I never understood grief before, as naturally, no one truly should. I never understood the depth of pain a person could feel. I never understood the uncanny, subconscious ebbs and flows that can incapacitate the griever at any given moment. I never understand how draining sorrow felt, because the griever never takes a break from exerting emotional energy, whether it’s living in the throes of early loss, or whether it’s trying to reemerge to the land of the living. However, the strangest phenomenon I never understood about grief is this: that gratefulness and sorrow can coexist within a broken heart.
The day after my son died was the first day I experienced this. When I kissed him goodbye for the last time, a tsunami of emotions engulfed me, and I helplessly succumbed, letting them wash me away. I was filled with deep sorrow, my limbs were stiff from shock, my heart felt cold, dry, suddenly forgetting how to beat. I walked and breathed and moved mechanically, on auto-pilot, in a heavy fog of darkness.
And yet, in the midst of the darkness, there was more, a concurrent experience of searing pain and quiet gratefulness.
The day after he died, I sat on the beige carpet of my tiny apartment, pictures of him strewn on the floor around me. My best friend beside me, piecing them into frames and collages, tears softly falling off my cheeks. We went about our work silently, as you often do in situations where all words fail. Every picture told a story, and I was the only person in the world who could recite it all. My mind recollected, and as the tears fell, little smiles spread across my face. I broke through the hush and told her story after story.
“This was the day I held him for five hours straight, with no bathroom breaks,” I said as I pointed to a picture of him cuddled into a tiny ball on my chest.
“This was the day I took him for a walk through the flower garden. He just stared wildly at everything.” After being trapped inside a hospital room, he had no idea how to react to the bright sun and fresh air.
“This was the day he pooped all over me. Twice.” I let out a small, hoarse laugh.
It was as though the dark curtains slowly were pulled away for only a moment, and joy joined heartache on the main stage. I was overwhelmed with pride in mothering a little boy who lived every day of his life exerting all the strength within him, sharing more joy than should be possible in someone suffering from sick lungs, and in being the recipient of that same boy’s love.
I was the one who stole his adoring gazes. I was the one who made his face light up when his eyes locked with mine. I was the one who held him closely, his head gently resting on the nape of my neck. I was his safest place. I was his person. I
was am his mother.
Thankfulness brewed within me as I thought about the six months and seventeen days I was able to hold his hand in this messy, beautiful world. Exactly two hundred days. Two hundred days, and my entire life was wrecked, hopelessly. And yet, as much as I wished that I could trade the shoes I was now filling, the shoes of the bereaved mother, I knew with utmost certainty and greatest conviction that I would never trade the role of being his mother: the only mother my son would ever had. And I was the only woman in the world to be given that privilege.
I hated my situation, and yet, I simultaneously felt like the luckiest woman in the world to know and love my son— the son whom I could no longer hold.
It’s been over a year since he’s been gone, and throughout this year, I’ve become intimately aware of the sacred dance between despair and gratefulness. I refuse to allow the tragedy of his death to negate the beauty of his life, the depth of his impact, and the sheer joy with which he lived his days. I refuse to allow the dark, necessary sides of grief to entirely overshadow the quiet whisper of gratefulness, appreciation, and gentle perspective that my son gave to me.
Like anything in life, grief is not one-dimensional. It’s complex. It’s not one thing or the other, it’s a coexistence, a powerful display of the deepest sorrow and the deepest love known to mankind.
Though we grieve, we do not have to be consumed. Deep pain and loss doesn’t have to paralyze us. It doesn’t have to embitter us or ruin us or sideline us forever. We may face irreplaceable losses and feel irretrievably broken so that the wholeness of our personhood is seemingly gone, and yet, adversity, loss, and heartache can carve us into gentler, more compassionate, more loving humans.
To be grateful and in grieving? I never understood it could be possible, and never, until loving and losing and still loving the one I can no longer hold.
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