This weekend in Weston the grief of losing a promising young law enforcement officer and a man loved by family, colleagues, and friends was as profuse as the lingering scent of spring lilacs. Spoken or unspoken, the reality of it brought many of us to our own memories of losing someone we so dearly loved.
Recently one of my young grandsons was asking questions about death after attending a memorial service. I told him that when people die we then carry them in our hearts. Later, when we were out on a walk, I casually said I thought I would move over onto the sidewalk “in case a big truck might be coming around the corner.” He surprised me by saying, “And then I would have to carry you in my heart.” I knew he had the beginning of an understanding as a seven-year-old of this great challenge of living with the knowledge of the reality of death.
Also this weekend, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, spoke to the graduating class at UC Berkeley of her journey through grief after the untimely loss of her 47-year-old husband. “Dave’s death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depth of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void–or in the face of any challenge—you can choose joy and meaning.”
Grief is a very individual journey. For many, it begins with the slow and teary melting of shock. For a good amount of time it may feel like walking through a dense fog. For some, it is anger and restlessness. For some, grief is an emptiness and numbness to feeling anything at all.
I remember stating as a teenager when my young father died unexpectedly that I would never be happy again. My mother tried to reassure both of us that I would, but I did not believe it. I believed the empty feeling in my chest and the stinging shocks of sadness would never leave. Eventually, small breakthroughs of happiness helped me know that I would indeed find joy in life again. Dealing with the what if’s and the what we might have done’s became fewer, and fond memories became the “carrying in the heart.” Then, slowly moving forward could begin. In negotiating grief, we learn that the strength and courage of our survival may be one of our greatest life achievements.
Whether or not we are believers in Life Everlasting and going home to the everlasting arms of God, somehow we have to get through the grief. Surviving grief is the understanding that we have learned what we could know in no other way: how precious life is, one day at a time. We learn to be grateful for the time we have and resolve not to waste it. We must make sense of the reality that joy is stronger than loss. We learn to carry each other in our hearts.