As mid-July approaches I remember my daughter, Jenny, and my father, Albert. The anniversaries of their deaths fall two days apart and wrap me in a paradoxical shroud of both grief and gratitude. Since both of these beloved figures passed out of my life decades ago – first my daughter and then my father – the sharp edges of loss have blunted somewhat. In place of the immediate anguish and the aftermath of extended sadness comes peace and deep thankfulness for the gift of two wonderful people in my life. This is grief for the long haul.
We don’t often talk about this kind of grief. Instead we offer extensions of consolation immediately after a death and then sporadically during the months that follow. The peculiarly American uneasiness with death makes the extended reality of bereavement hard for many people, especially those unacquainted with it, to comprehend. Helpful as they are, support groups only go so far in bringing us through the ever-afters of loss. The heart may heal but the scars remain.
What I find each time the July anniversaries roll around, however, is an increasing awareness of the precious nature of life and the importance of loving the people around me here and now. I am also vividly aware of the losses others are grieving. I know how the levels of heartache may ease over time and yet also surface with surprising intensity in unexpected moments. Author Parker Palmer writes about two kinds of heartbreak. One is the heart broken into shards which we aim at others in our desperation and despair. The other is the heart broken open, thus allowing for an enlarged capacity for empathy and an attendance to the suffering of others. This is the grace in grief. We don’t choose it, but trust in its transformative potential. The poet, Naomi Shihab Nye describes it this way: “Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things….” As two significant anniversaries approach, I am hopeful that this time around I have grown a little less brittle and little more compassionate. By God’s grace it can be.
Reflect on or talk to someone else about a loss in your life. In what way has grace opened your heart over time? How has your experience of grief given you a way to console someone else?