What My Friend's Death Taught Me About Grief
On September 4, 2012 my beautiful friend Emma died tragically from a deep vein thrombosis. She was 35, and seven weeks pregnant.
Her death broke the spine of my heart. I couldn’t write. Language seemed so inadequate, all human endeavor irrelevant. I stopped praying. I couldn’t feel gratitude. I felt abandoned by all I trusted — I’d been praying for ages for her to fall pregnant (she’d been struggling for years). Her seven-week pregnancy was the final blessed result of her sixth round of IVF. I couldn’t come to terms with the karmic injustice of it.
Unanswered questions about her death circled in my heart. But her wonderful husband, whom I love, retreated into his grief and hasn’t been able to stay in contact with any of her friends. The loss doubled.
The second anniversary of her leaving is approaching, and though my heart still shakes when I look at the picture of her with her big smile and red hair above my computer, I'm now finally able to feel some of the unexpected gifts grief has brought me:
1. My heart stayed wide open.
When we're broken, we are often broken open. This openness hasn’t changed — I feel the anguish of the world and don’t try to protect myself from it.
2. I connected deeply to the invisible.
I don’t know what happens after death, and whether this life is all we have, but now in everyday life, I feel joined to what I cannot see or touch. Call it spirit, angels, guides or just a sense of deep enlargement about how my mortal body is just a small expression of all that I am. I don't get so easily caught up in the dramas of trivial consternation.
3. My old griefs emerged, asking to be held and felt.
Emma’s death brought back a treasure chest of past losses. Grief is a magnet for all the past pain we’ve buried, allowing it to rise like a water table to the surface. And now I’m able to just sit with it and let it melt into me, instead of "trying to get over it" and "move on."
4. Finally, I found words.
for the longest time, grief numbed my ability to write. I would stare blankly at the computer screen, and nothing would come. It took me ages to find language again, to finally be able to squeeze something onto the page, something close to what is true about loss. And when the words came back, I wept with gratitude. It was like being reunited with a friend who has died and comes back in a dream.
5. I lost my fear of dying.
My Buddhist meditation and practice over the past 20 years has helped me make friends with the idea of death, but when Emma died, dying didn’t feel so scary anymore, because she was already there, holding the space. Death became inhabited with friendship. It now feels as if there’s someone waiting to welcome me when I cross that threshold.
6. I made new friends.
After Emma died, I sent out a newsletter to my mailing list about grief. As a result, my publisher asked me to write a blurb for a book called BOY, by Kate Shand, about the suicide of her 14-year-old son. Through that, Kate and I became friends. Our friendship transcends the noise and fuss and dramas of other interactions. It holds me steady. Some of the conversations about parenting we’ve had have transformed me as a mother.
7. I felt a sense of connection to all humans.
I’m able to see and feel the grief each heart holds, in some small echo of the Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami, who was told to bring a handful of mustard seeds from a family where no one had died so that Buddha would bring her only child back to life (of course she couldn’t find such a household, and through this, became enlightened).
We are all struggling to survive the ongoing trauma each loss brings. We all share the horror — and beauty — of fragile impermanence on this earth. Knowing this, I soften to all people, and loving — even the curmudgeons, the ignorant racists and those who hate me (because of my religion, my political views, my weight, my opinions, my age, my accent or any other) — comes easily to me.