Lessons in Grief

Navigating loss as a human, therapist, and friend.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the 60th annual convention of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists as both presenter and attendee. It was an enriching weekend with many valuable seminars to choose from and colleagues to reconnect with. As my best friend, and I alongside her, navigates anticipatory grief, I thought I would sit in on a seminar on Intimacy Loss in Partner Grief, in hopes of grasping at some way in which I might better support her through this devastating earthquake as we try to remain steady through the pre-shock quakes.

I don’t know why I naively assumed I could keep my clinical hat on, tea in hand, notebook ready, professional face bright as I took helpful notes that would somehow transform this disaster into something softer. We were not ten minutes in before I exited to sit in the hall with my face in my hands, wiping at my eyes in a vain attempt to preserve my mascara.

The keynote speaker, Elizabeth Smart, commented earlier that day in another seminar that therapists are amazing for holding space for survivors, for choosing to enter that darkness that survivors had no choice but to live. Her words set up a false, though commonly misperceived, dichotomy: the healers and the hurt. Two categories.

The truth is life impales us all with its brutality, and warms us too with its beauty. In unequal and relentless and random measure.

Also this week: my yoga teacher friend succumbed to her cancer. A radiant light shut off, forever. A text message thread that will have no more additions. I skipped the second day of the conference to lead my fellow yogis in a tearful time of remembrance in the grassy spot where we used to meet on Saturdays.

And we just did this a few weeks ago, for our friend who died of suicide. And a week before that, another. Three yogis, seven weeks. Beside me as I type: a blank condolences card to write for a family member who is preparing to bury his foster mom. On the welcome mat to my house: a large, dead grey moth. Ominous and dreadful.

I don’t want to be an expert in grief. I don’t want these lessons I am learning, even as I find myself with greater capacity to empathize and hold space with my clients week by week as they mourn their own loved ones. Even as their stories bring me face to face with what is both behind and before me.

But I am discovering some truths, too.

That we must hold tenaciously to beauty even as the color seems to drain away. That color and beauty are choices, to ferociously determine we’ll notice and bath in, so to fight the grey and the dark from taking over. Golden sunlight. Green new leaves. Purple lavender. Bluest skies. Orange poppies.

I’m learning that nature is my teacher and my balm. From the lifeless bird I can barely stand to see lying floppy and still in my yard, to the bright pink blossoms bursting out in the trees all around me, relentlessly pursuing life despite the losses. Both are here. I must notice it all. Raise my gaze. Keep noticing.

I’m learning that I must keep moving. Pressing my toes into the earth, raising my hands to the heavens. Listening to the places grief seizes through my body like a hot knife and rather than curling into the pain, compassionately moving through it, letting it release. Not all at once, as though that were possible, but with each wave as it comes in each stage of loss. Walking. Stretching. Running. Cycling, letting the wind whip around me and, it seems, through me; letting the wind wipe my tears and carry them away.

Allowing the tears, that bittersweet gift of release.

I let myself notice the pounding of my heart that reminds me I am still here, still living, still loving. As grief runs ahead of me to the losses that await, the blossoms, the birdsong, the bumblebees, the wind and the earth ground me to remember there is still love to give, still memories to make. I won’t waste a day of this brutal yet beautiful life.

I’m here to feel it all.

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