Even great loss holds within it a sweeter seed

It has been a hard few weeks. While my family continues to grieve after losing my mom’s longtime companion, Lou, to pancreatic cancer, I have received news of one tragedy after another.

The week after he passed, a friend asked for prayers for one of her girlfriends, whose husband, at only 37 years old, died of a massive heart attack just as he was finishing his last round of chemotherapy for testicular cancer. He was the dad to two boys, only 3 and 3 months old.

Shortly afterward, I learned that, less than two weeks after he’d married her daughter, the new son-in-law of a fellow wedding officiant had died in a car crash. The couple’s first child is due in September.

Repeatedly, I’ve found myself brushing up against unspeakable sorrow, unimaginable loss: the best buddy of a stranger’s husband claimed by pancreatic cancer, a friend of Lou’s felled by heart attack, my boyfriend Zane’s step-grandfather facing the end after a steady decline in his health.

When one of my aunts called to convey her condolences after Lou died, she remarked, almost as perplexed as she was resigned, that death is the enemy. Her comment conjured a fearsome shadow, a thief lurking around an unavoidable corner, ready to rob us of dreams and plans, security and time.

It would be easy to agree, considering how suddenly Lou was taken from us, the months or even years we were anticipating whittled to weeks and then mere days following his diagnosis. And confronting so many other stories of heartbreak with mine still so fresh, it has been tough to make sense of the senseless, to find even a flicker of understanding amid the whys and hows thronging what so often brings us to a bewildering, bottomless ache.

I long to have Lou back.

When I see an SUV like the one he drove, I still imagine he’s there behind the tinted glass, still expect his voice on the other end of the phone and still, among a bittersweet crush of other yearnings, wish I’d made the time for him to teach me how to play the guitar he’d given me for my birthday.

But despite my longing, I have not bemoaned death itself, nor decried a hand so seemingly cruel and rash with its blows.

For this experience, even in its dark and bitter swells, also has come bearing gifts. When my mom first told me Lou had pancreatic cancer, as I struggled to come to grips with such devastating news, it occurred to me that here was an opportunity to learn and practice a deeper love, compassion and faith. I imagined those threads binding me, my mom, my brother and his family more closely to each other, and to Lou, in the long, hard months to come. Forced to confront life’s fragility, I envisioned all the ways in which we’d shed the immaterial, prune our days to be fully present to what was being asked of us. Because we’d have to trust that something was, whether that meant prioritizing, simplifying, forgiving, tearing down any walls that held us back from being our most authentic and generous selves.

Lou left us before we could even begin to forge such a commitment let alone take in the gravity of his diagnosis. But even in these first few weeks of stumbling through my grief, I feel I am emerging as someone different. In being willing to touch and hold the core of my pain, I am becoming more compassionate. In having no answers to the questions that haunt me, and the agony of wondering what it was like for Lou to so abruptly face a receding future, I can only rely on faith to steer me through this foreign terrain. I know a reason may never be revealed, but I also know this is life — the collision of good and bad, the pivoting beginnings and endings, the bitter ungirding the sweet.

It is all exquisite — and all an invocation, to love like I haven’t before and to live closer to the bone of what truly matters. As rubbed raw as I have been, and with grief’s unpredictable journey still only in its infancy, I cannot help but think that somehow I will be better for embracing the full swath of this experience, from the moments of anger and bleak solitude to those that still give us so much to celebrate and enjoy. And since we can never truly know what the grieving are going through until we’ve held a similar ache in our hearts, I feel I am being tenderly equipped to better meet other mourners right where they are, in the many stages of loss.

Last week, two of my uncles and an aunt were visiting from St. Lucia and Canada. As they sat around after dinner one night, recalling moments from their childhood, we all erupted into laughter at the image of the flour sacks my grandmother would fashion into sleepwear for my mom and her brothers. It was the hand-clapping, body-swaying, side-clutching kind of laughter — the kind I hadn’t seen my mom do in weeks.

And though it had been a while since I, too, had laughed that heartily, on the way home, I was assailed by sadness, knowing how Lou had always looked forward to such gatherings and remembering the easy camaraderie he shared with my mom’s brothers and their families. Yet I suppose it will be so for some time, sorrow and joy clasped hand in hand, much as it always is, as life moves on and we move with it, asking us still to take it in, this time with ever more kindness and love.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times