It’s been a few hard days in a row, and I find myself wanting to apologize to people. Extroverts have a hard time justifying solitude. Usually, a friend’s company is energizing, and talking helps me understand. Usually, words are my favorite comfort food and tastier when shared. I’ve spent a lot of time not talking. When I pray, there aren’t words. I sit in silence, feeling vaguely hungry.
I just started a grief book, the first one I’ve been able to open. “Invitation to Tears: A Guide to Grieving Well,” has met me in my silence. It begins by explaining that Christ “never shamed the downcast into cheering up; he neither rushed through nor avoided tears. On his walk to Golgatha, he directed the weeping women to cry for themselves and their children.” Jesus gave the suffering permission to cry. Why do I struggle to give myself the same grace?
Honestly, I’ve falsely believed that walking briskly and bravely, with full makeup and foundation garments, not pausing the Usual Schedule, is how I should best represent The Faith. If I appear completely pulled together and unflappable, I can show God’s power to shore up even The Most Broken. In the last few days, I’ve discovered what’s been holding me together isn’t actually His grace, but my own pride.
One of the blogs I follow is “Mundane Faithfulness,” written by a mother of four who is in her final stages of terminal cancer. She has reached the point she has to depend on others to care for her, and she’s had to accept that pain is constantly with her. Kara Tippets can’t hide her weakness because it has hijacked her body, and she’s been forced to relinquish all pride to ask for the help she desperately needs. Her journey, her bald bravery, has inspired me on some of my hardest days. (Tippett’s open letter to Brittany Maynard, the young woman facing a terminal illness who took her own life, is something I reread often.)
What’s brave is allowing people past the façade of togetherness. What’s brave is stepping into the current of grief that courses through the middle of my life right now. I try to pick my way around it, walking precariously along the banks and leaning away from the water. My last trip down a similar river was after I unexpectedly lost my mom, two weeks before our youngest was born. I spent many hours in a rocking chair, holding and soothing a fussy baby, while I sobbed for my mother. Even then, I recognized that comforting him, comforted me.
Nearly five hears later, as we sat in mass this past Sunday, my baby folded himself up to squeeze into my lap. He was cuddling his blankie and sucking his thumb, peaceful and content with his ear against my chest. I was simultaneously joyful and heartbroken, because I remembered how my other snuggler would do the same. Even as a 12-year-old awkward preteen, Kai would wriggle up into my side, fuzzy head in my armpit, trying to press himself into a cuddle.
That’s how grief is different from depression. Grief is a tsunami of feelings. Every happy memory is followed by a stab of sadness, and sometimes it comes as a flood. I’ve flirted with depression several times, enough to warrant treatment, and I know people close to me worry when I quietly retreat. Depression, for me, has been the absolute absence of emotion, and a detachment from anything that mattered. Grief is experiencing everything that has ever mattered, all at once. It’s a tumble of longing, sadness, memory, attachment, anger, confusion, and love, the deepest, most clutching, most overwhelming love.
Invitation to Tears asks the grieving to unfurl the sails, leave the shore, and move into The Most Difficult journey. “I want to go on that cruise,” said nobody ever. Looking downriver, I already feel tired. I know this will be difficult navigating, and that I’ll have to ask for help. I’ll have to give up the slick, put-together act. Most of all, I’ll have to depend on grace and not hubris.
Long before I converted to Catholicism, I started reading Thomas Merton, a 20th century Catholic contemplative. When I’m able to add words to my prayers, when I’m ready to cast off and allow myself to be navigated, I think this will be my invocation.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. — Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude