The human heart beats approximately 4,000 times per hour and each pulse, each throb, each palpitation is a trophy engraved with the words ‘you are still alive.’ You are still alive. Act like it. Rudy Francisco
I shared Rudy Francisco’s 2014 National Poetry Slam video on Salt Water’s social media again recently. I needed to listen to Rudy’s forceful message about what’s worth complaining about and what’s not. I needed reminding that mourning the absence of my first born child and experiencing moments of joy in the aftermath could live side-by-side. That my fierce desire to keep living despite the gaping hole in my heart was okay. That I wasn’t a bad person for fighting for a way forward. That I wasn’t somehow dishonoring Jimmy by trying to climb out of the pit instead of hunkering down and furnishing it.
The pain of losing one of your essential people is searing and paralyzing. It’s hard to get out of bed, much less take a shower, make breakfast, get through the day. Leaving the house is terrifying, the thought of seeing other people enough to make you want to pull the covers over your head. Grief over the death of your beloved child, husband, sibling, parent becomes all consuming, stripping everything from your life and making the world feel gray and unfriendly.
But over time, little by little, the color comes creeping back. Sharing a laugh with a dear friend, going for a hike, watching your daughter play softball, talking to someone who understands the depth of your pain, staring hard at a purple flower. Like someone with a spinal cord injury relearning how to walk, I have stumbled toward joy, over and over again.
When the loved one who dies is young, it’s easy to feel guilty for surviving. As parents, we would trade places with our children in a heartbeat if we could. We’re supposed to nurture our children, keep them safe and launch them into the world to live rich, long lives. When that doesn’t happen, even if we did everything we could to try to protect them, it’s easy to feel guilty, like there’s something wrong with us for continuing to breathe.
There’s a terrible tension between the attitude we sometimes encounter that it’s time for us to “move on” or “get over it” and the message from some grievers that if we start to find joy and meaning in our lives again, we’re dishonoring our loved ones who have died.
Jimmy told me during the final week of his life that whenever he saw an older person, he thought to himself, “You are so lucky to have lived so long.”
On my worst days, I think of Jimmy’s fierce desire to live and remind myself that I needed to find a way forward, a way to stay in the world despite my shattered heart. That I’m not honoring his big, rich, full life by curling up in a ball on the floor.
It would make him sad to know I blamed myself for his death. It would disappoint him to think that I had stopped living, when he never got that chance. I remind myself that I wouldn’t want that for him either. Would I want him to miss me, to think about me, to wish I was with him? Absolutely. But to stop living? Never.
Life is a gift. Even after a devastating loss, I am still alive. My goal is is to act like it.