Learning to live with grief and pain
Today is the 5th year anniversary of our beloved Pops’ passing.
People often say that time heals all wounds, but I’ve come to realize that this is not always true… Perhaps there are some wounds that don’t heal, and we have to learn to live with them.
The poet and author David Whyte once said that:
an elegy is always a conversation between grief and celebration: the grief of the loss of the person and the celebration that you were here at all to share the planet with them.
Last week, a few days after hearing this line, I discovered a recording from Pops’ memorial. Although the speech I gave wasn’t quite an elegy or eulogy, as I watched it, I realized how the grief (and celebration) I felt then still feels just as real now. Indeed, it was the very first time that I was even watching the video, as I had been afraid to re-live the pain. And to be honest, I often find myself diverting my thoughts away from Pops, worried that the pain and grief are too much.
As it turns out, this struggle between grief and gratitude is another lesson — perhaps one of the most important yet — that Pops is teaching me.
Although he isn’t here to share his stories, it’s as if his words and wisdom come alive through the poets and great writers of his time. Like the following lines from Rainer Rilke:
Don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.
Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?
This is a question I think about constantly, especially whenever I think of Pops: what is this pain and depression trying to accomplish within me?
In that process, I stumbled upon David Whyte’s beautiful articulation of what that grief and pain can feel like:
We have this physical experience in loss of falling toward something. It’s like falling in love except it’s falling into grief.
And you’re falling towards the foundation that they held for you in your life that you didn’t realize they were holding. And you fall and fall and fall and you don’t find it for the longest time. And so the shock of the loss to begin with, and the hermetic sealing off, is necessary in grief.
But then there comes a time when you finally actually start to touch the ground that they were holding for you. And it’s from that ground that you step off into your new life.
5 years after his passing, I think I’m finally starting to touch the ground that Pops was holding. And starting to understand what this pain is trying to accomplish within me: how to simply live with grief and pain.
In the mid 1900s, physicist Niels Bohr wrote that the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth: It strikes me that this lesson — that the pain surrounding Pops’ passing is teaching me how to live with grief/pain — is both obvious and very surprising.
Dr. Joanna Macy — who was born in 1929, the same year as Pops — shared the following about losing her husband of 54 years:
That became actually perhaps the most pivotal point in the landscape of my life: that dance with despair, to see how we are called to not run from the discomfort and not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage or even fear. And that, if we can be fearless, to be with our pain, it turns. It doesn’t stay static. It only doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it.
But when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.
Pops is teaching me to be with the pain and the grief. To not run from it, but to take it in my hands, to just be with it. To not be afraid to dwell in his memories for an evening, or an hour, or a minute. Or to not run from (or be paralyzed by) the other struggles and pain life presents. But to look at it, to acknowledge it, to be with it.
And Dr. Macy is right: slowly I’m realizing that the other face of pain is love.
The poet and author David Whyte continues from the previous passage, saying that some people eventually move towards a realization that: what is past, what is present, and what’s about to occur are not so clearly marked out. One of the things the Irish say is that “the thing about the past is it’s not the past.” It’s right here in this room, in this conversation.
My hope and prayer is that as I learn more about living with grief and pain, this will become true of Pops: that even though he passed 5 years ago, the thing about the past is it’s not the past. And he’s still right here in this room, in this conversation.
I believe that this is what this pain is trying to accomplish in me. For life is full of pain. It’s true that the more we love, the more pain there will be. But the reverse might also true: the more we live in the pain, the more we are able to love.
So as much as I miss Pops — his endless jokes, his morning oatmeal and black coffee, the way he said my name and teased my mom, his 1960s movies and SacBee newspaper clippings, his contagious laugh, his guidance and wisdom, the way he embraced the simplest parts of life — I couldn’t be more grateful for the lessons he is still teaching me today.
The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves. (Rilke)