Joy and Pain. Side by Side.

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“Choosing to nurture joy does not mean turning a blind eye to pain or difficulty or injustice. It means holding positive possibilities while looking deeply into pain. Deep truth about what is and recognizing joy can exist side by side.” ~Circle Forward

I read those words and I was reminded of the phrase finding joy in the mess. And then I was reminded of the times in my life when there wasn’t much to be joyful for, yet, somehow opportunities to choose a moment of pure joy would sneak in, despite the current state of messiness. A sudden eruption of pee-your pants laughter in the depths of unfathomable grief, a beautiful ray of sun appearing from the clouds when all hope seemed lost, a heartfelt hug from a dear friend in a moment of despair. Life-saving snippets of joy in the midst of struggle. Joy and pain. Side by side. How can we know one without the other? Kind of a mind blow, right? Always the paradox. Always the struggle. How can they co-exist? Yet . . . how can they not?

Choosing to find joy in the midst of difficulty is one of the most courageous acts a person can take–although we rarely give ourselves permission to do so. What if, in the midst of your struggles, no matter how big or small, you gave yourself permission to choose joy for just one day, or for one hour, or for even one minute or one second? It’s SO okay to take a break from your pain. Choosing to nurture joy does not dismiss or diminish our hurts, but instead creates space for hope to seep in. And with hope, all things are possible.

Let yourself choose joy and then nurture it. Let it live side by side with your sorrows. Let hope create the space.

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Grieving the childhood loss of a parent, 35 years later. . .

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My dad and I, shortly before my first birthday, circa 1970.

February 7, 2014 would have been my dad’s 72nd  birthday. Today, would have been my mom’s 70th.  After my mom’s death 18 months ago, I found myself grieving my dad as well as the collective loss of my parents–something I never expected would happen.

I cleared the leaves and freshly fallen snow from my mom’s newly laid gravestone. It had only been a few months since she, along with my sister-in-law and eight year-old niece, had been killed by a drunk driver. As I looked at her name etched into the stone, I was sure the heaviness in my heart would cause it to explode. My mom was 68 going on 50 when she died and I had yet to make any sense of her senseless death. I stood there in tears for a while and when I finally turned to leave, I noticed my dad’s gravestone. It was covered in layers of dead leaves and snow, nearly forgotten by me. My heavy heart sank further into my chest.

The year was 1977 and I was eight when my dad died suddenly of a heart attack. He was only 34 years old and his death was shocking to me, even at such a young age. Standing at his grave 35 years later, his death seemed like a lifetime ago. The older I had gotten, the less I had seemed to think of him (even though I did occasionally) and at times, I still really missed him. So many years had passed though that for the most part, my memories of him had faded deeply.

My mom had remarried when I was 15 to a wonderful man who I have considered my dad for the three decades. My stepdad walked me down the aisle, was grandpa to my children, and loved my mom to no end. He had been there for me, through thick and thin, throughout most of my life whereas the man buried at my feet had only been there for the first few years. Yet, I shouldn’t have forgotten. Even though he had been gone for so long, my dad had loved me deeply, that I had known from early on.  As time had passed I had taken those memories and tucked them away. Maybe it was to protect myself from the hurt, maybe I really had forgotten, or maybe it was a little of both. I wasn’t really sure. All of these things quickly raced through my mind and suddenly, I found myself sobbing. With guilt-laden grief, I quickly dropped to my knees and began to clear away his stone.

As I drove home, the tears kept coming. I had just been thrust into an unexpected, adult-sized mourning of his death at the same time I was mourning the new loss of my mom. I found myself grieving a lifetime of memories lost as well as grieving the collective loss of my parents, something that I hadn’t considered would happen. Reality hit me like a ton of bricks. The two people that had loved me and cared for me from the very beginning of my life were now gone. If it was possible to feel orphaned as a forty-something adult, this had to be what it felt like.

Over the next few days, I found myself in tears quite often as I kept thinking a lot about the early years of my life, especially those days and weeks surrounding the time of my dad’s death. Even though those memories had been dormant for what seemed like forever, my grief-stricken brain easily–albeit painfully–recalled them. Saying goodbye the morning of his death, being taken out of school knowing that something was gravely wrong, going with my mom to pick out his casket, sitting with her at his funeral, as well as the sorrowful days that ensued— these memories were now incredibly fresh in my mind. As they flooded in, I found myself reliving the pain of that time, not through the eyes of my eight-year old self, but instead, through the eyes of an adult. As a child I knew the loss of my father was tremendous, but as an adult, I was able to realize fully the magnitude of his loss and it hurt– big time. Even though I thought I had completely grieved his loss years ago, I found out that really wasn’t true at all. Now, as an adult, I was able to give my eight-year old self the space and permission to hurt and then to heal. I had discovered quite out of the blue that grief is funny like that. It sneaks up on us and can send us reeling into some dark places when we least expect it to. We can either run from that darkness or through it to the light. I chose to move towards the light.

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My dad and I!

It has been just over a year since that grief-ridden, heavy-hearted day in the cemetery. Since that day, I have been able to heal from the childhood loss of my father in a deeper and more meaningful way than I ever thought possible, even while grieving the recent death of my mom.

The biggest lesson that I have learned throughout this time is that grief and healing are constant and fluid, ever changing as time passes. I know that I will always be grieving my parent’s deaths, both individually and collectively, in some way or another, and I am completely okay with that. I know that with every resurgence of grief, the opportunity comes to heal and grow, and to reconcile and release the pain of their losses. I know that it is okay to give myself permission to grieve and to create space in my life for healing, whether it’s from something that happened years ago or just yesterday. This new understanding of grief and healing has created a newfound peace in me–despite the pain— and I know that with each new level of healing that I reach, I will be able to stand in that cemetery. . . my heavy heart a little lighter than the last.

The healing journey

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“The journey of healing is often painful. It requires much effort and endurance. . . It is hard work, but along the way we learn that there is a place in the journey where we are able to celebrate. This celebration comes from knowing that all of the effort is worth it.  It is from this place that we can begin to feel hope and we can begin to glimpse joy. We are no longer driven by desperation but by determination.”  ~ adapted from A Healing Celebration

 

Beautiful people

“I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”
― Chris Cleave, Little Bee

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A friend of mine shared this quote with me tonight. I read it. Then, I read it again. And again. And then, one more time. It went straight into my journal as some of the most powerful words that I have read in a while.

I can’t help but think how different the world would be if we all could find the courage to embrace our scars, no matter the pain that caused them. (Side note: I fully acknowledge that this sucks. Pain sucks! Time does not heal all wounds, the scars always remain as Rose Kennedy so eloquently put it. I do believe, though, with time, we can look beyond the pain of our scars and seek the beauty in them instead.)

Continue reading “Beautiful people”

Lean into it. . .

Lean into it.

When that message came to me twice the other day– I figured I better listen.

The first time I heard those words I was listening to Dr. Brene Brown speak. (If you haven’t heard her message, STOP READING THIS NOW and Google her. Then listen whole-heartedly to what she has to say. It will change your life in ways you can’t imagine. Trust me on this one.) Later on that day, I received the following message in an email series that I am currently subscribed to called 40 Days of Deep Wisdom by Erica Staab. It’s pretty powerful. . .

In life, we think the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem.  The real truth is that things really don’t get solved. The come together for a time, then fall back apart. Then they come together again, and fall apart again. It’s just like that.

Personal discovery and growth come from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. 

Suffering comes from wishing things were different. Misery is self-inflicted, when we are expecting the “ideal” over the “actual,” or needing things (or people, or places) to be different for us so we can then be happy.

Let the hard things in life break you. Let them effect you. Let them change you. Let these hard moments inform you. Let this pain be your teacher. The experiences of your life are trying to tell you something about yourself. Don’t cop-out on that. Don’t run away and hide under your covers. Lean into it.

What is the lesson in this wind? What is this storm trying to tell you? What will you learn if you face it with courage?  With full honesty and-– lean into it.

~Pima Chodron

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The harsh beauty of this poem stunned me for a moment, then I wept.

Then I read it again.

And I cried some more.

“Let the hard things in life break you.” 

Broken? More like shattered.

“Let this pain be your teacher.”

Lord knows, I’m a straight A student.

“There must be room for all of this to happen.”

My soul has grown exponentially throughout my lifetime,

constantly making room for the pain that has broken me,

and the joy,

and the love,

and the gratitude,

that have restored me.

Coming together and falling apart,

over and over,

sometimes almost rhythmically,

like waves crashing into the shore.

Unfortunately, the storms of life are inevitable.

Sometimes they are a like a soft summer rain,

and other times,

the storms are like a hurricane.

The harsh but beautiful reality is that you have a choice. . .

to run for shelter, or to dance in the rain.

It’s so hard, sometimes, to make that choice.

But today?

I choose to dance. . .

with courage and with love,

sometimes while dangling only from the heartstrings of hope.

All the while praying for the storm to pass.

Today,

I will choose. . .

to let my soul grow,

to let my pain rest,

and to open my heart to the whisper of the wind.

Today. . .

I will lean into it.

Letting go of sadness. . .

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Yes, I admit it. I am a quote junkie. The fact that people now slap them on random photos even makes it better for me. It’s a form of art that should have it’s own category.

This morning I rolled over in bed to grab my phone and check the time. I decided to do a quick email and Facebook check (a requirement before I get out of bed. Don’t judge me. Yes, it’s sad and I admit it.) and the quote above was in my news feed. For a split second my foggy brain was agreeing with the positive message. Then a few more circuits began to fire. What? All I have to do to stay happy is to let go? I snorted, a mixture of laughter and disbelieve, rolled my eyes and then rolled over and went back to sleep. Yeah, letting that quote go would actually make me happy. . .

An hour later, I re-awoke and repeated the above routine. Although my news feed was filled with fun, new Saturday morning postings, I couldn’t let the quote I had read earlier go. In fact, I was beginning to get a little annoyed by the message. I decided to get up, have some coffee and think about it. Why was this seemingly innocuous, feel-goody quote making me uneasy?

A couple of cups of coffee later (with some peanut butter toast to boot) and the cobwebs began to clear. It was pretty obvious why I was annoyed with those words. While there is definitely truth to the message, how do you tell a person immersed deeply in the pain of their past to just let it go? Sexually abused by your father for years? Ahh, no problem, let it go. In the midst of a painful divorce? Not a big deal. Just let it go! A battered wife living a hell on earth? No biggie. Let it go. Grieving the loss of loved ones? C’mon, let it go! Let it all go and you’ll be happy, just like the quote says. Right? Yeah, by now, I was completely annoyed. . .

While letting go of past hurts and realizing that there is absolutely nothing we can do to change our past is absolutely the single biggest step we can take to begin to heal our wounded souls, it’s simply not that easy. Unfortunately, the truth is that letting go is incredibly painful, messy work that often involves reliving some very dark moments from our pasts. The truth is, letting go is simply not as easy as the fluffy blue skies and balloons message above leads us to believe. Letting go requires that we dive headfirst  into a deep pool of pain all the while praying immensely that we rise someday from the depths. We dive in with a desperate, aching hope for peace in our hearts and a future filled with happiness. For some, it can take years before they begin to emerge. And when they do, happiness isn’t an automatic. What? All that work and still no guarantee? Maybe then, despite the truth of the previous message, we should look at letting go a little more realistically, like in this random quote photo.

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The truth? We can’t be happy all of the time–there will always be some darkness–but, when darkness falls, hold on tight to that ray of light that we all have somewhere deep inside. Let that light guide you, even if it is only as bright as a single lit match right now, into the pain of the past. In time, your light will slowly shine brighter. And eventually, despite the pain and messiness of letting  go, your inner light will illuminate your soul like the sunshine lights the earth. Bask in it, rejoice in it, and finally allow yourself to celebrate a peaceful, happy heart. That is a truth I think we can all embrace.