The last time my sister, Kristen, saw her husband, Rob, he was on the way out the door to do a favor for a total stranger. When she asked why he was doing this, he said “I am paying it forward.” He and the stranger died in a single-engine plane crash a few hours later. That was nearly three years ago now, and I know it still hurts.
It is not always death that takes loved ones from us; sometimes it is the end of a relationship that feels like it should have lasted forever, the loss of a baby that was never born or never adopted, or distance from a family member who has lost their way in the world. It is my sister’s birthday this week and I wrote this post for her, but it is also a letter for all those other souls who have shown us how to live gracefully, for those who have experienced great loss and left their hearts open to love again. If you know someone like this, send them this letter, and tell them, it’s from you.
To You, My Friend, Who Still Grieves When No One Sees
I see you, Friend. I see you go about your daily life. I see you laugh and work. I see your still vibrant smile. I see you putting your best foot forward. I see you creating your newly remodeled life. I see you stepping up and helping others along the way. I see you standing there, a bit wobbly-kneed sometimes, but feet firmly planted. I see you. And I want you to know how proud I am to know you.
I do not claim to know how you feel. Who can claim such a thing? Grief is so personally wrenching, so tailor-made for our own circumstances. The devastation of your personal loss cannot be compared to any other loss. There is no mathematics of grief; no such thing as: this loss is precisely 12.63 times more devastating than that one. Because loss is loss, like zero is zero, and no amount of multiplication or division makes it any other number. It’s just zero, ground zero for trying to rebuild your life around a cannonball-sized wound in your heart.
I do know a few things about grief. I know that years later, long after you have scraped yourself on the concrete and moved on, long after you have told yourself that you are okay now, the old grief can ambush you from behind. There you are, going about your day, shopping, cleaning, driving, or doing any old mundane task and then suddenly you are utterly flattened again by grief. And you can’t figure out how it managed to sneak up on you like that. Why didn’t you see it coming? It’s like, there you were, standing on a quiet street, minding your own business and WAM, a truck plows over you from behind. And that’s it. You’re down for the count. And the really weird thing about it is that everything around you goes on, business as usual, as if nothing significant had happened. You are down and the rest of the world still sees you standing. And you get used to them not knowing you are down. And you don’t tell them, because… well… isn’t there enough drama in the world already?
But I am telling you, I see you! You are not the same as those still untouched by loss. You have something different about you, something that draws me to you and marks you as one who knows the full price of love and chooses to love again anyway. I know you are not always steady on your feet, and I know that reconstructing your inner world is pretty much a solo project. But I see you standing there, with that cannonball wound in your heart, and I am moved by you. I know you have made that difficult choice to let the wound stand. You have not filled the hole with bitterness; you have not encased your heart in concrete; you have not surrounded yourself with emotional barbed-wire. You stand there with your broken heart and you give me hope for the future. I know some wounds never heal. But I think, when I look at you, that it might somehow be okay if a heart stays that way, a heart broken open by loss, vulnerable but welcoming like yours.
There is this strange thing that happens to me sometimes. I am in some public place and I see something out of the corner of my eye. Or I hear a voice and turn around, fully expecting to see a familiar face. And it’s just strangers, and they are not even looking at me. It’s weird. After all this time, I still have moments when I feel like I have entered into that alternate universe, where your life turned out the way it was supposed to and the loss never happened. And then I feel that pang in my heart, small though it is in comparison, and I think of you. And I send you my love, letting it pass along unseen channels, hoping somehow you’ll feel it. In those moments I remember your loss, and I think of you standing there with your open heart, standing beside all the other lovely open-hearted people who have gone there before you. God, you are a beautiful sight!
So, thank you. Thank you for being there for me in spite of everything. Thank you for showing me how to stand up again and again, no matter how many times grief ambushes you. Thank you for showing me how to love when your heart is broken. Thank you for showing me what I need to do when my losses come. Because no matter how we try, none of us escapes loss; sooner or later we all get ambushed by it. But I feel more confident about the future knowing this one thing: on that terrible day, when my heart breaks, you will be there standing by me with that broken-open heart of yours. All of us with our broken hearts will stand together. And we will know that our wounds are not signs of weakness, but badges of honor, because we have dared greatly and loved deeply and fully intend to love again. And if not now, well… at least… someday… hopefully soon.
I am so proud of you. And I want you to know, I see you!
Scroll down you will find a place to comment on this post and read comments by others. If you know Kristen and loved Rob like we did, you can post something about them here. If you have lost a love one, you can leave them a message here as well. Somehow I think they will get it. If you are wondering what my sister is doing these days to cope with her loss, you can check out to her website at stillwithyou.com. It is a beautiful and very personal project she hopes will help others cope with loss.
If you enjoyed this post, there are more great posts coming. Life is both treacherous and beautiful. Somewhere between the two, life is also most vibrant and full of meaning. Check out my other posts and subscribe to my blog! It’s easy and I will keep your information private. Just add your email address to subscribe box on the side.