Learning to live with Grief as well as Joy
My dear friend Andy who has been struggling like so many with mental illness this last year has been missing for 12 days after he walked out of the MidHudson Regional Hospital of Westchester in Poughkeepsie, NY. He is lost without his phone, ID, or shoes. Please pray for his safe return and if you know anyone in the area, please send them the photo at the end of this post. - Thank you.
A few weeks ago I was going to write my blog post on inexplicable joy but then before I had a chance to write it, you went missing.
I was thinking of you when I was formulating the ideas for the joy post. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was walking Lola and listening to a Spotify playlist (Summer BBQ) and just the music, my dog prancing down the sidewalk with curiosity and energy and the long awaited warmth of the sun made me happy down to my toes.
I don’t express myself physically very often. You, on the other hand, are wont to dance without music whenever and where ever you feel the spirit move you. Me, not so much. But on this morning and the subsequent mornings I so wanted to dance down the street as I walked my dog. The joy in my body seemed uncontainable, and yet it stayed contained.
Each day I thought to myself, “You are a 50 year old woman, no one sees you anyway.” or “Why not be the wacky woman who dances down the street with her dog every morning?” I tried to convince myself, but my New England, Protestant self kept my joy under wraps and I walked with my heart doing only a slight and appropriate internal jig.
I thought of you because I knew you would have danced. And I thought of you because I also know the other side, the darker side of that dancing is how uncomfortable people are when people express themselves with abandon.
But then you went missing and I stopped walking Lola.
I know these last two years have been the most painful of your life. I know the last in particular has been unbearable. You have gone from someone who could dance with abandon, to someone who weeps with abandon. And yet, every time you wept I felt hopeful. They seemed tears of transformation - honest, repetant. But it seemed too much for you to bear and as quickly as the tears would start, they would stop and in their place - something less real that I didn’t understand and didn’t know if I could trust. They were the stories you, an unreliable narrator, told yourself.
Now you tell other stories too my dear playwright friend, and stories are certainly powerful tools for transformation. In fact, just today in class my students performed a play that they had written based on Twelfth Night. You would have liked it (criticized it, but liked it none the less). The students were surprised how Viola got over the presumed death of her lost brother Sebastian so quickly and without any shows of grief jumped head first into romance instead. So they based their whole devised play on the concept of grief and loss. Each student took the grief their character experienced and likened it to their own personal grief and out came a story. Transformation.
After the performance when the audience was giving feedback one student said, “It was so helpful to have moments of lightness and laughter even amidst the grief.” Then a long conversation ensued about how as humans we can’t have one without the other. Laughter and grief. Lightness and Suffering. We have to acknowledge both at the same time, incongruous as they may seem.
You’ve been missing now for 12 days. I’ve cried a lot and worried even more. But I’ve also texted you everyday as if you are right there on the other end of my iPhone laughing at how much your “chiseled abs” are being referred to in the Facebook “Find Andy” group page. And a bunch of us got together last Friday and are planning on getting together every Friday til you’re found - and we didn’t cry, we laughed. We talked about you and smiled
But the unreliable narration hasn’t come with the pithy punchlines like they used to, they’re stories of ancillary pain that seem at once to both distract and distance you from what’s going on. (I’m not a psychologist and this is certainly just my small sense of things.) I do know that you’ve been off your meds for as long as you’ve been missing which is scary, but I’m hopeful that perhaps that means that your grief has subsided a bit and that you are in a happier, albeit manic, space.
I picture you walking over a country club golf course, hospital scrubs, dirty socks and scruffy beard dancing like Puck through the forest. Or as Michael has hypothesized, as Edgar in Lear, covered in mud and taking on the personae of Poor Tom, biding your time til it’s safe to come out of hiding. Whichever Shakespearean play you have been transported to in the woods, I’m hoping there’s laughter and light there to balance the suffering of the last year.
Your sister posted the most beautiful reflection this morning about how to care for yourself in the midst of suffering. She referenced an OnBeing episode (and you know how I love those) of an interview with Pauline Boss, the psychologist who coined the term “ambiguous loss.” We as Americans want to fix things, to get past things, to heal. And yet, most times, Boss says, there is not closure. We learn to live with grief. And the most painful form of grief is that which comes with ambiguous loss. When a loved one is present physically but absent because of dementia. When a loved one doesn’t come home from war and is missing. When a loved one walks out of a hospital as they are awaiting a room in the Psychiatric unit. She even discussed ambiguous loss taking place during a divorce as one is simultaneously grieving the end of relationship and also co-parenting.
I wonder if your loss is also ambiguous which is why your grief cannot be contained?
Boss says when talking with someone going through ambiguous loss there are only a few things to say:
How long has it been?
What does this mean to you?
I’m so very sorry.
Emily, your sister said this:
The words soothed and affirmed.
I was able to get up and be at least moderately present.
When the afternoon rolled around, I had the incredible fortune to have a body worker come to our home.
She set up the table with heating pad and put the ethereal yet grounding music on and I closed my eyes and swallowed her touch. I wept a bit early on and then proceeded to see images and feel light that brought me ease. I emerged from the table and the room into a suddenly clear sunny day.
I was fully there, released from the imprisonment of my catastrophic thinking. I could feel and savor the breeze and warmth on my skin. I could see my daughters and feel the rapture of loving them and receiving their love.
I returned home and warmed the bounty of food brought to me by my dearest friends and was able to share the wealth with my compound community who have been daily holding together the pieces that would have otherwise been slipping through the cracks.
My life is also THIS.
I must not only appreciate and have gratitude, but I must return to this, just like returning to the breath in yoga or meditation.
I can feel the serenity of yesterday slipping but each offering of love and care and connection helps remind me that in this space of not knowing where my brother is or when he will return, I can always find myself here. Right now.
I want you to hear this Andy… Your life is also THIS. Grief yes, but Joy too. As the Psalmist says, “Joy comes in the morning.” It doesn’t say that the grief is gone, but that joy comes along for the ride. And from the same Psalm “[G-d’s] favour is for a lifetime.” The other day I was praying for you and had a strong sense. I heard, “G-d loves Andy. He adores him.” It felt like a promise of protection.
You’ve lived too long this last year without joy my dancing friend. I wonder if this is the nature of your illness, an inability to hold both at the same time - a difficulty with the both/and - instead an interminable cycle of dancing and weeping.
You texted Bill the night before you went to the hospital. “Hello Mr. Weber. I miss that beautiful bald head of yours. Please send my love to your lovely wife.” I read the text and smile often. I also read the last email I sent you a few weeks earlier before you even went to New York; the last thing I told you, “I am so glad you are found. Praying you continue to be found over and over again. Sending all my love to you my dear and beautiful and pain-filled friend. - K”
Come back to us Sebastian, our lost brother. Come out of hiding dear Edgar. Dance over this way playful Puck.
We love you so,
Kelley is a spiritual director who works with people of all and no faith traditions. aspiralspace.com