I finished Cheryl Strayed's book Tiny Beautiful Things -- taken from her Dear Sugar advice columns-- a few nights ago (I first wrote about it here). And yesterday I copied down some more passages from it that I wanted to remember. That I need to remember, especially this time of year.
I suppose it's not at all surprising that one of her responses that especially spoke to me was written to a dad whose son had been killed by a drunk driver. His son was twenty-two years old. The accident had occurred a few years before; the dad was still devastated. His life felt hopeless and meaningless.
The circumstances of his grief are obviously different from mine. But not so different.
Sugar responds to him with some things she learned from the early loss of her mom. Again, a different kind of grief. But not so different.
Anyway, these are some of the things Sugar said to him that I also needed her to say to me (I think this will be obvious, but her words are in italics and my rambling thoughts are in regular font):
I don't know how you go on without your son. I only know that you do. And you have. And you will.
The funny thing is that I don't know how I did it, either. I don't know how any of us do. How do we cobble our lives back together when the bottom drops out from under us? But we do. And we keep going. And if we're really lucky, we find ourselves surrounded by people who help us.
No one can touch [your] love or alter it or take it away from you. Your love for your son belongs only to you. It will live in you until the day you die.
You are not grieving your son's death because his death was ugly and unfair. You're grieving him because you loved him truly. The beauty in that is greater than the bitterness of his death.
I think this is true. I still taste a lot of bitter, but I know I miss Eliza so much because I love her so much. I would have done anything to save her. I tried to do everything I could for her. And it wasn't enough. I can could-have should-have would-have all damn day, and it will never be enough. I will never make right the unfairness of her death. But I love her regardless of life or death, which is pretty amazing.
Your boy is dead, but he will continue to live within you. Your love and grief will be unending, but it will also shift in shape. There are things about your son's life and your own that you can't understand now. There are things you will understand in one year, and in ten, and in twenty.
The eternal missing is something I struggle with. In those early days, I felt positively suffocated by the thought that I would miss her for the rest of my life. For like ever. How could I keep going on when she would never be there? There was no end to this. There was no point at which this would be "better" or "fixed." There is no getting over it. Did that mean my heart would always ache like this? It was too overwhelming to consider. I didn't fully understand at this point that grief could (and would) shift in shape. I didn't understand how I could permanently carry such sadness with me and not be overcome by it. I still don't quite know how it works, because it doesn't go away, and it never gets "better." But it does get easier to cope.
You all know I don't abide by silver linings or "all things happen for a reason," but I do think it's important to recognize that I will continue to understand new things about Eliza's life and my own. None of these lessons is worth her loss, but they are valuable all the same.
When my son was six he said, "We don't know how many years we have for our lives. People die at all ages." He said it without anguish or remorse, without fear or desire. It has been healing to me to accept in a very simple way that my mother's life was forty-five years long, that there was nothing beyond that. There was only my expectation that there would be--my mother at eighty-nine, my mother at sixty-three, my mother at forty-six. Those things don't exist. They never did.
I will never understand why Eliza--or anyone else--died before she was born. I see no greater purpose there. But there was something a little shocking and a little freeing about the thought that that was simply how long her life was. Eight and a half months in my belly. That was how long she lived. Other people live longer lives. Some people live shorter lives. We don't know how many years we have. I don't believe the length of our life has a greater purpose--I think it's just random. Luck, biology, happenstance. The length of our life is just one fact of it, though. I think we'd all acknowledge that what we do with our life matters more than how long we lived it. It helps me to know that in her short time, Eliza brought us only happiness and we felt for her only love.
It's just that I expected there to be so much more.
Letting go of expectation when it comes to one's children is close to impossible. The entire premise of our love for them has to do with creating, fostering, and nurturing people who will outlive us. To us, they are not so much who they are as who they will become.
The entire premise of your healing demands that you do let go of expectation.
This, for me, was one of the most important parts of Sugar's reply. I expected so much for Eliza. I had planned so much of our lives together. I don't think this was a mistake. I think every parent does this (although I did it much more cautiously and much less extensively with the Deuce). Letting go of my expectations--of my beautifully planned, flawlessly executed, then completely broken life--that's been one of the greatest challenges for me. I expected so much. I worked so hard to make it happen. And then... nothing worked out for me the way it was supposed to.
I know the only way to move forward is to let go of what was "supposed to be" and focus on being grateful for what is.
But I still struggle with that. I really do.
I'd give it all back in a snap, but the fact is, my grief taught me things. It showed me shades and hues I couldn't have otherwise seen. It required me to suffer. It compelled me to reach.
Your grief has taught you too. Your son was your greatest gift in his life and he is your greatest gift in his death too. Receive it. Let your dead boy be your most profound revelation. Create something of him. Make it beautiful.
I've seen so many bereaved parents creating beautiful things out of their heartbreak--starting foundations and nonprofits, reaching out to others through websites and newsletters and magazines, attending or leading grief support groups, embracing new friendships, offering support to others, strengthening their relationships, finding humor in the darkness, parenting their living children differently. It sucks that these are the only ways we have to continue parenting the children that we've lost. But it is possible to see the good that has come from their lives and to try to create something beautiful out of the life we're left with.
This life is an ongoing struggle, full of loss and suffering.
But it's possible to make something beautiful out of it anyway.
And perhaps the best thing that Eliza has taught me is that none of us is in it alone.