On Grief and Loss
(Author’s note: Like everyone writing a Substack newsletter, and there are a lot of us, I am looking to increase my circulation and subscription list. So, if you like what you read here every Sunday, please share widely and consider any type of subscription. And thanks for letting me intrude once a week. - JM)
“Sometimes, only one person is missing, and the whole world seems depopulated.” — Alphonse de Lamartine
Missiles are killing the innocent. Children are being brutalized. Starvation is sweeping Afghanistan and Yemen. Great cities have fallen to ruination. Democracy’s American will might be breaking. Dreams are darkened with images of supersonic nuclear warheads. A wicked virus weaves a global tapestry of suffering and death. How do we grieve our living world? Can we even feel the pain and loss if it is not personal? Is there a way to grieve and recover and rage against the chaos causing hurt?
I have been anxiously watching global geo-politics come undone while grieving the recent loss of two very close friends and colleagues. I’d like to not think of their absences but that is dishonorable. They were great men with loving families and signal accomplishments as journalists. And now they are simply gone. Conversations I took for granted have ended.
I know it’s an old story. Death and loss. But for a while it’s my narrative. And I also know there is good and bright light out there. Even the most cynical of human beings come to realize there is before us every morning, an abundance of miracles. The mere fact that each of us is alive presents us with a nearly statistical impossibility. The beginnings of life come from millions of unlikelihoods that meet in a singularity to multiply mysteriously and become you, or me. Or our friends. And very shortly we are walking in the world.
But we too quickly forget about the improbable chance of just being alive. We might not even have ever recognized it. There is the absurdity of millions of sperm finding one of a few eggs and then the division and multiplication of cells that might turn into a concert pianist or a prophet or scientist or, god forbid, even a writer. The cycle of birth and death only seems to teach us we want more of life. We even expect it. We've come to believe we should all have health and long decades of happiness, money, good weather, wonderful friends, happy, and curious children. And if we are fortunate, and these things come to us, most of us acquire the wisdom to understand the sweet gift we have been given. The odds have once more been defied. And worked in our favor.
But let's acknowledge that no matter how much we love. How much we care. How hard we try. The world and its workings are beyond our ability to truly control. Or even understand. Life grants us our comfortable delusions. And we cling to them. And we believe them to be real. But often they are not. Love does conquer everything. But sometimes not when we need for that to happen.
Our children are what give many of our lives their greatest meanings. But they also spur our greatest fears. We tremble when we release their hands for first steps. And we shrink with anxiety the moment we walk out the door leaving them at day care. Or with a sitter. The school bus comes one day and they climb up those steps and are gone to the beginning of their own lives. We've lost a little more control. Then comes the first sleepover. And a date. Or a school trip. And then they are off to college. This all happens in an instant. And if we are lucky, it all goes well and some day we get another son or daughter by marriage. And even grandchildren.
But a prophet once said that, "Our children are not our children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself." And that life force will make its own choices. We know the world has idiocies and veils that put us all at grave risk. But we also understand that there is beauty in friendships and landscapes and a night sky and a wildflower and newly fallen snow. A silent moment of personal faith. These are things that bring most of us joy.
But we do not all see the universe through the same lens. People who look through a certain set of eyes cannot find these happy things. They sometimes have a view they don't like. And will not share. This is not a bright, shining object they are drawn to. It is, instead, a troubled talisman they cannot turn from or deny. The world is too much for them. The paradoxes and mysterious objects and emotions of life frighten them. They don't understand how anything fits together. Of course, none of us does. But most of us reach acceptance. And then happiness, either in spite of the mystery of everything. Or because of it. But there are those we love who are troubled by what's coming at them. Or a part they think might be missing from the world.
My eldest sister was one of those who never found a way. Something deep inside her was broken. It was in a place she could not find or even name. How could she heal? She found ways to diminish her pain. Until they diminished her and her hurt ended. I have no idea what we could have given her. Or more that might have been done to save her. She rarely gave any sign she wanted to be someone’s salvage. Nothing seemed worth it to her. She lived among us lost.
We can usually see this happening. We reach for them. We offer a hand. But they take their solace elsewhere. And they will not let us follow. They cannot explain what it is they know that we do not. They can only try to find a way to lessen their hurt. And that is where our loss begins. It does not mean they can't feel our love. And appreciate it. They just don't know what to do with it. And they worry about what we might expect in return. Even though they love us as greatly as we love them.
Every life, of course, deserves celebration. Especially of those we love. When I recently lost my best friend of forty years, I thought about the previous passing of his son almost exactly a decade before his dad. They were father and son for 21 years. I had my boy for less than 21 hours. Neither span of time is sufficient. It's just what we were given. There is little to be understood from that beyond the miracle of the first breath. The last breath, I believe, knows its own time. We cannot forestall its moment, no matter how hard we try. Nor can we find easy acceptance of that event.
We are left with no idea how a life comes together or falls apart.
"Everything is necessary," Cormac McCarthy wrote. "Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted. We have no way to tell what might stand and what might fall."
Maybe it’s best to not ponder the joinery. And look for the parts that will stand.
I remember a bright sunny morning in my youth on the banks of the Missouri River near St. Joseph. Men had gathered with horses to recreate a part of American history. They were to cross the high plains and the Rocky Mountains in the old way. And along the trail their horses hooves would trod over the souls of an average of six people who had died for every single mile trying to make it west and realize a barely formed dream of success on the frontier. The light from the east made the dew glitter on the leaves and grass and the air was still save for the snorting of restless animals and a low hum that I considered to be the music of our spinning planet.
The pastor asked our silence and in prayer and reminded us gathered that no matter what we believed we ought to feel that morning sun on our backs and know that we were celebrating the "sheer joy of just living." And that was regardless of any outcomes of our endeavors. What we might think of as achievement and failure. Don’t measure accomplishments. Take all breaths deeply. See everything sharply.
Because this is what we have. The sheer joy of just living. We might not feel it now. Or like those we know who were lost, maybe we never come to know it. But that joy is what we are given. A set of years. An accumulation of moments with one another. We honor that time with friends and families. We memorialize it with love. But we cannot ever know how this all came to us. Either by grace. Or chaos. Or that simple statistical improbability of being born and then taking the first steps of our journeys. We have all this for a while. We don't know how long. But we must acknowledge it is a wondrous gift.
And what we love about it all will last forever.