“You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…” Joni Mitchell
The shock has not lifted for me. Each day I continue to feel dazed and overwhelmed with grief by this world that is emerging. And yet, as I have written before, the more deeply I accompany my grief, the more resounding are my feelings of gratitude. When we allow ourselves to befriend loss and know it for the lifelong companion that it is, you would have to be a fool to not recognize how blessed you are – not only for all the many ways life is working right in this moment but even more so, for all the people that you love and have ever loved. This is in fact, what it means to grow up, or at least grow old, to acknowledge that loss is the inevitable outcome when we love. As we see all around us, our collective sense of loss in this nation is moving us to love it more, to be ready to fight for what it means to be American.
If maturity does anything, it makes it easier to see how our experience of loss and grief are not just a consequence of death, but rather an emotional response that creates meaning when relationships end, friendships wither, homes burn down and elections go terribly wrong. We have and we let go, that is the nature of life and love. And for better or worse, the more we love, the more we have to lose. Ironically, it is when we wake up to all that there is to lose– when we finally get how much is at stake and surrender to this vast sea of loss, that we truly experience being alive. Gratitude is not really something we think, rather it is a visceral “feeling” when we wake up to both the uncertainty of our existence and the truth of how fleeting this life really is. There is so little time to love. The most memorable moments we share with those we love occur inside this fragile, tender space in which gratitude and grief meet in our hearts.
Living inside of gratitude during these times of profound uncertainty and change is sometimes as close as the intimacy that is exchanged between strangers at a protest. When we give our time to demonstrating our values, we are awake to how many other people share them. This is one powerful way of how gratitude transforms the experience of loss. Even as we prepare to sit down together at Thanksgiving dinners, gratitude is the force which can alter our sense of alienation from each other. All it takes to be grateful is reminding ourselves that even beyond the chasm of fears and outrage that separate us, the family that you love to disagree with will too soon be gone. How many more times in this life will you sit over a pile of turkey and mashed potatoes with these people who bandaged your scraped knees or held you up so you could see the parade?
It is easy to lose sight of how fragile and temporary our ability to love really is, as we move through the day to day details of maintaining life. I remember well the relentless grind of sporting events, laundry piles, meal preps/ clean ups and homework among my four kids that left me little space to appreciate how much I loved my kids. At the moments when I would forget how precious they were to me, and maybe more frequently than I would like to admit, I would shake myself awake to the gift of them by the simple practice of imagining this moment as the last time. Watching them walk away from me at their elementary school door, or now as I do at their dorm room or an airport entrance and letting myself deeply feel the brief, intense pang of the loss I would feel if I was to never see them again… walking away from me or towards me. It always brings me to tears.
This might be the most powerful tactic to use in your upcoming holidays with family that might not be perceiving the changes in the world as you are. Making yourself conscious of the inevitable loss of the people you love despite your differences is how you build a bridge to them in the moment. Court your grief and let it pull you deeper into the recognition of all that there is left to lose. And then miraculously even among the deep divisions of the direction in our nation, you will be surprised to sense that family runs deeper still.
Some might argue that this kind of tactic is self-punishment, but I think of it more as preparation for the moment when it will be true– when I will not see or hear or feel them again. Cognitively we know that this is true, that grief is our reward for a life well loved. Yet we resist the experience, even for a moment, thinking it morose to invite the feeling in. To the contrary, what I have found is that courting my relationship to grief has been the most powerful way for me to expand into a profound physical sensation of gratitude. All the minutiae, conflict and details fall away and I am left in the heartbreaking space that the letting go of our love generates. The Buddhists call this space the Bodhichitta and consider it to be one of the most holy relationships we can cultivate in this life. In our heartbreak, not only does gratitude fill us but we have a capacity for compassion that we didn’t know existed.
Gratitude that springs from relating to our grief is the doorway to remembering how good we have it and to that you must cherish what you have. It won’t let you take love for granted.