I was at a bereavement group meeting a few days ago with a group of other parents whose children have died. What can one say about such a group? It’s a group nobody wants to belong. A group of strangers, linked by the unimaginable, sharing the unwanted misery society doesn’t want to see.
At one point in the meeting, we discussed how life as we know it has changed since our children have died. The “before and after” of the impossible. Some parents shared about how they were no longer social, preferring solitude to crowds. Others spoke of marriage challenges, the struggle to accept life in the ever after, and the desperate desire for a time that would never return to them.
I have met parents who, twenty years after the death of their children, still cannot look at a picture of their beloved. I have met parents who divorced shortly after the death of their children, who became alcoholics, who continue to keep themselves distracted, running from thing to thing, because if they stop they will have to face “what my real life is now”.
As we went around the group, sharing our stories, I was struggling to adequately find the words to share how my life has changed. There’s the obvious, of course, but it’s not a robust enough descriptor to say “I will never be the same”. I am a completely different human being, but I am also the same human being.
What is different is not the me that is here compared to the me that was. What has changed is how saturated my life now is. Where there was once pain, there is now a pain so deep and agonizing that it steals my next breath, at times allowing me only tiny sips - just enough to survive. Where there was once moments of happiness, there are now times of such elation that I can only explain it as great, radiating beams pulsing through my every atom. A heavenly union with spirit. There is peace and there is angst. There is misery and there is elation. There is desperate yearning and there is an intimacy of connection that goes beyond sense or time or reason.
All of all of all. That’s the antidote as I see it. An antidote that doesn’t erase a single thing, but allows the beauty and meaning of life to permeate deep into the open wounds. Wounds that will never heal. Wounds that will never close. Not in this realm. But that’s okay, too. It’s in the exposure to light and air that the wound can cleanse itself. In the dark, dankness of shadow, infection sets in.
But we don’t do that in our time in this world. It’s not acceptable to walk around gushing whether that be in joy or in agony. We want control and easy to swallow, if you please. So we fragment ourselves. We fragment everything. We cleave off the painful because it’s “bad”. We distract ourselves from it, run from it, ignore it, slap a “happy, happy, happy” label on top like cheap blue icing on a grocery store cake. We’re so afraid of all of life that we’ve missed the most important lesson of all.
We will never know the immeasurable beauty of a deep and profound love if we don’t surrender to the grief of that rides in tandem with it. For all sweetness there is the bitter. Labelling what comes in our lives as “good” and “bad” is an infantile understanding of what we are here to do. Life is not here to dole out the good to the dutiful and punish us with bad. It all just is. What eats must be eaten. What dies gives life. So, too, with us. To know life as it’s given, we must be courageous enough to be there as it comes.
I have so many wonderful memories from my army days. They all involve some heinous task or field exercise where we were drilled down into nubs and then drilled down some more. I remember days and nights of filth and shivering cold, stifling heat and endless teeth grinding work. But what I remember most of those times is how sweet the tiniest kindness or simplest physical pleasure felt in the face of such extreme hardships. I remember being on a ruck march and opening up a bag of strawberries I stole from the mess hall, secretly passing it down the line as we marched, and how I could hear people laughing and exclaiming all the way down the ranks as we marched on. All from a shared bag of strawberries. I remember ending exhausting days by lying on the ground with my head on a fellow soldier’s tummy, looking up at the sky for a ten minute break. My bones and muscles still reverberating with the endless work. Bliss because it was earned from such unimaginable hardship. Could a simple strawberry ever again be as sweet?
Just like now, today, here on this farm. When the temperatures are in the +30c range and my husband and I have been outside all day, pushing and pulling and moving and lifting and we know that at the end of the day, when we jump into our little cold plunge cow trough and then sit down together to read in our screened in porch, we will feel such deep satisfaction. Satisfaction in the tangible earning of the rest and pleasure we have worked so hard for.
But we want to skip that part now in our culture. We just want the rest. We want the ease and the comforts and the climate controlled. We do this with everything. We think all that is so sweet because it comes with all that is hard can be isolated from the whole and made better still. It’s the great addiction of our time.
We are the almighty isolating specialists, determined to reduce grandeur to a speck. We do it with our health and we can see where that’s got us. In fact all of western medicine has fragmented us into bits like a machine. No doctor asks what you’re eating or how you’re moving or how much time you spend in nature instead of behind a screen because they know little of such things. The nephrologist deals with kidneys. The oncologist will deal with your cancer. All the bits to tidily fit into all the specialties. We can cut things out and laser beam others into oblivion. Pieces addressed as if they don’t belong to a whole at all.
I can hardly think of a place where we don’t fragment our lives. Shitty jobs, just pushing ourselves through to get to the leftovers of our life that we enjoy. Hopefully. Vacations to make up for the majority of our time living in ways incongruent with our souls. We use relationships as ways to display the best parts of ourselves instead of making authentic connections. All of us so bundled up in the fear of letting others see what we deem unseeable.
Pieces. Fragments. Blinders to keep us on our narrow path, protected from the wild and dangerous beauty all around us.
But mostly, perhaps most sadly, we do this with ourselves and our great loves. We hold life at bay because we don’t trust we can survive the unrelenting waves of anguish should they come. When they come. We think that chasing “happy” is the way to be happy. How can anyone “be happy”? There are moments of happiness, of course, but you are a beautiful, layered, fully fledged human being not a greeting card. The only thing you get to truly BE is you. Should you choose such a worthwhile pursuit. And why would anyone think the goal of life is to be happy? Is it not to be here, present and participating, in a world as it comes to us, gift after gift? Some hard, some pleasant, all chosen specifically and especially for us.
We’re a collective bunch of children at a buffet, going for the neon coloured desserts without slowly chewing on the nourishment. We want good lives full of good things. We avoid bad things. As if there’s any such classification at all. Life is a collage of teared up bits, layered and overlapping. It is not linear. It is not a race to outrun. There is no such thing as “one day this will get better” because there is no such thing as “one day”. It’s here now. So, is it better? No? Then what do you do? If you’re filling your life with distractions and chasing travelling circuses, there’s nothing to do but sheer off all the bits that don’t fit what you deem acceptable. Cut away the great chunks of your life that teach you.
Pieces of anything are a lie. They tell no story. They offer no clues of the whole. Luxury given but not earned does not satisfy. Pleasure without purpose is numbing. Relationships centred around the presentation of pleasantries are exhausting things. The rejection of our sadness, of the bittersweet in life is a rejection of the authentic in ourselves. You will never outrun pain, you will just outrun yourself.
I am heartbroken. I am swaddled in a love so pure it brings me to my knees. Saturated. Saturation. I am open to the saturation of all of life and so it is that I am saturated with it. I want to be whole. I want to be here. I want to love without limits even knowing that comes with the risk of being decimated by anguish. Again. And again and again and again.
Don’t fragment, good humans. Stay here with us wholly. More than ever, we need each other, our fully realized, flawed and beautiful and hurting and joyous selves. The best of us is the whole of us. Let me shine my light on your shadow so you can do the same for me. Give me your aching heart, not your plastic smile. But first, give it to yourself.
Slowdown Farmstead is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.