Holding both… grief and joy.
A couple months ago, I spent a week at a healing trauma center. I arrived on a beautiful property with cabins, horses, blue sky, and silence, except for my heart beating out of my chest, full of anxiety. When I arrived they took all forms of technology. I was left with nothing to distract myself or numb the pain. I had only my thoughts, my journal, a broken heart, and to feel what was inside of me. Therefore, I felt like I was constantly on the verge of bawling, vomiting, or collapsing in despair…unless I chose to absorb what I felt.
While Will was sick, that’s what I did. I absorbed all of my emotions so I could function. I’m still scared to feel what’s there, what has been growing deeper and deeper inside of me. It’s too much. So, too often, I still absorb. Sometimes, I can’t live in this world without Will and actually feel what that’s like, but I don’t have the option of living here with him anymore.
The first few days at the center were incredibly painful and difficult, but as we moved deeper into the trauma, I felt more content in my sadness and grief. The group of people I was with were wonderful. We were all hurting people who found comfort with each other. Anyone of us could laugh or cry…either was okay and neither denied the existence of the other.
A turning point for me was at lunch one day. As conversation turned to what happened to Will and me, I began spouting off facts with no emotion attached. A man broke down crying and I quickly apologized. My apology was for my words contributing to someone feeling uncomfortable or feeling their own fear and sadness. I didn’t want to be the cause of that and felt that I was. He asked me why I was apologizing. In that moment, I realized I have been so fearful of crying, of feeling, in front of others. Fearful that I might be the cause of anyone feeling even a hint of what I feel inside. But, with his tears, I was given permission to feel and I began to sob. He held me and we both cried. The deep connection of pain and togetherness in our humanity was truly beautiful.
Recently, for the first time in almost a year, I have been able to hold both my extreme grief and joy. That is what I hope for, maybe all I really hope for myself.
About a month ago, I started teaching ESL to adult refugees and immigrants in Nashville. My class has about 15 students, mostly from African and Middle Eastern countries. All I really know about my students are their names and home country. I don’t know their stories. I don’t know the reasons for being in Nashville or what each one has gone through, or seen, or what was left behind. Sometimes I cry just thinking about it. When I think about the pain I feel constantly in losing William, it breaks my heart to think of others experiencing depths of loss. I think about our lives, how our story changed so quickly, the layers upon layers of loss, and it makes me think of others who lived in pain before I even knew of it’s depths, or those who are entering into it as I type. The human connection in suffering is deep, yet there seems to be a strange beauty that I’m seeing and experiencing there. It’s a painful beauty and one I would never wish for anyone to arrive at in this way, yet I feel that it exists in these depths of entering in with each other. I remember writing about how the depths of suffering Will and I were experiencing were so much deeper than we had ever experienced before, yet so was the depth of love. Both the depths of love and suffering continue to deepen for me, as I continue to see myself and others a little clearer in this world we live in.
My heart continues to break each day as I wake up alone and each night as I go to bed alone…every time I have a question and want to ask William…every time I have a thought or idea and want to share it with him and hear his thoughts in return…every time I come across a fun dance video or hear a song I love…every time the weather is warm and I think about going for a walk or every time it rains and I think about cuddling and watching a movie…every time I go to the store and want to pick up a tasty treat for him…every time I start to dream, but don’t have him to dream with me…every time a thought in my mind takes shape and I want to tell him…every time I come home and wish I could hear about his day, what new idea he came up with or what was on his mind. These are a few of the things that break my heart each day and I wonder… what are other people feeling that no one knows…are other hearts breaking each day?
When I stand in front of my class, I think about how much I would love to share this with William. I want to go home and tell him all about it. I think about how my students don’t know anything about my story and I don’t know anything about theirs. Yet, we sit in the classroom together, all of us with a story…our lives, and we laugh together and learn together. We are overwhelmed and frustrated by the language barrier together and then we have breakthroughs together. We are all human beings and we share in our humanity and the emotions that we all feel. We share it together. That is where I found the ability to hold my joy again, as I hold my grief. My grief is a part of me. I feel no shame in holding it or pressure to stop (or at least I hope to not feel shame or pressure). Even as a Christian, as someone who is believing that this life isn’t all there is, hoping and believing that there is a God who saves us, I am a person with a range of emotions, who has lost greatly and feels that loss deeply every day. But, I am not alone. That I know. Our emotions and the range of them are not limited to gender or race or sexual orientation/identity or ethnicity or religion. Even with language barriers there is commonality and connection in our emotions. We all have them and can experience the beauty in sharing them together, in sharing our lives and stories with each other.
There is still hope inside me that I will wake up one day and William will be next to me, even knowing that will never happen…that the pain I feel daily will end, not because I have moved on from it, but because it’s actually over. When I look at my students or anyone I meet, I wonder about their stories, their lives. What pains have they suffered? What hopes did they have that will never come to be? Do they feel alone? Would they feel less alone if someone listened to their story, if someone shared in their emotions, met them in those deep places?
Are we sharing in our humanity with each other? The depths of it, the range of it? Are we limiting what we allow others to feel around us? Do we limit emotions to only the “positive” ones and quickly squash or redirect the painful and difficult ones, the ones that may make us feel uncomfortable or feel our own fears? Does everything have to end with a positive spin or wrapped in pretty bow? Or maybe what I need to ask myself…can others feel their happiness or joy around me, even as I hold my grief? Can we, together, hold both simultaneously? My therapist told me that the healthiest people are those that are just as close to crying in a moment as they are to laughing. Our range of emotion is immense. I feel fairly confident that I will lean towards grief and sadness for quite some time and I put no limits on it. My grief doesn’t seem to ease, it just changes. I may grieve for the rest of my life, and if I do…okay, but I also want to hold joy. My deep love for William is why I sit in a place of sorrow and grief now. I hold joy in our love for each other. I hold grief in the loss. If I don’t limit grief then I don’t want to limit joy either.
Grief in one hand. Joy in the other. Neither denying the other’s existence.