Holiday Sorrows and Precious Gifts

I am sure that I am not alone in approaching Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, and New Years with sorrow in my heart over the death of a loved one. I hope these reflections will provide guidance for reaching through the sorrows of loss in the coming season.

During the holidays, the pain of separation from loved ones who have died can become acute and preoccupying. Many will feel especially distant from others when the world is caught up in material consumption and merriment. It's hard not to resent life in the world around us going on as if nothing has happened when loss has brought profound change in the world of our experience. Others can be, or at least seem, so joyful when we are so far from being so, our grief so not in the spirit of the season.

Many of my own dear friends and a close relative have died this year, but the loss of my best friend of over sixty years has been the most challenging for me. Bill was born only three days before me, and we grew up living but two short blocks apart. We met and played together even before we entered kindergarten. We attended the same schools, were best friends in high school (through times of serious illness for him), and edited our yearbook together. We maintained contact through the years as we went our own ways into marriages and academic careers. I never tired of telling stories of his remarkable academic and public accomplishments and of our early days together.

Bill and I became close again about twelve years ago when we both moved to the San Francisco Bay area. We teamed again on another book project, Catching Your Breath in Grief...and grace will lead you home, a gift book for the bereaved featuring my writing and his uncannily matched nature photographs. It seemed to us as if a special grace brought us together on the project, as we breathed deeply again into our friendship and talked regularly about things that really matter.

Then, one morning in late May, Bill's housekeeper found him dead in his bed. My heartache was made worse by growing awareness of how very alone he was in the last days and years of his life. In all likelihood, I was the last person to speak with him. Looking ahead to the holidays, I appreciate in my bones how dissonance with the season can feed alienation, resentment, and intense sadness.

I have long held that at its heart grief challenges us to move from loving in presence to loving in separation. As we grieve, we relearn the world of our experience, one filled with things, places, events, other people, and aspects of our selves that painfully remind us of separation from those we mourn. We struggle to relearn how to be "at home" in the world again (soul work) and to reshape our daily lives and stretch into new and unexpected chapters of our life stories (spirit work).

A key to reaching through this sorrow and doing the hard work of grieving is realizing that we often miss our loved ones most in encounters with exactly the same aspects of our world where we can, potentially, feel most connected with them. We need only shift our attention away from the pain of separation and see that connection. Kahil Gibran said it well when he wrote, "When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight." We meet not only sorrow but our loved ones' souls and spirits in the things, places, food and music, and social settings they have touched and left behind. And we meet them in aspects of ourselves that are like, or have been influenced by, them - our motivations, dispositions, desires, interests, preferences, values, behaviors, habits, souls, and spirits.

In C. S. Lewis's journal, A Grief Observed, written after his wife had died, he at first blames God for his agony. Going to God in prayer, he senses "a slammed door" when he needs God most. Later, he realizes that his own desperate longing for his wife's return was the source of his agony. Still later, he writes, "Something quite unexpected has happened. It came this morning early. For various reasons....My heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks.... And suddenly at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best.... It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier." After this experience, Lewis no longer meets the locked door when he turns to God. Instead, he sees God as having given him life, opened his heart to his wife's love late in life, and enabled him to love her still, even in separation. At the very end of his journal, he chooses praising God and his wife - God, the giver, and she the gift - as a way of tempering the pain of missing her. He says, "Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it.... Don't we in praise somehow enjoy what we praise, however far we are from it?"

Instead of attending to the pain of separation, we can attend to and appreciate the lives of the loved ones we mourn as irreplaceable gifts. Though they have died, the realities and meanings of their lives have not been cancelled. We can cherish those we love and their legacies only if we acknowledge them through memory. As we bring aspects of the past into present experience, remembering and sharing memories with others enrich present living. We reconnect with some of the best in life, recognize and cherish legacies, and feel the warmth of loving them and being loved in return. Like Lewis, we can meet and hold them in places of praise, gratitude, and joy in our hearts.

Knowing and loving our loved ones and being known and loved by them have made indelible differences in us and how we live. They may have given us practical legacies, including material goods, biological inheritances, obligations and responsibilities, advice and counsel, knacks for doing things, interests, and, in some cases, vocations. They may have left us soulful legacies, including our roots in individual, family and community traditions, histories and characters as well as ways of caring for and about and loving things, places, food and music, our selves, others, and our families and communities. And they may have given us spiritual legacies, including ways of soaring in peak experiences, striving to improve our life circumstances, becoming the best we can be - changing and growing, overcoming adversity (including sorrow), and searching for understanding and meaning.

We can reach through our sorrows to remember the lives, souls, and spirits of those we mourn in the holiday season; exchange memories with others in our families and friendship circles; and make our loved ones' legacies our own. Surely these gifts are among the most precious things we have ever been given, far more precious than any material gifts that we or others might exchange! And there can be no better time of the year to appreciate and express gratitude for such gifts.

My own experience with Bill's death this year has been putting these ideas to the test. And they have been serving me well. My sorrow at missing Bill will always be with me, but I know now that it doesn't need to dominate my experience in bereavement. I realize that it was not within my power to prevent Bill's dying in isolation from others, though this, too, will always sadden me. I have been able to reach through these sorrows to reclaim and cherish the many legacies that Bill has left me, including the stories about him that I will no doubt continue to delight in and tell until I die, a remarkable mosaic he made as a teen that sits framed on an easel in my home, his incredible photos and the soul and spirit in them that I am able to share with readers of my new book, and the indelible differences he made in me through the years of our knowing one another. No doubt, I will hold these gifts dear through this year's holidays and in the years to come.

I seem to have found my way to grieve in part in terms of this passage from Catching Your Breath in Grief...and grace will lead you home:

Being grateful

You breathe most deeply into life when you accept heartache as the price of love. You would not hurt so much had you not been given a unique place in the great web of life, a life to live, soul and spirit with which to live it, and the privilege of loving and being loved by the one you grieve. The pain of missing him or her is an inevitable companion to the joy of his or her sharing life with you.

Avoiding love out of fear of sorrow would have cost you all you miss. And allowing fear to control you as you enter the next chapters of life would cost you all you still have.

When you realize your good fortune in having your loved one in your life, an amazing grace assures you that courage, hope, and joy outweigh fear, despair, and sorrow. You live more fully when you are grateful.

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In the holiday season ahead, may each of you reach through the sorrow of missing your loved ones who have died, remember them well, and embrace their most precious gifts in gratitude.

December 2012