December 2021: Grief – The Unwanted Gift
Wintertime, holiday traditions, the season of giving. Many of our celebrations looked different last year if we gathered at all. My Christmas 2020 was a drive-up take-out meal eaten at home with my husband and a masked gift exchange with our respective parents in the snowy driveway through a car window. The phone calls and text messages did not fill in the gaps as usual as our low-tech relatives preferred not to Zoom. The loss of time together brought unwanted grief and longing for past Christmases I took for granted.
COVID-19 keenly arranged empty chairs for future holiday gatherings. More unwanted grief – loved ones gone forever or lost to the discourse around vaxxing and anti-vaxxing, masking and unmasking, the pandemic like a lightning bolt striking individual family members and the family tree in a single flash, splitting the trunk in half, our connective roots feeling the grief in our hearts beneath the surface that our scarred, exposed branches could not wrap our minds around.
Grief and loss are not new to this season but their presence this year is palpable. Collective loss of life, unmended family fractures, individuals grieving for people living and dead, grieving for communities fragmented and left frail, grieving for the cover-lies we believed now shattered, exposing ugly truths that cannot be unseen. So where is the gift in this unwanted grief?
There is gift in sharing lost loved ones with the living. My husband, Kendal, lost two of his brothers in two traffic accidents several years apart by his seventeenth birthday. Kendal was nineteen when we began dating. Through Kendal and the rest of his family, I feel like I knew his brothers even though I never met them. There are pictures, stories (both brags and silly anecdotes) and never a hesitation saying their names or sharing a memory, be it happy or sad. The brothers are part of the present-day family narrative.
There is gift in remembering how lost loved ones touched our lives. When my sister-in-law passed away suddenly a few years ago I stated then what still holds true today, “I would not trade today’s grief for the void of never having known her.” Yes, her loss is huge and painful, but we also shared more blessings than my grief could ever negate. Missing her makes her life no less of a treasure, nor diminishes her positive impact on my life.
There is gift in seeing truth, however ugly. Breaking through denial is the first step in repairing and healing our relationships, and at times this repairing and healing occurs only on our end. When the healing is one-sided, we can leave space for those who still live in denial without joining their delusion. It is easier to extend compassion to the other person when we see denial as a wound coping mechanism rather than a character flaw, honoring the healing they have left to do, knowing how hard healing is having done the work ourselves.
As Lois Tonkin, a grief counselor explains, “People tend to believe that grief shrinks over time. What really happens is that we grow around our grief.” Our capacity to expand our hearts and widen our embrace to include grief deepens us, stretches us, broadens us, allowing us to hold more love than we ever thought possible.
There is the gift. The unwanted gift. The gift we cannot return or exchange. If I cannot have my loved one with me, if I must hold the grief of their absence, I must also ensure I redeem the gift – the gift of expanded love that includes my love for them alive within me, with room to spare.