We walked off the plane after over 24 hours of travel, into a crowd of welcoming, if not cautious, arms - a moment I had played out in my imagination dozens of times before. Only in my earlier versions, this moment was defined by sheer joy, dominated by victorious applause, doused with huge smiles and laughter and first meetings. In that version, we walked out even more sleep-deprived, yet even more exuberant, as our first son sat perched on my hip, ready for his grand debut.
Instead, we walked off the plane with only our carry-ons in hand, and with a mountain of grief inside our hearts that we had not yet had the courage nor the understanding to begin to deal with.
I think few of us get through our twenties and thirties without encountering tragic loss of one form or another. Within my own little circle, parents have died of cancer, brothers have taken their lives, babies have been born blue, friends have fallen or crashed or wandered to their deaths, adoptions have fallen through, marriages have crumbled - all within the past decade. And I know every little circle, in every little corner of the world, is unfortunately familiar with similar tragedies and losses.
After losing a dear friend two summers ago, I found some degree of comfort in educating myself with every piece of literature I could get my hands on regarding grief and the process of recovery after tragic loss. I read book after book after book, and flitted from one blog to the next, not in search of answers, but in great need of camaraderie and guidance. I didn't want concrete steps to follow, but I did need to know what sorts of things I could expect on this road of grief and what things had helped others along the way. More than anything, I wanted a hand to hold as I walked, to know that I was not alone.
I love what Glennon Doyle Melton says about grief in her memoir, Carry On Warrior, "Grief and pain are like joy and peace; they are not things we should try to snatch from each other. They’re sacred. They are part of each person’s journey. All we can do is offer relief from this fear: I am all alone."
Perhaps the saddest part of our tragedies - more wounding and breaking to the human spirit than even the loss itself - is the way we treat one another in the wake of these experiences. How many times has someone in their grief been greeted with overly optimistic smiles and assurances and appeasements of why things happened the way they did? Well-meaning and kind-hearted people rush to provide answers, to wrap the messes of our lives with neat bows like, "At least he's happy in heaven now." or "God always has a plan." or "She's an angel now. The best one up there." Answers and justifications given before the griever has hardly even had time to ask the questions or raise the concerns for themselves.
And how many times has someone in their grief suddenly realized that nobody in the room is willing to make eye contact with them? Instead of bright smiles, they receive awkward glances and downcast eyes; instead of confident answers, they experience complete avoidance. Perhaps meals are dropped off for a week or condolence cards trickle in for a month, but all too often when the going gets really hard - when the reality of a lifetime without the loved one starts to sink in or the questions finally start taking form - the griever finds herself alone, left to feel as though she now and forevermore wears a Scarlet Letter, that her pain is too big or her healing is taking too long.
Anna speaks to this in her beautiful book, Rare Bird, when she writes, "It dawns on my that I’ve never walked beside someone in deep pain. I’ve been more of a drive-by friend, the kind who reaches out once or twice and hopes the situation will be resolved quickly. I care. I cry. I pray. But I don’t stick around long. I’m the type of friend you would want around for a broken ankle but not for chronic depression."
I understand Anna's words far too well - both as the giver of such shallow comfort and as the receiver. Grief is messy and scary and quite unpredictable - just the opposite of the neat, controlled lives most of us strive toward. We get lost in that unpredictability and rather than sitting in silence and patience with ourselves or others, we rush ahead with answers and will for life to go on as we once knew it. We hurry the griever into clean black and whites - answers that may in fact satisfy our own souls - without allowing them space to wrestle and cry and wander and just not know, perhaps ever.
Anne Lamott offers this insight on grief in her book, Stitches, "I’d given talks for years about how when it comes to grieving, the culture lies - you really do not get over the biggest losses, you don’t pass through grief in any organized way, and it takes years and infinitely more tears than people want to allot you. Yet the gift of grief is incalculable, in giving you back to yourself."
I have fumbled on my words and overcompensated the discomfort of a situation with chatter and cheek-numbing smiles. I have wrestled through the muck of my own grief, not knowing how to ask for help or what help it was that I even needed. I have been quick to anger, quick to judge, quick to tears.
Through it all, I have learned that there are guideposts gleaned from others' experiences to help mark our way and myths about grief and loss that we need to uncover. I have learned that there are stories that we need to hear and stories that we need to tell. That there is courage to be mustered for that painful but necessary task of staring our loss straight in the face. That there are questions that need to be asked and space - within a loving arms' reach - that needs to be given.
I have learned that we still need to laugh. We still need to cry. And always, we need to know we are not alone.