Grief over the loss of a loved one cuts deep to the core; sometimes there just isn’t enough time together.

My guest today, Kathryn Clarke, writes eloquently about allowing pain to polish us as we journey through grief.

Kathryn Clarke

Kathryn Clarke

Terry Tempest Williams wrote that endings are often difficult to detect.  This one, though, I saw coming. My mother’s belly enlarged as if she were pregnant, but her cheeks were sunken, her eyes glassy.  When her oncologist called me on a sunny afternoon in November and told me there was nothing more that could be done to treat her lymphoma, my voice was steady, although I found it difficult to breathe. “Yes, I know. Thank you for trying.”

Denial can be an enticing elixir, but I didn’t need to be a nurse to know my mother was dying. She had received care from the finest doctors in the finest cancer centers in the world.  And she was dying of her disease.

Years earlier, when I was 14, we had traveled to Mexico to escape the Minnesota winter.  Coming from a land of frozen lakes I immediately sought out the beach, where the ocean glistened in the afternoon sun. Without hesitation I flung myself into the warm, foamy water.  A wave almost immediately crashed about me and sent me tumbling beneath the surface.  I tried to swim away but there was nothing I could do. 

The water churned and churned and I spun somersaults under the surface until suddenly, as if I were a toy tossed away by a tempestuous toddler,  the ocean deposited me on the beach with sand in every orifice of my body.  My mother laughed hysterically from her safe spot on a beach towel. Next time, she cried, dive UNDER the wave!

We speak in oncology of battles: the war against cancer, the fight for a cure. And it is a fair metaphor; some live, some die, and cancer changes everyone touched by the diagnosis.  But sometimes we are faced not with a battle, but with a tsunami, a massive earthquake, a smothering volcano.  

We can drip water on the roaring blaze, we can dive deeply and swim with all our might, we can desperately throw sticks at the mountain. But in the grip of great and terrible forces, the most earnest of human efforts are futile. In the grip of these terrible forces, we become aware at how helpless we really are.

I wish my mother was still alive. But the anguish of her illness and death has tumbled me into a new and better life. 

I was helpless to save her, but I can make decisions in my life which promote my own happiness.

I may not be able to swim against the tides, but I can soak up the warm sunshine and dance in the rain. I cannot save those that I love from illness, but I can fully appreciate the laughter of friends, a bird-song piercing the silence in an Aspen forest, the juice of a ripe strawberry. I have seen in these murky waters who I really am: helpless yet powerful, fragile yet resilient.

I believe we can shine in the wake of those losses which shake us to the core. Fierce currents may pull us from our safe havens of peace and contentment, and we will be spun into a chaotic tumble.  And we will fall and we will be knocked about and we will feel pain and lose direction. But these currents will bring us to more beautiful shores and polish us into lovely sea glass if we let them.

How about you?  How have you been polished by loss?

You can find Kathryn Clarke blogging at “Born by a River”.