If you’ve ever experienced deep grief, you know this. If you’ve mourned a parent or spouse or child, been intimately involved with the care of someone fighting cancer, survived an attack, had a sick kid, dealt with some kind of grief that came out of nowhere and upended your whole world, you’ve seen that there’s a whole other world right along side the one everybody accepts as reality.
Right along side of all the mundane trips to the grocery store and Facebook political arguments, there are people walking around like shadows, confused as to how the whole world is going along like nothing has changed when their world will never be the same.
It’s not the same as being depressed. That’s a different shadow world. Most of the time I’m not even sad, although there’s plenty of times when it sneaks up on me and I need to respect it and give the sadness the attention it requires so it will move on without me. Most of the time I’m just feeling kind of melancholy as I keep moving to get the job done. Meals need to be cooked, then fed, then cleaned up. Then Atti needs to be cleaned up because eating every meal in bed makes a gross mess even if you have full use of your motor functions. He needs to be entertained, and moved from room to room, and kept calm and hopeful, and I have stolen moments here and there until Bear gets home from work.
Meanwhile I check in on Facebook and see people going about like normal. And it’s just confusing. People have been so kind and supportive, I have no complaints about my friends, it’s just…weird.
One time I watched an episode of Law and Order that was particularly haunting to me. It was the one where they did a take on the Michael Jackson molestation scandal and in the L&O universe, the parents knew what was going on and allowed it to happen so they could have money to pay off medical bills. I found the whole thing so shocking, and possible, that I dreamt about it all night. And then when I woke up, in that early morning grogginess, I remember waking up and checking my phone and wondering why it wasn’t every lead story in the news.
That’s how my life feels right now.
I see something silly in my twitter feed and I think, “Seriously? THIS is what you’re thinking about right now? When calamity is so close to all of us at any moment? When tragedy has moved in and made themselves at home?” And then I have to remind myself, every time, that it’s my tragedy. Not the world’s tragedy. It is only this big to me.
I’m sad, but I’m not, I don’t know, in danger. This is different. I almost feel taken up. Inducted. Transfigured. It’s like trying to describe an altered state or a religious experience. It’s ineffable. It’s hard, it’s sad, but it doesn’t always feel as simple as that. It’s deep. It’s profound. It’s heavy.
This probably sounds like one of the most depressing things I’ve ever written, but I don’t feel that way about it. Well, sometimes I do. I’m not a rock. I am definitely skirting around depression and using all of my strategies to keep it at bay. But I almost have a sense of awe about it all.
Like when an astronaut does a space walk and gets a glimpse of their place in all of creation. Like I’ve gone so far down I’ve come all the way back around and I’m looking at the backside of enlightenment. I’m astounded that in spite of all my sorrow, the world keeps turning. And somehow, in my dark way, I find that hopeful.
When I was 15 I had foot surgery and very much like Atti right now, I spent 6 weeks mostly in bed. I got to move around on crutches, but that was extremely hard for a clutzy girl on the slick streets of the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t have anyone to take care of me so I had to crawl up the stairs to get myself some food and find my own way to keep myself entertained in the pre-Internet pre-iPad days. I spent most of my time cross stitching a sampler that said “This too shall pass.” I tried to believe that and tried to let that be enough. But for 15 year old me 6 weeks was an eternity. It wasn’t enough. I finished that sampler and I stuffed it in a drawer. But now, with a fully developed prefrontal cortex and some life experience behind me, it might be.
That I think is the lesson of this shadow grief space. It all passes. Life passes. Loved ones pass. Possibility passes. Grief passes. The rain is pouring down outside as I type. The local dam opened a spillway for the first time after drought plagued years. The morning glories are spreading across the redwood bark in the yard. Kids come home from school and splash in the puddles. The squirrels and the birds are fighting over the birdfeeder. Odds are that I will never have another baby. Parents get older. Friends get sick. It all passes.
It’s all only unfair if you believe you have a right to expect something different. But you don’t. It all passes. None of us have the right to break the laws of nature. It all passes.
I’m not a fan of one size fits all self help approaches. I don’t believe that suffering makes you a better person. I think that most people allow suffering to pickle them and then they punish the world for their experiences. I don’t believe that Atti was given to us because we’re such exceptional parents and could therefore handle his disabilities. Foster care is so full of special needs kids there is no safe place for them all.
What I believe is that empathy makes you a better person. And anytime we experience suffering, we can choose to let it expand our empathy or shrink our souls. In this shadow grief space, I see how densely populated it is. How many people are walking with hurts that the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge. How healing it is to have your grief witnessed.
It will pass, but I hope that I can remember this.