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Last week, Anna wrote in to ask about her fiancé’s fear of giving her a wedding ring and I suggested four possible reasons that he might be feeling afraid. More than one of you suggested a fifth possibility: her fiancé takes marriage seriously enough to be nervous. I like that option a lot. I’ve said to more than one anxious couple in pre-marital counseling, “I’d be worried if you weren’t feeling nervous about getting married.” Thanks for your wisdom, Readers! And now, this week’s question:
Why does grief hit you at such stupid times? I was driving to the store when it came. There was no reason for it, just tears.
Mrs. FKB and I recently chose to sell our bicycle trailer. Our two older children have their own bikes now, and our youngest travels securely strapped into the child seat mounted on our cargo bike. And thus the trailer was hanging out in our basement like a listless young man on a couch, unused and lonely and increasingly dusty. Selling it was just logical. Except that, when the guy who found us on Craigslist came to get it, logic didn’t stop me from being startled by sadness. As I watched him load our trailer into his trunk, I saw an icon for the end of a certain time in our lives, for the end of a certain time in our children’s lives. Mrs. FKB and I are glad that our kids are growing up. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t mourn for the days when they slept in the warmth of that trailer as I towed it behind me.
That old trailer is not the first thing to leave me surprised by tears. Indeed, as often as not, it isn’t the big stuff that gets me: the move away from home, the news of an illness or an accident or an injustice, the cup of coffee after the funeral. Rather, it is the small endings that leave me suddenly wistful and lonesome. Here is the end of summer camp; here is goodbye at the airport and the bus station and the train platform; here is the last page of a beloved book; here is the sale of a bicycle trailer. And yes, Sam, here also are endings too small to even see, the moments without warning when the weight of grief suddenly fills up your car, when you are pulled hard into what Joan Didion calls grief’s “vortex,” when there is nothing to do but weep.
There is, Sam, important and even good news to be found in all of these endings, to be found in all of this grief. First, as with all pain, these endings remind us of our need for healing, they remind of the importance of doing the work of grieving. My old teacher, Herbert Anderson, puts it this way: “Grief is universal and inescapable even when its existence and impact are denied… [Whereas] grieving is the intentional work grief-stricken persons engage in, enabling them to return eventually to full, satisfying lives. It can be avoided, though at a very high cost to the one who refuses it.” Let your tears be a call to be patient and gentle with yourself, Sam. Let them be an invitation to pay attention to your grieving, to devote time and prayer to your grieving, perhaps to seek help from trusted friend with your grieving.
Second, these endings remind us of the fleeting gift that is this life. They remind us of the urgency of our call, as Wendell Berry puts it, to “practice resurrection.” If you want to say “thank you,” now is the time to do so. If you want to say, “I love you,” now is the time to do so. If you want to add to the sum of beauty in this broken world, now is the time to do so. Your time to do these things is not unlimited: we are here but for a while. Remember that. Remember that, as the Prayer Book has it, you are dust and to dust you shall return. Remember that and live accordingly.
In what might be her shortest poem, Mary Oliver writes,
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
May your grief be such a gift, Sam. As stupid as grief sometimes is — as stupid as it is to cry for no good reason in your car, as stupid as it to be fighting off tears when the guy from Craigslist takes away your old bike trailer — may grief’s tears be your teacher. May they surprise you by reminding you of hope and love and joy.