to cower. You must open your arms wide when you want to be insular. You must believe in joy when all you feel is trauma. You must be bold when you feel weak. You must smile when you want to hold and bite your lip. You must call on your ancestors and ask for help when nihilism is the heavier blanket over you.
When I was driving down the highway this week, thinking of Hannah and missing Hannah, I turned the corner and traveled up to the top of the arterial. I saw cresting bright white and purpled cumulus nimbus clouds cast over the horizon like a brilliant mountain range. It was an illusion, a calling, a hope.