Half a dozen years ago, I was sitting in a sharing circle where Fidelis, a wise woman from Kenya, was sharing stories of the sustainable agriculture projects she was helping birth in rural villages in Kenya. Everyone else in the circle was of North American descent. As she shared her stories and the challenges her organization faced, people in the circle were asking questions and offering advice.
In a moment I will never forget, Fidelis smiled, shook her head a little, and said “Why do you North Americans always think you have to FIX things?” There was a note of frustration, but mostly genuine curiosity in her voice. She’d spent a fair bit of time in recent years meeting with North Americans, and she was struck by how uncomfortable we are with unresolved challenges. When her organization struggled with big issues like poverty, conflict, and marginalization, more often than not, North Americans tried to step in and offer some ill-advised quick fix. Instead of sitting with the community and listening to the stories and letting the problems teach them new lessons, they rushed into “fix-it” mode.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Fidelis’ words lately. She’s right. We are a culture that wants things fixed, clean, and resolved. We don’t like chaos, disorder, complexity, or ambiguity. We hide our messes and pretend that our lives are ordered and presentable.
I have been writing and talking a lot about grief since my Mom died, because that’s the journey I’m walking through and because I’ve made a pledge to myself that, on this blog and on social media and in life in general, I will be authentic and vulnerable and I will not gloss over the ugly bits or the scary bits or the places where I fail. It’s not always easy, but it’s still the best way that I know how to live and connect with people.
Grief is messy. Heartbreak is messy. Sitting with someone who’s dying is messy. (I haven’t told the whole story of that, because it’s still quite raw for me, but I’ll simply say that Mom did not die peacefully in her sleep.) Trying to move on with a broken-hearted life when everyone around you is in the Christmas spirit is messy.
I don’t share these messy things with everyone, because I know the mess of this is too uncomfortable for many people. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, though, I know that you value honesty and open-hearted grief and messiness, so I share what I can here.
My life is hard right now. I fought tears at the shopping mall yesterday in the middle of all of the “merry” shoppers. I fought tears in the evening while my kids put up the Christmas tree. I fought tears in church yesterday, when I watched my dear friend hold her new grandchild and had a flashback to the look of pride on Mom’s face when new grandchildren arrived.
There are many people whose lives are hard right now, not least of all those families impacted by the shooting in Newtown. It’s horrible. Grief is ugly and we’d really like to be able to fix it because we don’t want to see people hurting in such horrible ways.
But… here’s the thing… just because someone’s heart is broken doesn’t mean that we should try to fix it. Grief is supposed to be messy. Tears are supposed to flow. The ache is supposed to well up in our hearts when we least expect it. I know this. I’m okay with it. I don’t need it fixed. I just need to sit with it and let the tears flow when they need to. Those of us in grief need to be allowed the space to be broken for awhile.
This I know from the journeys I’ve already taken through grief… There are no “stages of grief”. There is no easy way through this. There is no “closure”. And time doesn’t heal all wounds. We each have to find our path through this difficult, life-changing time, and no outsider can offer words that will magically resolve all of the hurt and fear. It’s just the way it is and, like those complicated issues in the villages of Kenya, it can’t be fixed by simple solutions.
What we overlook when we try too hard to fix things or rush to a solution is that there is much to be gained from healthy grief. Grief has always been my greatest teacher. Grief has taught me the importance of love in my life. It has taught me how to prioritize and let go of what doesn’t serve me. It has helped me find new meaning in the world around me. It has helped me connect in a deeper way to the cycles of life I see in nature. It has deepened my faith. It has strengthened my relationships and given me new friendships. It has improved and deepened my writing and teaching. It has even changed the course of my career.
Grief is not something to run away from. Grief can teach us, but only when we give it the space and time for deep learning.
The next time you see someone in grief, let the mess happen. Let the tears flow. Sit with them in their pain, and don’t try to resolve it. They don’t need advice or platitudes or suggestions that there are easier ways to get to closure. They don’t need to be made to feel like they’re doing it wrong.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t support them and that your words don’t help. The opposite is true. The person in the middle of the grief needs you around. They need to be surrounded by people who love them and won’t judge them. They need to have safe places where they can sit with friends who don’t try to fix them. They need to be allowed to cry big sloppy tears without worrying they’re offending anyone.
Grief, like winter, needs to run its course so that new things can grow when the season changes.
Imagine if we tried to “fix” winter like we try to fix grief. Imagine if we tried to rush the seasons – turned on giant heaters to chase away the snow and cold – and didn’t allow the trees to have the dormant time they need, or the seeds to properly germinate under the soil. We would destroy the natural cycle of things. Like a butterfly that’s plucked out of the chrysalis before it’s ready, the trees would shrivel up and die, the seeds would fail to grow viable grain, and the animals (and people) would die of starvation.
No, I won’t rush through my grief. I will survive Christmas, I will find comfort in my family gathered around me, and I will enjoy a few laughs now and then when the grief is less heavy, but I will also let myself cry when I need to. The tears need to come and the winter needs to run its course.
If I am not true to this journey, then the new growth and the deepened learning can not emerge when it’s meant to.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who was telling me the story of a recent four day vision quest she’d been on. With nothing but a sleeping bag and some water, she’d gone into the woods to spend time alone with her thoughts. It was an incredibly difficult and frightful time for her, but she emerged wiser, stronger, and more compassionate. As she shared the story of how those four days transpired, I was struck by how similar her experience was to the four days I was with Mom just before she died. Just like her, I’d gone through a wide range of emotions and sleepless nights, I’d had to let go of old attachments and expectations, and I’d emerged dramatically changed.
I haven’t processed everything I’ve learned from that “vision quest” yet, but I know that the learning was deep and life-changing. I’ve been to a new and deeper place on my journey and I know that I will grow as a result.
I call myself a “guide on the path through chaos to creativity” because I know that meaningful creativity doesn’t come unless we’re willing to sit in the middle of the chaos, fear, despair, grief, and broken-heartedness. It’s like Spring coming after Winter. I’m in an emotional winter right now, but, just as I tell my clients, Spring is more beautiful because of the challenge of Winter.
Flowers will bloom again – I promise.