Anne LaMott, in her book Traveling Mercies, writes, “Don’t get me wrong. Grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of Life, of the now, of the sense of living spirit…The bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you.”
Could one of these gold nuggets be that grief can actually be a friend? In no way did grief feel friendly in the early devastating weeks after our 25-year-old married daughter Krista was killed while volunteering in Bolivia.
Yet, as I listened to other persons describe their pilgrimage through loss, this idea of befriending grief began to make sense.
“I liken grief to an intruder who breaks into your house, demands attention, and takes over your life,” explained Jan Skaggs, whose only daughter Cameron died when hit in a crosswalk during college.
“It can feel violent, rude, and socially unacceptable, such as when I’d cry at inappropriate places. But in time, I recognized grief was here to stay. It would never leave,” said this Texas mother. “I’d never be able to go back from this new normal. So I invited grief to sit at the table and offered hospitality. It became my friend.”
How could this be? A friend is described as someone we have a strong interpersonal bond, one who knows us, and one we trust. It’s the opposite of an enemy or foe. But, actually, as we begin to trust that grief is a healthy human response to losing a loved one, we too can begin to see the nuggets of gold.
Four Reasons to Befriend Grief
1) Grief is a genuine, healthy, normal and universal response to losing one we love.
When I see photographs of persons suffering loss of a child, a spouse, a parent, or friend from parts of our world suffering from war or natural disaster, their faces reflect the universal nature of love and heartbreak. “Grief is existential testimony to the worth of one loved, “ states Nicholas Wolsterdorff in Lament for a Son. His book provides an eloquent account of his devastation after the mountain climbing death of his son Eric. “That worth abides. So I own my grief.”
Twelve years later, he said, “The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it.”
2) “Attending” to grief often allows for deeper and earlier healing.
When Krista died, I had recently completed medical treatment for an aggressive breast cancer. Friends in the medical field strongly urged me not to suppress grief because of research links to stress and cancer. In reality, all encompassing grief seemed to demand attention for healthy emotional growth.
So I lowered my university teaching load to only teach in the mornings. In the afternoons, I came home and wrote, cried when necessary, read many of Krista’s writings again. It offered me a time to feel close to her. My husband, also a professor, continued his full responsibilities at work and held his grief partially at bay the first year. Then, during a sabbatical the second year, he took a solo-backpacking trip with our dog Scout into the Olympic National rainforest for a week. Facing his profound sorrow brought deep refreshment on his own journey through grief.
In contrast, grief counselors observe that “unattended sorrow” can lead to a narrowing and fading trust in life, emotional distancing, or even life-destructive addictions.
3) Grief often clarifies what is really important in our lives.
At Krista’s memorial service, I saw a college friend of hers who endured the murder of her beloved 2-year-old nephew. “Molly, how did your family ever survive such a loss?” I asked.
She paused briefly, and then said simply, “Our joys become more intense.” It reminded me of the words from the Persian poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in his poem “On Joy and Sorrow” in The Prophet. “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
Molly’s insight is something I’ve never forgotten as Jim and I seek to live with immense gratitude for each day.
Aaron, Krista’s husband, survived the accident, and eventually returned to service in Bolivia. Years later he married Gabriella, a wonderful Bolivian woman, and he brings this clarity into his joys as a husband again, and now a father. “You simply live with appreciation for experiencing love, and don’t magnify small problems that often trouble couples.”
4) Accessing the wellspring of love beneath sorrow becomes a catalyst.
Underneath all sorrow lies a wellspring of love for the one we have lost. When a grieving person accesses this, it becomes the source for powerful energy and creativity, and the catalyst for positive actions.
“But death can bring fear,” admits Pennye Nixon, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed while a Rotary international student, also in Bolivia.
“Eventually I had to decide whether to wilt or die or to be open to the opportunities that evolved from Etta’s death, including the willingness to grow.” From this sorrow turned to passion, she founded Etta’s Projects that now provides significant support to women and children in Bolivia’s remote villages. “Etta’s death expanded my heart.”
Similar wellsprings became the catalyst for major non-profits such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Susan G. Komen foundation, plus thousands of smaller community endeavors.
For Jan Skaggs, who invited grief to be a guest at the table over ten years ago, she found befriending grief also expanded her heart. “Life has been reconstructed. Grief knocked out walls of assumptions, prejudice and quick judgment and has built a much larger room now. My life is more grace filled, more welcoming to others, filled with a lighter heart.”
Truly, nuggets of gold.