Is there such thing as good grief? Because it feels like an oxymoron. Grief is heavy and hard and, of course, sad. It implies the loss of something important. How could that ever be good?
I was saying to a friend the other day that I’ve grieved so much lately that I must be on the path to enlightenment. Right??? I mean, what else is the point of all this suffering and introspection? I get it, I really get it. Life is fragile and short and beautiful and hard. And grieving is something you have to live through; there are no shortcuts. The Weight of Grief, a sculpture by Celeste Roberge, accurately and poignantly reflects how it feels.
Grief is a funny thing. I can be ambling along quite pleasantly in my “normal” life and it just sneaks up, welling up unexpectedly in my chest from seemingly nowhere to overcome me. I’d love to call out, “MERCY”, to the universe and actually get a reprieve. But, instead, here I am facing again the reality that this life journey isn’t something that’s totally in my control and diving deeper into gratitude for what I have and authentically living for what really matters.
Here’s where the good in grief lies. Grief amplifies the otherwise mundane, magnifying the importance of the smallest gesture. I had never understood the importance of ritual, for example. Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of ceremony or tradition. But when we joined hands in a circle around my aunt to pray together, though our brains were addled with grief and a sensation of numbness was overcoming us, we all knew verbatim the words. It required no shuffling of papers or notes, no cueing, no preamble. There was incredible solidarity in that harsh and deeply painful moment.
Food is another item that ascends to the pinnacle of significance during times of grief. People deliver food to grieving families as a way of saying, “I love you and I don’t know what else to do so here’s one less thing to worry about.” Food becomes an important means of connection, both literal and figurative sustenance.
When my aunt died unexpectedly two weeks ago, she had been anticipating our arrival to visit for a couple of days. Her refrigerator was full of some of the family favorites: her homemade mac and cheese, broccoli (our staple veggie), pasta and meatballs, and ricotta cookies. We decided that we should gather as a family and enjoy the meals she had prepared. My husband was given the task of packing up the food and bringing it to my cousin’s house. He felt strongly that he was delivering something sacred, so he packed the car with ceremony and care. Nancy had baked her love for us into each morsel of that food. The food was emblematic of her devotion to us and her anticipation of the time we would be spending together. It always tastes good, but never before had consuming mac and cheese been so poignant.
I can’t talk about food and not mention the chocolate chip cookie, which is hands down one of our family’s most treasured delicacies. My mom and my aunt were like some sort of chocolate chip cookie ambassadors, working industriously to spread their love of this perfect cookie far and wide. Chocolate chippers were regularly in the cookie jar on our kitchen counter, homemade and delicious. Every time I came home from college my mom was pulling a fresh batch from the oven, the smell of melting brown and white sugar, butter, and gooey chocolate chips permeating the kitchen. Our exchange students from France, Germany, Serbia, and countless visitors from elsewhere, were quickly indoctrinated to this most American delight. When traveling abroad, my mom even brought brown sugar and chocolate chips with her so she could reproduce the official chocolate chipper there. When I lived in Madagascar, I improvised using chopped up chocolate bars to make some for my homestay family. I am not kidding at all when I say that we believe with an almost religious zeal in the chocolate chip cookie as the quintessential unifier and the answer to almost any question. At Nancy’s celebration of life, we served chocolate chip cookies.
The last item I wanted to highlight are the plentiful rocks and shells on a New England beach. They can seem like nothing much at times, commonplace and a regular part of the beach landscape. Many people just walk by them, preoccupied with their thoughts or focused on the ocean. But in the midst of our intense grief, my cousin’s wife had the presence of mind to collect various shells and rocks from the beach near where Nancy lived. She put them into a wooden box for each of us, and instructed us to build a cairn of remembrance for Nancy at our homes. The cairn, she wrote, will “act as a landmark and a compass to guide us back to the people, places, and communities that Nancy loved.” She also gave each of us half of a shell that another family member has in their collection, a symbolic way to keep us connected across the days and miles between us now that we have returned home. With these beautiful words and her extraordinarily thoughtful gesture, instantly these otherwise ordinary items became a coveted treasure imbued with deep meaning and value.
In grieving there is renewal in connection with family and friends and community. It always comes back to this. That was on display in spades at Nancy’s celebration of life (Community Pays Tribute to Nancy Waddell), and in the food that kept arriving at our doorsteps. In loss we are reminded of what we have and somehow we appreciate it more fully. Out of grief, new friendships and connections are made (I’m looking at you WV Adaptive and HFCC!). In my sorrow, but also in how I have deliberately chosen to live every day of these past two weeks, my aunt is present. Her example, her capacious heart, and her compassionate spirit guide my actions. I can tell she will never leave me. Good grief, that’s an astonishing gift.