“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
I burst into tears every time I hear Sam Smith’s rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. The line “through the years we all will be together…if the fates allow” cuts through the scars of my heart. Grief has no boundaries. It shows up at any moment, unannounced and uninvited. I was getting my nails done most recently when it came on. Teardrops pouring into the pedicure basin. I don’t apologize anymore. It used to scare me that grief was non-linear. That it could creep up without warning and strike. I would rush to the bathroom and chide myself to pull it together. Now, I welcome it. I seek it. The moment when anguish is so raw it seems to fold the space-time continuum and the loss feels like it happened yesterday. As if that person or animal was just here again. Grief is not something to be feared or controlled. It is not to be escaped or avoided. Grief is a portal. It brings us back to those who are gone. Grief is good.
Between 2008 to 2015, I lost my great-aunt, great-uncle, great-grandmother, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, dog (read child), brother, and mom. My mum’s nurse used to call our family the Kennedys, so blessed, but also plagued with great loss. I come from a large family and the cycle of life and death is inevitable. We had many beautiful births in that same period, but it did not cancel out the sadness or emptiness that accompanies someone parting. Nothing does and believe me, I tried. Embracing grief was the only way to find peace, but it was a process to get there.
Death is not easier when expected. My mum was ill for 3 long years before she left this world. As dedicated A-types, we would lay together in her bed planning her passing in every way. Mum loved dolphins and wanted her ashes scattered in the Pacific so that she could swim with the dolphins forever. We hired a company called the Neptune Society and rented a boat. She chose the readings we would recite and assigned them accordingly. We talked through my outfit. She even created a playlist for the Memorial Service. While, it helped immensely to have things in order, nothing prepares you for the realization that you will never again see someone you love. It feels like your insides are ripped out, leaving you hollow. It did not matter how organized or “ready” we tried to be.
On the day we scattered her ashes, nothing went as we had envisioned. The boat was a bathtub and my hopes of standing like Leo and Kate in Titanic in a long flowing dress was squashed immediately when I was told I needed rubber shoes and a water-resistant jacket. I assumed we would take the boat out of Marina del Rey and into dolphin territory. We would instead leave from Long Beach Harbor and the captain regretfully told me that, while there were many seals, dolphins were unlikely. We reached the spot where we were to scatter the ashes and every one readied their readings. Most people unable to finish through their sobs, giving their passage to another family member to continue. I imagined my mother’s disappointment from above. This was not what we had planned. Yet, just as we opened the bag and poured my mum’s remains into the water, two dolphins breached on the side of the boat. Everyone, including the ceremony officiant, cried. Grief cannot be controlled, but it’s unpredictability will surprise us in the most beautiful ways.
When unable to control the bereavement process many of us attempt to run away from it altogether, focusing on the things we can manage, like work. Rather than taking the time to pause and sit in the ache of loss, we barrel forward, trying to get ahead of mourning. After mom died I put my career in hyper drive, running around the world and scheduling myself to the minute, yet the sadness lurked like a shadow. Others numb out with drugs or alcohol. Anything to avoid the pain. Whatever the method it is fruitless. There is no way to outrun a broken heart, it is inside of you.
Partly out of drive, mostly out of avoidance, I worked every single minute of every day, after Mum passed. I would say yes to any-and-all sub requests, sometimes teaching five classes a day. I did not have a day off for months at a time. On the first anniversary of Mum’s passing, I took a trip to Bali to study with renowned teachers. I told people I was going to “heal”, but my intention was to go and practice hard, to feel my muscles ache, instead of my heart. On the second day of my three-week trip, I rented a motorbike and decided to explore the rice fields, ignoring the important reality that I had never ridden one before. As I raced through the streets, the locals yelled out “slowly, slowly”. Perhaps they were speaking to more than the speed of my bike? I don’t remember the accident, but I came to in the passenger seat of a stranger’s truck. Blood running down my face. No memory of who I was or where I was. The moment my consciousness returned, I felt my mother for the first time since I lost her. I knew I was going to be okay. Grief should not be escaped. It is how those we lost live within us.
Often after great loss we then try to protect ourselves from having our heart broken in the first place. I convinced myself that I wanted to stay single. That I did not want children. That I did not need a family of my own. I convinced myself that my career mattered most and yet in each pause of the excitement or moment alone, I would long for love. The idea of having a family frightened me more than anything in the world, but it is not the family itself that scares me, it is losing them. We do this after break ups, too. People get hurt and shut themselves off in repudiation. Hoping that by cementing their fragile heart, it can never be shattered again.
My fiancé’s dad is quite ill and watching the suffering his Mum is experiencing led me to remark that this is precisely why I am afraid of loss. Wiser than I could ever be, he responded, “but that pain is what makes their love so beautiful”. The depth of their pain was a measure of their love. Our heart’s wounds will still exist behind the walls we erect, but instead of airing to heal, they fester and boil. We risk finding ourselves alone and disconnected; paradoxically, even more heartbroken. Grief should not be avoided. Grief is the fullest expression of our deepest love.
Then one day you hear a song or sniff a waft of familiar perfume and as the tears flood from your eyes without warning, instead of doubling over in the ache of emptiness, you find you are also smiling. The moment I discovered I could remember those lost without struggle changed my relationship with grief. My dad converted all our old family videos onto DVD’s just before my mother passed. I had been reluctant to watch for years in fear of the pain. One day I felt brave enough to put one on and as the camera panned to my Mum making a joke I simultaneously burst into tears and laughter. I was instantly transported to her, hearing her laugh, smelling her smell. It was miraculous. After that moment I was like a junky, hungry for more. I watched hours of videos that day. I kept her sweater wrapped in my closet and would spray it occasionally with her old perfume, so I could inhale it like paint. My entire nervous system sighing with relief at the opportunity to connect to her once again. Grief was no monster, it was magic!
I loved Beauty & the Beast when I was a little girl. Beast was so scary and unpredictable in the beginning, but Belle remained brave and upon embracing the Beast, he ended up being pure love. Grief is a misunderstood creature we must learn to befriend. At first it is scary. It is uncontrollable and uncomfortable. It forces us to feel each fissure of heartbreak. We try every tactic to not face the “monster”, only to discover that a monster does not exist. The monster is our idea of what grief is. It is a construct of our fears. Grief itself is just love and with love comes loss and though painful, that is what makes it so beautiful.