I hugged my dear friend one more time, and began the gloomy drive back home to Delaware. The day was dark with torrents of rain. Blurred headlights passed to my left, while the traffic lights overhead valiantly flickered through the fractured glass that had become my windshield. With my heart aching at the loss of someone dear to me, the poor visibility mirrored how I now viewed life – through a distorted lens. It seemed as if the whole world was enveloping me in tears I was determined not to shed.
A quick glance at the clock on the dashboard confirmed that I was running late for a dental appointment. Sighing, I leaned forward in my seat, straining to see the road ahead between the slaps of the windshield wipers. Just then it occurred to me that I was low on cash. Normally this wouldn’t present a problem – I would just pull into an ATM machine. But I had just opened a new bank account and didn’t know the pin number! To make matters worst, I had recently lost my credit card and was still waiting for the new one to arrive in the mail. Clearly, I was having difficulty staying organized and I was exasperated with myself.
“Dang gone it! How am I going to pay for the dental visit?” I wondered, feeling frustrated. With my spirits low, my chest tight, and my emotions on edge, I considered simply canceling the appointment. But then I thought of the dentist, and how he relied on those scheduled appointments each day. It wouldn’t have been fair to cancel on such short notice.
So I called instead to say I was running late and explained my financial dilemma. I adore my dentist, and all the ladies in the office are understanding. On this day, the receptionist was almost too kind in fact, and it was all I could do to not burst into tears while talking with her on the phone. We agreed that she would simply bill me for the appointment, and thankfully, their schedule was slow. So she cheerfully told me to drive safe, not to worry and they would see me when I arrived.
Two hours later, I maneuvered into a parking space, grabbed my umbrella, and darted from my car. As I made a quick dash through puddles, and into the medical lobby, it occurred to me that the one person I wanted to share my day with, was someone I could no longer call. They were no longer there – gone from my life.
That thought ricocheted through my brain like a pinball in an old game machine, sparking again and again in shock and pain. Ding! Ding! Ding! I rode upward in the elevator, made the short walk down the hall and opened the door to the dental office.
With a cheerful “Well there you are! You made it!” The receptionist smiled, offered me hot tea, and then escorted me directly back to the appointment chair, where the hygienist was waiting.
I struggled. I truly did. I wanted to smile and appear calm, but my heart had a different agenda. It was building…swelling from within, in emotional waves that wanted to storm their barriers and fill the office in a flood of pain.
Completely unaware, the hygienist made pleasant conversation as she laid my chair back, and began to clean my teeth. Within seconds of her touching my back molars, tears welled up in my eyes, overflowed and made their way along the sides of my face, to puddle in my ears. After a quiet moment, the hygienist softly asked, “Am I hurting you? Is that because of me?”
I attempted to shake my head. Without a word, she pulled my chair into an upright position, handed me Kleenex and waited. All it took was one look into her caring eyes, and I was gone. Her compassion unlatched the final locking code to opening the floodgates. I cried, blew my nose and snuffled in as messy a fashion as any small child.
When you are grieving, the smallest of challenges becomes paramount. Your mind seems to be somewhere else. You scrape your car, lose your keys and forget to pay a bill. You chide yourself to pay attention, even as you hear your own voice half heartedly say to someone, “I’m sorry, what were you saying?” or “I swear I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached!”
I have visions of creating a video of a person pulling up to a drive through window, and asking “Yes, for my “to go” order, I’d like to have a convenient grief that will only affect me on weekends. Please include a side of gumption that will keep me positive and refreshed, so I’m not too drained for Monday morning. Oh, and do you have any packets of hope that I can keep handy for those times when I’m feeling extra lost, lonely and the pain becomes larger than me? And of course, I’ll need that order as soon as possible, since I’m already running late for a meeting. Thank you!”
Our cyber lives can fly at the speed of light, but human emotions have not changed. Feelings haven’t conveniently sped up to keep pace with this fast food existence and bereavement is a process that does not always behave or play by the rules. There may even be times when it refuses to sit quietly in a corner during work hours. And when you box pain up for the sake of convenience, you will find that grief exacts it’s payment with a large chunk of your soul.
Grief reminds me of Peter Pan’s shadow. The day you learn of a loss is the day that shadow is sewn onto your heels. No matter where you go, or how fast you fly, it is with you. You can’t separate from it, ignore it, or outrun it. This loss is a new constant. Oh, it will morph with you through the years to come, taking on new descriptions, but make no mistake. Just as surely as you know your loved one has left your life, that awareness remains with you through all your tomorrows.
And since that fact will not change, it is necessary to become closely acquainted with your new companion. For it is only by finding a way to exist side by side with your loss, that you are able to move into the future, armed and prepared.
I’ve read many articles on the positive aspects of grief. I’ve seen it whitewashed and dressed up until I barely recognize the experience for what it is – the experience I’ve witnessed in others and felt within myself. And while there is truth in those writings, the bald fact is that grief is ugly. It is the most soul and gut wrenching expression of love that permeates and affects all levels of our being.
We feel physically ill, emotionally wrought, and mentally drained. Grief is embarrassing, inconvenient, unpredictable, and even down right sloppy. It’s an irascible child who refuses to behave. It’s an uncomfortable suit that poorly fits everyone. Overall, grief taxes our spirit, and much like a demanding child, the more you attempt to ignore it, the louder its cries will become.
If you truly wish to recapture the reins of control, you will need to see grief for what it is, and with your eyes wide open, accept that it has entered your life.
The second step is to “lean into your pain.” These words might as well have been spoken in a foreign language the first time I heard them, but leaning into your pain is simply to allow your pain to move naturally through your being. It’s the opposite of “choosing to have a positive day.” It’s feeling your authentic emotions for what they are, and releasing every one of those pent up tears. You may fear that if you allow yourself to cry, you will never stop…and that if you release the demons which are pressing against the inside of your chest, the pain will destroy you. In fact, just the opposite is true.
So shake your fists, kick your legs and rail at the heavens. Or grab a pillow, lie on your bed and give yourself permission to weep for what will never be. And accept that you are not super-human. You will falter for a time…crack and break open. But it’s only through this faltering and breaking that you will awaken. You will become a more expansive, compassionate being, capable of forming a partnership with that shadow on your heels.
And you will get up again. You will climb off that bed, smooth out those wrinkles and move into your tomorrow. And though it doesn’t feel possible now, I promise you will know laughter again. So when you can’t find your keys, lock yourself out of your car or you have difficulty remembering the simplest of details, please know you are normal. And if you find yourself crying… at a toll booth, in a grocery store isle, a restaurant, or even in a dentist chair, I applaud you.
Janice Ervin, 2010