I stayed home from work on Friday. The only hospice patient I had on my schedule was a toddler, who definitely did not need to catch the cold that was just beginning to scratch at my throat. It was an excuse, really. I could have gone to the office and just stayed away from people. Instead, I poured another cup of coffee and called my boss.
At my age, people begin to lose loved ones with increasing frequency. More than a handful of beloved friends have lost parents, siblings, spouses and even children this year. I needed a day at home alone with a pot of soup simmering on the stove and the warm and undemanding love of my dog, to sit with my own sorrow and feel the sacred weight of loving so many people who are grieving. On Monday, I will begin to move gently back into my place among people who are grieving and I will do my best to love them well, respecting that their grief is their own. But on Friday I needed to pause and re-balance the weight of so much sorrow.
No matter how closely our lives are intertwined and how deeply our hearts connect, no one can take away another person’s grief. All we can do is abide their pain and not make it worse by trying to “fix” it. As I retreated to grieve the losses endured by my friends and family as well as the losses endured by my hospice patient’s friends and families, I also grieved my own inability to take their grief away.
So, I put on the soup, patted the dog for a while and sat down to write this column on grief, unsure of where to begin. A sudden movement outside the window caught my eye. I got up to have a closer look. It was a fawn, the youngest of a small herd that lives behind my house. Tom Turkey, father to the two flocks that rule the neighborhood like gangs of feathered thugs, was menacing the little deer. I watched as Tom Turkey fanned his tailfeathers and took a run at it. The fawn startled and jumped, but having no where to run, innocently put its head back down and continue to munch on the grass. Tom Turkey had failed. The fawn didn’t know enough to be intimidated by his bluster. The turkey skulked away, perhaps to gobble menacingly at the letter-carrier or the schoolboys walking to the bus. No doubt the fawn and its mother as well as the two flocks of turkeys will return, as they do each morning and evening.
Witnessing this dance of wild life, I was reminded of a poem by C.K. Williams, entitled, “The Doe”:
Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.
All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.
Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.
The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.
“…the rest, in the rake of the late light, stayed.” CK Lewis’ words are so painfully true. Grief changes us. We lose a part of ourselves, when someone we love dies. The only other person in the world who ever shared the memories of your life together is gone. You alone will now carry the stories you shared, the traditions and private jokes, the secrets you held for one another, the fights you had and the ways in which you let each other down, and the love that held fast despite it all. There is a deep loneliness and a great heaviness to grief. No wonder it is so exhausting.
The beginning of the poems last line though, is equally true, “The part of my pain which sometimes releases me from it fled with her…”. Some day, a wonderful distraction will provide relief from the pain for a moment. How well I remember the first time my sister-in-law laughed after her son died. It was only for a moment, but that brief moment of distraction was like a rainbow after a storm. Temporary but oh-so beautiful, fleeting and yet filled with hope of more joyful distractions to come.
Be kind to yourself. Sometimes life is very hard. But life is also very beautiful. Hope is right around the corner and there is joy to be had eventually, even in the absence of those we grieve.
The Midweek Musings column rotates among Cape Ann clergy.