“You cut off the capacity for grief in your life, and you cut off the joy at the same time. They both come up through the same tunnel.” -Actor William Hurt
When we are experiencing intense grief, it is hard to remember happiness. As we emerge from the overwhelming darkness, fragments of happiness come. Each one of us comes to a new meaning of life and ask what is important after someone we love dies. We overhear bits of conversations that strangers are having and we think, “My (mom, dad, son, daughter, sister, brother, husband, wife, friend) just died and THEY are talking about THAT?” We grieve; we judge; we want to let others know what’s important in life. Friends rally for a while. Cards arrive in the mail. Food appears at our door. People treat us gently…..at least for a while. Then life returns to what was normal for those out there while our life continues to be a puddle of tears, guilt, anger, and, emptiness.
I often quote I know-not-who when I say, “If we hadn’t loved so deeply we wouldn’t hurt so much”, or, “Would we have given up everything we had with them if we’d known how it would end?” After a death by suicide, we try to find others who have experienced a similar loss. It helps us feel less alone. The newly grieving arrive at SOS meetings or find SPS or are connected through others who know about us and then the healing begins. It’s S-L-O-W, drawn out, painful.
The first time we laugh or smile we may feel guilty. Eventually, we are able to tell humorous stories about our loved one. When someone tells us a story about them, our heart swells with happiness. Joy & grief. Grief & joy. “They both come up through the same tunnel.” The darkness of winter is a time to go inward and to reflect. Under the ground, plants are sleeping and preparing to awake to a new spring. We fertilize in the fall, perhaps, and we wait.
When we are deep into the early beginnings of our grief, our spirit and soul are underground. What we can’t remember at the time is that one day spring will come again; we will laugh and rejoice again. Locked in our suffering, thoughts of joy and laughter are far removed. As I interact with survivors of all ages in and all stages of their grief, I am privileged to witness the transformation.
The luminarias that were displayed in front of Stone Manor, home of Suicide Prevention Services, on December 24, are a testament to that moving forward. This year, we had a griever of a short time come into our building to put her loved one’s name on a bag and found it to be more devastating than she’d imagined. Another griever called and asked if she could come here to physically light the candle in her bag. Others brought pictures and asked that they be put on bags. Those luminarias represented so much to so many. I witnessed people years down the road come in with a lighter step and make what they considered to be “a silly bag because he/she was silly and would love this.” My staff and I were witness to many stories that were told to us by survivors. It meant so much to them and it certainly meant a lot to us. My husband, Bill, and I drove to Stone Manor on Christmas Eve to see over 110 glowing bags of love and remembrance. People were walking amongst them looking for “theirs”. I, too, got out and looked for “mine.” The air was solemn and reverential. The brilliance and beauty were blinding. I cried.
Many hands made that display possible; many hands cleaned up the ragged wind-blown bags the next day. Every hand had been touched by a death by suicide of a loved one. Many hands were of young people, even small children. The message was clear: This is where we come to honor and show love to that important person who no longer walks, physically, among us.
“When you light one little candle, you don’t stumble in the dark.” Many, many, many candles were significantly lit to display love and to let the other survivors know, “You are not alone.” As we move toward longer days but still have many long evenings of darkness, remember that joy and grief are intertwined. We loved. We remember. We are not alone. Say her/his name, tell the story. Laugh with wild abandonments and cry as if the tears will never cease. Reach out to one another and hold tight. To love and be loved is, indeed, the greatest joy. Put the regrets and guilt aside, as you are able, and relish the life that was. That life lives on in you. Keep their flame burning…