The Reality of Grief

Grief is visceral, unpredictable, and raw. Part of me resists grief, wishing it were done, completed, and gone. This same resistance holds self-judgment: Get over it, Joy; toughen up. Yet I don’t want to “toughen up.” The wiser, kinder awareness in me welcomes waves of grief. These waves honor my tenderness and vulnerability. They cultivate deep love and gratitude. They connect me to humanity.

Three years ago, my mom died. My body sensations, memories, and inner-weather remind me each year. First, on the day I heard she was hospitalized. Next, on the day I learned she would die. Then on the day of her actual death. It’s a week of remembrance. There’s no getting around it, only through it. I must feel what I feel. Tears come regularly. My heart aches. I’m tired. I also remember mom’s love, care, and kindness, and this makes me smile.

When mom died, I was lying in bed with her, my hand on her heart. My sister’s hand on her face. My dad’s hands on her feet. My other sister’s hands on me and dad. When I learned mom was in the process of dying, I was on a palliative-care conference call in the parking lot of my dermatologist’s office. After that conversation, I sobbed in a deep, primal way, rocking my body, holding Mark’s hand. Eventually, I entered the doctor’s office. A basal-cell carcinoma needed to be removed from my calf. My supportive family agreed I should stay in Appleton for the procedure.

I walked into the building, barely holding myself together. I was raw—like my insides were exposed on the outside. Once in the surgery room, tears came again and again. I told the nurse, “These tears aren’t because I’m concerned about my health, but because I just learned my mom is dying.” The doctor was kind and gentle, letting me know there was nothing to worry about, and expressing sorrow about my journey the next day. When I thanked her, she said, “Joy, I think we need more kindness in the world. I’m happy to help.”

The ride home was surreal. I was both awake—colors and textures were vivid—yet I embodied a strange place where time stood still. I wasn’t happy or grateful the carcinoma was easily removed. I was solely focused on my mom. This was the beginning of a much bigger journey, which was heartbreaking and beautiful; tender and alive; terribly difficult and deeply meaningful.

Tomorrow, on the anniversary of mom’s death, I drive to that same dermatology office to have an annual exam. Each time I arrive in that parking lot, I remember the primal sobs of my post-conference-call breakdown. I remember the pain and heartbreak. Yet I also remember my strength, resilience, and growth. I remember my compassion and humanity.

Life is complicated. Grief is complicated. We don’t often share these stories. It feels cleaner and safer to pretend we’re okay and that everyone else is okay. But that’s denying reality. Sometimes we’re okay and sometimes we’re not. Sometimes we’re tender and raw, other times we’re strong and wise. And often, we’re all these things at once.

When we bear witness to our own pain, we more skillfully bear witness to the pain of others. We’re connected by our vulnerabilities, our soft spots. When we bear witness to our own joy, we more easily embrace the joy of others. We’re connected through our loving, content, compassionate hearts.

There are copious ways to distract, numb, and busy ourselves. There are precious few opportunities to be real, brave, and true. Sometimes we just need to show up with an open, vulnerable heart. And trust: we are enough; this moment is enough; we’re part of humanity in deep, meaningful, and surprising ways.

 mindfulness teaching, grief