“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them….how much sorrow can I hold- that’s how much gratitude I can give.” -Francis Weller
I have been crying a lot lately. Negotiating my new empty nest and learning how to live in the silence and space created by my kids’ departure has brought me to a new relationship with grief. Until recently I hadn’t thought much about befriending this emotional space; instead, like most of us, I worked to push it away, medicating it with chocolate and red wine or just making myself so busy that I couldn’t feel it. In part, I think we avoid grief because the visceral feeling of grief so resembles the fluttering in the belly and restlessness that happens when we are afraid. Unlike fear, which we can legitimately try to figure out and re-think, grief just wants our attention. It never gets figured out, it only gets softer when we can tend it, the way we take care of the ongoing needs of a garden.
And actually, grief is a kind of garden in our heart. Living inside of it as I have been and, most recently, with the celebration of my daughter’s wedding, my relationship to my grief has become a daily affair. As her wedding day approached, I promised myself only one thing, which is that I wanted to be fully present and let myself feel everything- unaware how much of that feeling would be filled with sorrow. When I entered the bridal suite to walk her down the aisle towards her future husband, she was radiant and more beautiful than I had ever seen her. I was fully present to this moment in time, which captured the decades that had gone before and carried her away and into a future that I could barely dream of. As we walked down the aisle, my husband on one side of her, me on the other, and her brothers and sister amidst the bridal party glowing in their matching bridal party attire, I was overcome with a beautiful kind of sorrow- the kind that is, at its heart, gratitude for the beauty, for the brevity, and for all of the love that had made this moment possible.
Years ago, an incredible therapist taught me that mature love, the kind that holds on when things are hard, exists as we learn to hold the space between what we really love about someone and what we can’t stand about them. Leaning into the middle of what we refuse and what we embrace is how we learn the essence of compassion that makes love possible over time. It turns out that this equation holds true for our grief as well. Rather than pushing away or, rather, storing, this heartbreaking emotion in our bodies, which is what generally happens to our unprocessed grief, we can learn to hold our sorrow beside our capacity for gratitude, allowing them both to expand. This is how our sorrow is transmuted in to the fertile ground for love and joy to grow.
Culturally, we resist our grief. Our ancestors knew better, which is why no matter what religious or cultural history you look at, they are full of rituals that honor grieving and bring our heartbreak into the light through a container of community. Tragically, we have come to a place and time where we are more often isolated in our grief, which makes our losses and the associated grief we are holding unbearable. Recognizing that loss and grief are as much the cloth of human existence and not some random anomaly is the first step to accepting grief as a friend. Our grief that goes unexpressed and untended controls our life in ways we are often unaware. When we refuse to feel our sorrow, it doesn’t just go away, instead it gets stored in our body- which over time, can create physical complications and disease. But equally importantly, we also lose access to feeling the many positive emotions that created the grief. The truth is that grief is the price we pay for love. Refusing to feel the sadness that comes from the inevitable letting go of who and what we love, makes the joy and gratitude for that love equally inaccessible. As I walked Ana down the aisle, unable to hold back my tears, I could feel that at the depth of my sorrow was the overwhelming joy of having been her mother, the gratitude of having had the chance to walk beside her all this time.
Weddings have always been one my most cherished events to attend. As a child, I used to linger behind the wedding crowds at my neighborhood church just to get a glimpse of the promise of loving forever. I knew even then that there is something transformational for everyone when we are included in the tender and heartfelt vows that a marriage is built on. Weddings are among the most memorable markers because the loving vows that a couple shares serve more than as a commitment for themselves; they are a raft to carry the rest of us, into remembering our own promises, mourning our own losses and aspiring to a greater capacity to forgive.
It was a great gift to allow myself to feel everything on that wedding day even if it didn’t look very good in the pictures. What I learned that day is that growing my family is at its core an act of letting go, and that luckily and happily for me, I could finally be deeply grateful for this grief. It was the price I paid for love, it is the price that we all pay. The more deeply we love, the more we give ourselves over to the grief of having to let go.