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A deep well of grief--a place that has no words--lives inside my body. It moves, sometimes resting on my heart, sometimes rushing through my veins, sometimes receding in my bones so deep that I think it’s disappeared, only to come roaring to life in my ears in the middle of the night.
I call it the dark place—the place where this tiny infant girl lost her mother in the middle of the night. After years of therapy, attempting to disentangle the sorrow and anxiety, I try to handle it like this:
I’m no longer that little baby, and as a mother myself now, I have some inkling of understanding in my heart for whatever desperate situation was at hand to leave me behind. I’ll make myself crazy thinking of all the stories of why and what if, they range from the fantastical (a royal line!) to the dismal (abuse victim!) and everywhere in between. (I love you and hug you and will never leave you, little girl. You are the love of my life.)
But this pain—it’s triggered at the most usual and unusual times and spaces. When I say goodbye to a friend, who I’ve known for 20 years, I cry inconsolable tears, as if my world is falling apart. When I think of my father dying while I sat beside him, breathing in his last labored breath. When my mother who raised me can’t understand what I’m saying into the phone, because today is just a bad day for her health condition. When a few days later, she’s lucid and is like the mom of twenty years ago, debating politics or remembering random details of DD1’s school friends, or DD2’s giggle. Or how to make turkey gravy from scratch, or reminiscing when she traveled the world for her job.
I like to think that this grief I carry inside me is also the strength that has helped me overcome the worst parts of my story. It helped me grow strong, to become like a pearl carved by the roughness of the tears and pain, so that I could live through losing my first adopted father to AIDS, living with my mom’s second husband and the strife between my brother, my mother and him, the sense of relief (and guilt for feeling relieved) when he died of cancer. Losing my father’s partner to AIDS, and the foggy memory of driving six hours in a borrowed car to his funeral with my college boyfriend, then popping pills to numb my heart. Losing my mom’s third husband, who adopted me as an adult (a real, genuine grandfather for DD1! DD2 had not yet been born), also to cancer.
My mom’s strength through all of this takes my breath away. I don’t know know how I could ever measure up to that. But I try.
Sometimes, I feel like this world is too full of grief and struggle. I read these stories and my heart aches for them, yearns to make some kind of difference.
Be the difference, whispers Ghandi, be the difference you want to see in the world.
My heart misses my older brother, who hardly ever talks to me, but at last year’s visit to see my family, he actually stayed home to spend time with me and my daughters and converse with my husband. His family will likely never travel to where we live, but at least he was there, he didn’t pretend he had a business trip five states away like the time before.
My head understands his distance—I think I remind him of pain, the person who he was before. He needs to distance between the pain from before and who he is now—husband, father, successful entrepreneur. Why would he want to be bogged down by the inconvenient and sad memories of fighting with our stepfather? Of feeling betrayed by our mother?
Are we enough to overcome our grief and pain, to distill it from something negative and overwhelming and transform it into strength? To really be the change we want to see in the world?
I yearn to be.
A good friend of mine once wrote in the shadow of her childhood, now grown 48 years later—you know what, you just are. And in my moments of strength, I agree--you take what’s given to you in this world, and you pull it together and you do the best that you can with what’s in front of you. Do better and try more in the spaces where you can, and be gentle with yourself when you’re less than perfect.
Sometimes, my grief is like a blanket. It comforts me as the pain of what I know, versus the fear of the unknown. It was what likely helped me pick the life partners who hurt me, and the one I picked to have kids with, it’s likely why my anxiety level continues to tremble the Richter scale to size 7 earthquakes in the middle of the night. Even now, when I argue (healthy argue) with my hubby, I wonder if I’m falling into my old pattern, gathering the fear that I know close, the comfort of grief. (I’m still in therapy to break the cycle).
I don’t want grief to be my comfort anymore.
And on those same strong days, I gather up the tendrils of sadness and grief and do my best to weave a pattern out of it—one that comforts my daughters when they’re upset or down (esp when confused after coming home from dad’s house), to support them so they know their voices matter.
An imperfect quilt—yes I lose my temper and patience and sigh vehemently or raise my voice (Do it NOW!!)—but one that finds ways to validate their feelings (I see you’re upset, honey, I’m sorry you’re upset) but also maintains boundaries (it’s okay to be angry, anger is healthy. What’s not okay is stomping around or kicking your sister!).
Is it enough? Do they know that I love them will all my heart? Am I preparing them to face a world of sexism and racism and to be confident in their voices? My wish for them is to find happiness in themselves, to be kind to others, to know the difference between true love (friends and family and potential spouses in the future) versus love that comes with a price. To be courageous in their choices, to put their foot down and not be taken advantage of. To be strong where they can, to know they can be weak and still be loved. To trust themselves. To know they are enough.
Is it enough?