No clowns, no bells, no whistles. Nothing fancy here, this is just for you and me. January 2020 was the beginning of a life we could have never imagined. And, now with broken hearts from actually living our worst fears, we make ready for life in a different world.
My first sense of the oncoming tidal wave of sadness and grief came through a phone conversation with an artist who I had only known casually. In the midst of a light conversation about galleries and traveling during a pandemic, he spontaneously mentioned losing his dad to Covid-19. Nearly as a casual afterthought, he added he had been unable to even visit his dad in the hospital before his death. Then, silence dropped as if from a gallows, dreadful and heavy.
Tears, an apology for breaking down, then more gasping tears. We then shared a long conversation.
I am pretty sure he only knew me as a fellow artist, not a psychologist. This first one hit me hard. The sadness, the vulnerability, the regret, the pain… someone who needed to be held and the only lifeline between us was a satellite signal. It hit me so hard, I found myself calling several friends that day to process it.
A few weeks later came the next, a recent widow. She called to let me know she would not be entering an annual show for our group because she just had lost her husband and could not muster the wherewithal to finish the piece. This time, I was the one who started with the choking up. And again, a long conversation.
There have been many others and there will be others, yet. Of course, I would expect such intimate moments with my friends and family but it was a bit unnerving to experience these events with casual acquaintances.
Looking back, I should not have been surprised. Having been a practicing psychologist for my first career, I know that when people are overwhelmed, grief chooses its own way out without regard to person, place or time. Breaking down, feeling lost, grieving for those known and unknown, reaching out in the most unlikely circumstances — this is our new normal for a while longer.
When I was a young mental health professional, I went to a seminar to learn about family dynamics. The speaker asked for volunteers and my hand shot up before I thought it all the way through. Four others and I were instructed to form a circle. The speaker’s assistant tied my hands and feet to the hands and feet of the persons on my right and left with about 24 inches of slack rope between us. Our circle included the speaker, who I was soon to learn, was a strong and strapping women. When finished, we all stood tied to one another quietly; waiting in anticipation for what was coming next.
In what I can only describe as a “formidable fashion”, our speaker went down nearly flat to the floor dragging all of us tumbling down with her. As each of us scrambled to gain a bit of equilibrium, we wobbled the person next to us and finally just ended in a collective heap. I will never forget the lesson learned.
People in our lives are connected with differing lengths of relational rope. Our most intimate relationships are tied with the shortest binds. What affects one person, ripples to affect other relationships in that person’s life. What one does in response to the ripples, sets off its own series of relational events, for the better or for the worse. Oddly, when something happens for the worse, I believe it ripples both ways. I also believe that when something happens for the better, it also ripples both ways. I have health and wellness research to support my claims, but that is not what this is about. Today’s thoughts are only for you and me.
So , now in this season of loss but with hope on the horizon, my simple message is to share, disclose, and let someone in; share you heart, your losses, your fears, your regrets and sadness. Reach out and express your losses.
Give others the opportunity to understand, support, hope for and love you. Open a door for them to reach back through with their own grief. No one has lived this year unscathed. Rather than hiding and holding heartbreak, process it and transform it into the love you felt for those injured or gone. Like so many things in life, grieving is a process, not an event, and grief will have its way for the better or for the worse.
When I hung up after that first conversation, I felt honored as well as sad. Once acquaintances, when we said goodbye that day, we had become closer friends. I felt honored to let him know I “heard” his pain. I felt honored to acknowledge his sadness and regrets without needing to “fix” it for him. I felt honored to let silence sit without having to fill it with words. I felt honored to be part of the process of grieving with a response for the better – one that validated hard times and one that held hope to one day remember a well-loved father with thankfulness rather than regret. Even the saddest of times can eventually give way to living again, if one chooses that path when it is time.
As I have aged and lived through many things both personally and with my beloved family and friends, I have learned that to all matters there is a season; “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance”. Funny that I first remember learning about this initially startling, but now comforting, concept from Pete Seeger’s 1962 The Bitter and the Sweet album (adapted by the Byrds’, Turn, Turn, Turn a few years later). Seeger gave me permission to be sad, to be quiet, to take time to regain strength and to understand life was complicated and at times, very hard. It is an understanding that I carry in my heart today. I have no idea when I realized he lifted it from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
All said, emotional intelligence in life may just come down to understanding that in life, there is a season for all things; a season to acknowledge and grieve our losses and a season to celebrate and rejoice in life. Take heart my friends and reach out to one another.