grief and healing

Life goes on, and, for anyone who is awake, the list of losses grows over time.  So does the list of joys and wild moments of freedom, if you're paying attention.  This is the space we take up in the world, sad and joyous and all states in between.

In the midst of late winter, our little cat died.  He brought us over twelve years of great joy, and saying goodbye was so hard.  I miss him everyday.  He was not just our cat, he was our clown, our cranky old guy, our sweet companion.  He was an amazing jumper, a selective nose-rubber, and always an enthusiastic friend at the food bowl.

Three things I read helped me tremendously.

First, Mary Oliver's words from the poem "In Blackwater Woods"

( and also in her Pulitzer-prize-winning collection American Primitive), particularly the last few lines:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

The second was a memoir of a stillbirth, a poignant story of loss and of coming to terms with what has been lost, even when the losses are mostly a loss of dreams of things that hadn't happened yet.  This first-person memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, covers territories of grief that are not for the faint hearted.  Surviving requires strength, and reading about this story of survival gave me so much solace as I faced the last days of our companion's life.  The way a set of experiences can turn your stomach on a whole landscape, as McCraken's stillbirth in France did, is so well-described and familiar to anyone who has faced traumatic losses and then moved away from that place.  While this is entirely adult stuff, there are some young adults who would relate, and it's a book worth knowing about.

The third was the gentle voice that got me through, the strength of a radical empathizer who knows how to to hold her own perspective while she generously offers her kindness to others. (Yes, this sounds like my friend Marie too!)  With some of the best boundaries ever created, no doubt through hard years of experience, author Cheryl Strayed (famous for her Oprah Book Club selection, the memoir Wild, a story of her solo hike of the Pacific Coast Trail)  brings us Sugar.  He book Dear Sugar is a compendium of her online advice columns.  The problems are the usual range of issues with parents, partners, children, spouses, as well as all the self-abusive, aggressive, and otherwise damaging things humans to do one another in the name of love or just survival.  But the answers are pure poetry.

Sugar/Strayed shares her own experiences while she's giving advice, taking on the tone of a close and honest friend who wants to show her own limits.  This is one book I'd love to see young adults, especially female young adults get to read, even though some of the specific life crises and conundrums won't apply to them yet.  My favorite quote by far comes from a letter to a woman who is shattered by her husband's affair with the nanny, and Sugar captures the essence of being let down, betrayed, and disappointed by someone you love.  She also outlines the only way forward:

 "Acceptance asks only that you embrace what’s true.

"Strange as it sounds, I don’t think you’ve done that yet. I can hear it in the pitch of your letter. You’re so outraged and surprised that this shitty thing happened to you that there’s a piece of you that isn’t yet convinced it did. You’re looking for the explanation, the loop hole, the bright twist in the dark tale that reverses its course. Any one would be. It’s the reason I’ve had to narrate my own stories of injustice about seven thousand times, as if by raging about it once more the story will change and by the end of it I won’t still be the woman hanging on the end of the line.

"But it won’t change, for me or for you or for anyone who has ever been wronged, which is everyone. We are all at some point—and usually at many points over the course of a life—the woman hanging on the end of the line. Allow your acceptance of that to be a transformative experience. You do that by simply looking it square in the face and then moving on. You don’t have to move fast or far. You can go just an inch. You can mark your progress breath by breath."  

(quoted from  but it's also in the book)

The time came to let it go, to let grief in, as simply as we could.  This time comes, from time to time, and it's never easy to accept.  And acceptance is all we have.  Mary Oliver's words always bring me back to foundations of loving, which is always loving impermanent things.  These are the kinds of words that bring me solace, and my heart sings with gratitude at the honest writers who risk so much to bring back real stories of survival.

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