Today, August 16, 2014, marks the twenty-eighth anniversary of the death of a woman I never met, my mother-in-law, Nina Barkus. That event, combined with the death of my father almost one year earlier, sparked the meeting, the love affair, and subsequent twenty-six years of marriage (so far) between my wife and I.
This is for her and her mother (mam), Nina Barkus.
Grief changes a person. Grief, along with it’s drinking buddies: pain, shame, anger, betrayal – they have a way of reducing a person to his most elemental place, her lowest common denominator. A human being stripped to that bare minimum of barely surviving/survivable raw material. It can push us to become someone we don’t even recognize.
Like a persistent toothache on steroids comes grief; some unimaginable carnivore of light, a predator of hope. It is no respecter of persons. It makes its entrance like a bull in a china shop, impolitely and destructively unexpected. All one can do is stand by, hide somewhere they think to be safe from the onslaught, and observe the damage unfolding before them.
Grief is shameless. It cares not how it comes, undressed and brazenly free of restraint. Like being forced to watch one’s own daughter perform a pole dance, grief strips itself and its participants to places well beyond their own humanity, well below self-defined limits of propriety. It can haunt our conscience as much as our consciousness.
Grief is the chameleon of human experience. It lays in the center of our lives, taking the shape of its container, the color of its environment, so that it becomes maddeningly insouciant, invisible to either scrutiny or even identification. Once identified it shape-shifts again, leaving us now both to grieve and shrink from the exhausting process it is in the first place. It is the never-ending injury to its own insult.
Unlike hope, which, like water, undergirds our elusive oil refusing to mix with the more delicate undergrowth, grief kneads itself into the dough of our lives, leaving us to bloat and swell but with no vision of what might arise in its place. It is a ruthless bully, intent on bruising the softest places where lasting scars are most likely.
Grief most often accompanies a death: of a loved one, a lover, friendships, self-confidence – the list is long. It offers little other than the ominous sense that someone is watching from the shadows, leaving us unnerved as we fumble for the car keys. Just when it seems we’re safely inside, a hand grabs us from behind, refusing us the safety of ‘elsewhere.’ We do not run from it. It runs to us. We do not hide from grief because we end up hiding right behind it. Grief hears our labored breathing every time and quickly finds us out.
Grief is the Goliath of our inner experience. It stands, boasting and blethering on impudently as we soil ourselves before its not inconsiderable size and bully demeanor. “It has killed others greater than I”, we say, as we look way up to find the faceless monster bearing down in full strength upon our pitiable frame.
One could speak as well of the pitiful awakening to one’s own flawed behaviors; ways of seeing things that hurt others and oneself. Poured on top of this kind of grief is the scalding gravy of shame. It is perhaps the worst grief of all since it is often accompanied by a raking internal self-awareness of the negative kind that is seldom polite and never constructive. In fact, it generally becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nothing shapes our grief quite like the knowledge that we may have been the cause of it in another. It has a baldness about it, a merciless fait accompli that, if not well discerned and graciously attended to, becomes our very demise. It flattens the soul, kicking the air out of our spiritual gut in ways we never thought possible.
Having lost my father and both in-laws to cancer (among any number of friends and colleagues) I can confidently attest to the groaning maw of emptiness that accompanies such an ignominious demise. ‘Tis true faith indeed to smile into the great oblivion, unfairly bestowed, and sing.
Well, that was dark, one might fairly say. And they’d be correct. Is there any corrective?
Indeed there is. Having one’s heaviest grief tossed into the lap of another, whose measure of personal pain could never be fully known, but whose faith, unflinching; whose love, unwavering, produces the only known antidote: hope. Grief, be gone, for (s)he who has hope, has everything.
And that hope has a name…