Tuesday, November 27, 2012

More Tiny Beautiful Things

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.


  1. Oh shut now I'm just a hot blubbery mess. Who is this sugar lady anyhow is she so insightful?? "Your son was your Gift in his life And he is your greatest gift in his death" oh how this rivets my heart. And letting go of the expectation that Camille would live longer... I just can't yet. I remember laying in bed one night shortly after Camille died. I was sobbing and I said to Daryl "I can't believe I am going to feel this way for the rest of my life." he said "I can't do this for the rest my life". I know we were in very different places in our grief which was hard in of itself. But I could see past the deep dark cavern of my grief. Grief does change. For some reason lately I'm quick to tears but it does get easier to cope. The pain never goes away we just become more habituated to it. Thank you for sharing.

  2. A friend of mine is a very devout Catholic. She has shown me such wonderful support and compassion over the years and I want to share some of her words with you because they reminded me so much of all you've shared here.

    "I think this directly tied to another concept that is extremely important---that each soul God creates has absolute worth, and no matter what we on earth might think, significance is not determined by age, lifespan, or earthly accomplishments. We are significant because God chose to create us, and from the very moment we came to be in human form, our souls--which will literally exist forever--also came to be, carrying more worth than we can ever comprehend. We matter so incredibly much to God, regardless if our life in our earthly bodies lasts only a day, nine months like Cale, several years like you and me, or to a ripe old elderly age. God created us all with the same ever-lasting significance. So even if no one ever spoke Cale's name again on this earth, even if you were not doing all the amazing things you are as his mother to preserve his earthly memory, it would not change the fact that his life--both here on earth and in eternity--has absolute significance, absolute worth. There has never been another eternal soul created to be Cale Harrison Hidalgo, and there never will be another. He still lives. He still matters. He will always matter."

    I think regadless of what you believe, that she has some very valid, and very true points - and that regardless of how long one lives, they are still so incredibly significant. Those 8.5 months of Eliza's life are no more or less significant because of their duration. Maybe our time here just simply is what it is.

    If that's the case - and Cale's life, and death, were my only option at ever knowing him, I'd take them all over again in a second.

  3. Oh Brooke, how I love you. I haven't been over here for a while and that's just dumb on my part. You are so wise and thoughtful, my dear.

    I loved this: "None of these lessons is worth her loss, but they are valuable all the same."

    I have to remind myself of this often, but have never so succinctly formulated the thought. Love to you, sweetness, during this very challenging season. xo

  4. thank you...and Caroline your post thank you too.

  5. I loved reading this, and I cried a big mess of tears.

    So many beautiful things said...by you, by Sugar...it was heartbreakingly true and did wonders for my soul and my grief. My guts were out yesterday, and I had plans to write, and put my dripping broken heart on the internet, but I chose to read all day instead.

    Thank you for this, Brooke.

    And Caroline, what your friend wrote was wonderful. Helps heal my eternally wounded heart. So thank you and thank her, too.

  6. This is wonderful. I appreciate the wisdom, feelings and community. I just ordered her book. A shiatsu lady who I went to soon after Bear died told me something about how we do not know what constitutes a life and that this was Bear's life. That simple statement has helped me when I beat myself up about the would/could/should have..."This was his life" And I always think, "and it was a good life." A life filled with complete love.

  7. Wow. So much of this got to me, but especially " It helps me to know that in her short time, Eliza brought us only happiness and we felt for her only love". Omg yes. Beautiful.

  8. I must read this book. None of is alone, we learn so much from each other. Thank you for that. ~Missy

  9. I read this in bed last night and simply refuse to type out all of the hundreds of thoughts I had via iPhone and of course now I'm lost to them.

    This was definitely my favorite post from you in awhile. Maybe because I love seeing Eliza's name. Or because I feel such a connection to those words with my own Andrew.

    So much of what you wrote (and my God, SUGAR!) above hits me straight to my core. And Caroline's piece as well. Those souls we carried in our wombs matter. They always will, no matter how long they were with us.

  10. Once again, I am laughing one minute reading your blog and crying the next:) This all so true and very well said (you and Sugar). I am definitely growing in my grief and learning to look at different situations in a different light. It takes so much time and is still exhausting, but I remember feeling suffocated as well. Thank you for sharing.

  11. I bought the book after you posted the first excerpt and I completely agree. This letter and answer spoke to me as well.