People arrive early. Some sprawl on the grass, on a quilt, waiting. Others move from one place to the next, absorbing: messages on a tree, body art. There are always so many kids. A big stage! A thousand balloons! Two thousand, all in great big floaty clumps! Music! Sunshine! They eat snacks and run and run. The field fills up until each balloon has an owner.
I ask mothers and fathers about the messages they leave, the words written on shirts and arms, names of sons and daughters. They may cry, but not from sadness. It's a healthy welling-up that happens when given the chance to tell that story, from someone wanting to know.
It's a lot of people. When I'm speaking, I need to focus. I find a half-dozen faces and cycle through them, one to the other, to see if they're okay and if what I'm saying belongs to them. A father sighs, his eyes wet. I can see it from here. A grandparent nods and holds her daughter's hand. Later I joked with my friend Eve, who came to the walk with me. I told her how it feels to see people break down. We pulled the trigger like goal-scoring goons and I know that sounds crass, as goons always are, but she makes me laugh when I need to, and breaking down is breaking open. It's important. If someone else relates, their emotion vents—and so does mine. This is how we integrate suffering, by sharing it, and this is how we retain hope and humour and all the other soft elements that make us functional.
Here is the transcript of the speech, my fifth year of speaking on this beautiful day to bereaved parents in Edmonton.
"Getting over it? The words are ambiguous. To say the patient gets over it after appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg cut off is quite another. After the operation, his fierce, continuous pain will stop. He’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has 'gotten over it.'
But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, all will be different. His whole way of life will be changed.
At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again."
That's from author C.S. Lewis, who wrote the book A Grief Observed after the death of his wife.
Look at us here together, all of us learning. Over time we get accustomed to the shock of amputation, of crutches, of wooden legs that pinch and press and bruise, though they keep us upright. Eventually, the most urgent discomfort will ease. You will walk without hesitation.
But it’s not that simple, is it? It’s a messy business, to be both grateful and resentful of forward movement. We dread the pain almost as much as we dread the return of ordinary life.
I remember being on the gurney. I remember the way they pushed me and ran, yelling ahead to the OR for the crash cart. Your details may differ, but our stories are parallel enough.
I remember thinking: I am dying, or at least knowing that I would never again be who I was, which is a death. My innocent self would be gone, the version of me that was uninjured and whole, and I knew that, watching the ceiling fly by as they ran me down that sterile hallway.
I remember through those six weeks, the only time I could sleep soundly was with him on my chest, the most ordinary of events—a baby sleeping off his birth on the skin of his mother—but this was an event that had to be choreographed by a team of nurses. They moved him and all his tubes and wires, an act of precision and delicacy.
Then they left the two of us behind a curtain, machines still beeping that he was alive, for the time being. We generated that damp sort of sweaty heat and he made magic, a spell. He soothed me. He made me stop crying, helped me to sleep:
Oh mama, poor love. I hear you. It’s hard to be alive and mad, isn’t it, mama. Shush, mama. Rest.
Nothing in nature is abnormal. As long as you don’t intervene, nature balances all to stay in harmony. In order to exist without discord, nature is a system that must be allowed to govern itself.
Do you think that grief can be harmonious? Like a river, it is never the same. A river is in a constant state of change. It develops character in reaction to its environment. It overflows its banks, slows to a trickle in response to pressure fronts, storms, temperature, drought, rain, wind. A river is held responsible for nothing. It reacts and adapts.
When grief is harmonious, we are allowed to overflow, or dry up. But when people start messing with it—trying to divert it, alter its flow, change its course—grief becomes disharmonious. Left to its own devices, nature is perfect—though sometimes, brutally so. Left to its own devices, grief is perfect—though sometimes, brutally so.
Think of your worst moments on this path—what you’d say were your worst, remembering that we are too hard on ourselves—perhaps you self-medicated, or took your pain out on others, or let your career or relationships falter, or curled up in a dark room wanting nothing more than just that.
All of those times, there was nothing wrong with you. You were in harmony with grief. You were in love, in loss. You were a river in various states and seasons, and that’s all.
More from C.S. Lewis:
"I once read the sentence 'I lay awake all night with a toothache, thinking about the toothache and about lying awake.' Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's own shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."
It feels like it will never end, this broken state of being. But it does end. Well… not exactly. Perhaps it doesn’t end but it gets easier. Maybe not easier. Maybe less broken? Maybe it’s just that the brokenness gets more tolerable. We become acclimatized to sadness and our perception adjusts. Or, sadness is diluted by life continuing on—displaced by other struggles, made softer by blessings and the odd bit of good fortune.
Could it be that my mother and father are right? That there’s really not much to be done about grief except to bear it honourably, and wait, and trust that time, in its passing, will heal all, or almost all?
I don’t have a patch of grass that waits for my ashes. I have an eddy in a pond. In everglades, under a gnarly maple that leans out over the water, with eel and bullfrog and tadpole and trout, and they will mesh me into their ecosystem as they did my son.
We will all have our rest. Some of us too soon, though it’s always too soon, isn’t it? That’s the thing about contemplating death – it’s almost impossible to not speak in clichés. But god knows it’s all true. How miniscule and precious is our little blip of time on this earth?
And how really, after we are gone, once the grass has grown up over us, after the bullfrogs eat, all that’s going to be left of us are our stories, and they fade too.
And so that leaves us with the question that every philosopher in history has grappled with: if everything fades, why are we here at all? What’s the point of having such hope, of having the epitome, the perfect illustration of hope—that spark of fertilization, then a big round belly, a baby inside you, on its way to life. The excitement, the fear, the preparation—what was the point? Why, to have it not work out? Why did we all have to go through that?
For the only purpose. Hope makes love.
It’s been six years for me. I suspect that five or ten or twenty years from now, when Liam is decades in my past, I will still feel the whistle of that great mystery as it blows through this patched-up hole in my chest. I’ll be okay with it. But I’ll still feel it. I will still love him.
I will think, long after my hair has lost its colour: Thank you baby, for taking care of me. For showing me things, for making me darker, for making me lighter, for making me love.
Life teaches us to pause before offering opinion, direction, or diagnosis. To give people the space and time to find their own way, even if you think you know what that way should be. The moment when our compassion fully matures—this is enlightenment as I would define it—is the moment that our humility fully matures.
At the risk of calling my own enlightenment into question, I speak now to those mothers and fathers here today in the genesis of their loss, the most raw among us. I hope that the rest of us who have had some healing, some years, will remember and honour their own beginnings.
Don’t ever apologize for being sad. A child in a wartorn country does not need to say she is sorry for stepping on a landmine. Don’t apologize for making other people uncomfortable with the fact that you’ve just gotten gaping chunks of your body blown off. I’m sorry. I’m a mess. I’m so sorry. You don’t need to be.
Don’t apologize for speaking to the dead. Don’t apologize for hearing them speak back. This is ancient magic, the truest truth.
Don’t apologize for no longer fitting into the ideal—not even inwardly, to yourself. Don’t apologize to your baby, taking on what feels like the failure of your body. If you do, and if you listen, you will sense it: baby will say Mama, that is going too far. Be gentle, mama.
Don’t apologize for subjecting everyone who loves you to worry. What is love if it’s not concern? Those who worry are loving you. Let them worry. But don’t apologize. You will be okay. So will they. Don’t be sorry.
Remember: you are not extraordinary in this extraordinary loss. As we age we see more and more suffering all around: we are terrified of loss, of being alone. None of us feel like we demonstrate our love enough. Many of us are not sure we even deserve love. We hang on to our scars and bruises, deprive ourselves of care, go through crippling spells of lethargy and faithlessness. We disappoint the most important people—or we think we do. We regret so much and all this—all this suffering—is not exclusive to being that parent who lost that baby.
As humans we are most accompanied in our fundamental loneliness. Do not fall to the illusion that you are alone in the world. Look around you. You are not.
Forgive. People are going to let you down. Let them let you down without drawing a conclusion from it. Forgive people for not knowing what to say. Forgive people who think they know what to say and who say, with conviction, every wrong thing. Find others who are bereaved. Use our humour and solidarity as a smudge stick. Cleanse your air, then shake it off.
We are all so clumsy when confronted with grief. Clumsiness and the denial of pain is a defense mechanism. You have enough of your own fears. Don’t take on the fears of another.
Some people think that 'bucking up' makes demons go away. It doesn’t. But all of us are trying to our best. Even the ones who tell you to buck up. Anyone who tells you to think, feel, or cry less—or miss that child less—is just afraid. Their fear, their discomfort—requires nothing of you. Forgive it.
Know that you are perfectly normal. You are normal when you have to pull over to the side of the road because you’re shaking again so badly that you can’t drive. You are normal when you wake up crying again. You are normal when you can’t breathe, can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t smile.
Every emotion and reaction—everything that feels like a failure of grace—is normal. That is so good. You are right where you should be. Look at what you’ve been through. The rage is normal, the numbness is normal. The miserable stream-of-consciousness chattering is normal, the inability to say anything at all is normal.
The aftershocks, the dreams, flashbacks, needless guilt. The trouble occupying this body—that’s normal. You are not ill. You are not broken. Not at all. You are getting through instead of around. You are feeling exactly what you should be feeling. You are perfectly normal.
Fifth, and finally.
Take what you need. A day, a week, a month, a year off. Travel or home, friends or solitude, conversation or silence. A discord of grief is when there’s a gap between what you need and what you’re getting. That is when we become unexpressed, unhealthy, and stuck. That is when it begins to feel like a crisis.
Protect your needs like a parent looks after the needs of a child—with no shame or hesitation. Do it for yourself. Parent yourself. Soothe the child in you who can’t stop apologizing, who feels alone, who can’t forgive, who feels abnormal, who isn’t heard when she asks for help or patience or company. Take yourself into your own care.
Tell yourself what you would tell your own baby, with a whisper:
Oh baby, poor love. I hear you. It’s hard to be alive and mad, isn’t it, baby. Shush, baby. Rest.
In C.S. Lewis’s Narnia there are lions and witches and wardrobes. There are horses who fly and wise rats who sail boats, and ordinary children are kings and queens.
To heal is to walk through that door even though you are afraid, even though you don’t know what you may find on the other side. Perhaps an endless winter, perhaps a golden age. Walking through is a devotion, a lifelong study, a river. As the author says:
"We cannot understand. The best is perhaps what we understand least."
This year it was the kids that I loved especially. Boys and girls who spoke proudly of their spirit brothers and sisters, who drew and made art for them, who took every possible advantage of an empty stage when it was all done, and who spun and twirled just because. I loved the babies who were new to me, born to friends, and the peacefulness earned by people who have found other fulfilling and loving paths. It was beautiful, as it always is.