Grief

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It is both monumental and remarkable to connect in this life with one or even two people who make you feel you are better than you might have otherwise believed yourself to be. Simply knowing them makes you want to be a better person, if for no other reason than to rise to the level of deserving their good company. It is therefore one of the most savage acts of providence when such fine people make a permanent departure.

Beyond finance, fame, or the fulfillment of dreams, we are bound more profoundly to our relationships than to anything else. Be it a friendship gone sour or a life cut short, no amount of preparedness can stay the shock or cut the pain. We are, at our root and core, deeply communal beings.

Grieving is life’s hard lesson. It’s our way of working through the feeling that we’ve been left behind. It is equally unfortunate that the process of grieving has its firmest footing in a foundation of regret. However positively we might accept what the world doles out to us, the loss of anyone dear lays waste to any plans we may have had to confess affection, clarify a misunderstanding, or make amends.

Once those opportunities are lost to us, grief becomes one of the most penetratingly hurtful states of being because we not only dwell in the here and now of its morose oppression, but we spend every sleepless moment burdened by the knowledge that grief will be rudely imposing itself on us for the foreseeable future or until it wears itself out.

There are those so crippled by their grief that they’re actually seduced by its agony and wear circles of dirt in the grass around the graves of loved ones, unable to move forward, often times for many, many years; and then there are those who grieve deeply and profoundly—and yet their lives, about a year or two down the road, begin to regain momentum. Even though they may not be here to see it fulfilled, it is one of the greatest acts of courage and of love to pick one’s self up and actually become the person your dear one saw you to be.

The act of grieving has remarkably curative properties and is one of the very healthiest things we can do for ourselves. It’s a crucial process but, like any powerful medication, if abused, one can easily fall prey to its grim addiction.

A dear friend and very smart man once told me that all sin is rooted in comparison. When we see those good things that others possess and start holding them up to the standard of what we do not have, then begins our descent. It’s our covetous nature that gets us into trouble. This can be true when we witness others enjoying the relationships we do not have.

What we do have are the recollections of all we enjoyed from those we knew back when. The wondrous thing about our best memories is that they travel well. The portability of all we loved about someone dear is such that it moves with us wherever we go.

I miss my mother every day but I have not lost the entirety of her—only the tangibility of her. I still have every gift she ever gave me, every piece of her that was unwittingly bestowed with love. I have the snorkeling sound of her guffaws as she struggled to get a joke told, the baby-talk language she lavished on other people’s pets, the laughter in her eyes when she was so incredibly proud of you she couldn’t find the words to say so, and the profound and earthy optimism she lovingly doled out like candy to anyone in need of a smile. There is much of that magical woman that lives and breathes and laughs in me now. As the song goes, “No, they can’t take that away from me.”

Loss may not seem bearable, but this I know to be true—it is survivable. The trick now is to make the most of being alive and to set myself the happy task of connecting with more good people.

As the ever-insightful Mark Twain once wrote, “Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”

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Departures

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Dogs have the most wonderful personalities to me. As it turns out, they have no concept of the future whatsoever. Have you noticed they also don’t seem to hold onto past grievances? You can forget your adorable mutt’s breakfast when you’re running late and he still loves you when you return home at night. Aside from learned behavior and instinct, there’s no preoccupation of future or past for them. Everything to a dog is right here, right now. This, according to research, is a statistic. I’d love to see that research and talk to the dogs they actually interviewed to arrive at this. Even though the whole concept of future blindness seems a little iffy, whenever I look at a dog now something in me says, “Yeah. It’s true.”

Humans, as we all know, are the exact and extreme opposite. We hyper-focus on everything except the present. People I’ve known through the years who dreaded their lives also happened to be the ones who lived in fear of their mortality. That final exit is a huge event in anyone’s life but obsessing over it strikes me as an insult to the quality of the life you should be living.

In my twenties I thought of death all the time, as twenty-somethings are inclined to do, because that’s when we’re most uncertain about our aspirations, our future, and what our place in the world might be—which may explain why Goth and other cultures fixate on a dark demise. I really connected with that mindset in my youth but, looking back now, it occurs to me that when my life was actually going well and was full of promise, enthusiasm and opportunity, I never gave death much consideration.

It’s kind of funny how, when the world is falling apart, churches fill up with prayerful masses lamenting their sorry lot in life, but when things are going our way, the glands swell, the brain freezes, and it’s caution to the wind. Reckless as it may seem, this latter tact may be the loftier goal to keep in our sights.

Life is absolutely a gift but it is also a muscle to be exercised. Dwelling on how it could all go away not only allows that muscle to atrophy, but it doesn’t show much appreciation for the gift either. However enlightened we may be, death and dying will continue to drift in and out of our consciousness. It’s in our nature to obsess like that.

While scripture promises “peace that passeth understanding”, why can it not be balanced in life with an understanding that bringeth peace? My take at this advanced stage of the game is that those who immerse themselves in the very real business of being alive will have little time left to fret about that impending dirt nap.

Both Leonardo DaVinci and Monty Python’s Michael Palin sum it all up nicely for me. DaVinci observed that, “A well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.”

Palin remarked, “George Harrison’s passing was really sad, but it does make the afterlife seem much more attractive.”

My father is 92 this year and he is the penultimate example of the concept that the secret to dying young is to put it off for as long as possible. He is the youngest, most vital and energetic person I am ever likely to know. He has been my best example by embracing what it is that even dogs seem to get—the knack for living in the here and now and never once looking over his shoulder at what might have been.

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Traveler

When she was four and a half I took my daughter to her first movie in a theater. Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound”. Five minutes into the film the momma fox is hiding her pup in the forest to protect him. Upon hearing the approach of hunters, she dashes off to lead them away from her little one.

The cute, confused face of the baby fox.

A distant gunshot.

And silence.

Uh oh….

Courtney looked up at me, unblinking. “What happened to the mommy, Daddy?”

Do I lie? God, look at that little face. I want her to be able to trust me. No, I think she can take it. She’ll understand. Be honest — gentle, but honest.

“She…… died, honey.”

“Waaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!”

There was no consoling her and we had to leave. So much for candor.

The disappearance of a dear one from our life will never be a feat of ease for those who must reckon with it. About six months later we found a dead finch in the yard and she started asking me about death.

“Am I going to die someday?”

“Every living thing has a beginning, a time to be, and an end. It happens to everyone, sweetheart.”

“Are you going to die someday?”

Do I break her heart again? Those adorable eyes…..

“Yes.”

Long thoughtful look at my face. Then finally, “Where will you go when you die?”

“Well, I’m kinda hoping I’ll get to go to heaven.”

“Where’s heaven?”

And that kicked it all off. I thought she would have been satisfied with a stock Sunday school answer. But she had to take it further and I was suddenly on unsteady turf.

At this point in my life I hadn’t really warmed to any kind of faith and her question got me thinking. There she was with those precious, searching eyes, waiting for an answer. Barely five years old and so curious about the big issues. When I was five I was lucky if I could figure out how the bathroom doorknob worked.

But still, that’s the eternal question, isn’t it — Where do we go? The answer I finally gave her is the answer I still hold to today.

When my mother passed away two years ago, I kept hearing my daughter’s question returning from 21 years before — “Where’s heaven?” For weeks after the funeral I could only think of all the wonderful things my mother had been to me — a personable, kind, morally decent, insightful, generous and witty woman who read aloud to her children. Also the single funniest person I ever met.

In my reminiscence of her, I tried to consider how Mom might have answered my daughter’s question had I been sharp enough to ask it of her myself. This is how I imagine she would have explained it…..

Going Places
(© 2013 Michael J. Cahill)

“Where Shall We Go?” has always been
My favorite game with you
When you were small upon my knee
What traveling we would do

The yard beyond our windowsill — ?
An icy mountain steep
Or a Viking ocean full of storm
Or a jungle forest deep

The universe was ours to roam
By land and sea and air
By hawk and mule and rocket fuel
What journey’s we would share

There is one voyage separate
From all that we will take
But oh, my love, though by myself
I will not you forsake

Yes, by and by, one day I’ll die
As all God’s creatures must
But I shall spend eternity
As something more than dust

And if I go to heaven
We will not be far apart
For don’t you know, my darling child
That heaven’s in your heart

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