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Living with an unbearable loss

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Moving forward into the life you create in the wake of loss

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Teaching Myself Joy

Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job or a limb or a loved one, a graduation, bringing a new baby home: it’s impossible to think at first how this will be possible. Eventually what moves it all forward is the subterranean ebb and flow of being alive among the living.

In my own worst seasons, I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining some parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy over and over again. Barbara Kingsolver

Each of us has people in our lives who bring us joy and lift our spirits. Some of them are beloved family members or dear friends. Others are people we rely on in small but important ways. When we face hardship or tragedy, life reminds us to thank the people who support and take care of us. We need them. They show up. And we are so very grateful. But there are so many other good people in our lives that we don’t think to thank for the ways their kindness brings joy to our lives.

Recently, I went in for my annual exam. The nurse who took me back to the exam room has worked in that office since I was pregnant with Jimmy. The doctor I see bought the practice from the ob/gyn who delivered my children but studies his notes and his patients’ charts carefully so it’s as if he’s been there all along. Both he and his nurse never fail to ask how I am emotionally as well as physically and then listen as if they had all of the time in the world.

When we lived in Oregon, I mailed my letters at the tiny post office housed in the grocery store where I shopped. I became friendly with one of the people who worked there, who turned out to have worked with my brother-in-law. When Jimmy began fundraising for LIVESTRONG she donated every year. And when we celebrated his life, she came and brought her husband and brother, who had also been donating to Jimmy year after year.

My parents were the ones who taught me to take an interest in other people. They both made the time to get to know the people that worked for them throughout the 56 years they lived in the house I grew up in. Their gardener who immigrated from Japan, never attending college himself but putting all four of his children through both undergraduate and graduate school. Their handyman who became a dear friend, dropping everything in later years to build a ramp or install a handrail. My mother could tell you what her housekeeper’s husband did for a living (he spent his days with a crew of men, painting the Golden Gate Bridge), how many grandchildren her hairdresser had and what their names were. They also knew their neighbors well, many of whom stopped by the house after Mom died to share stories I hadn’t heard and to tell me how much they adored her.

Yellow hair box with "J" and "S" on the tails of the underlying bow with a white bow on top

As I fought to get out of the pit after Jimmy died, I realized how much the kindness of people I didn’t know well or at all meant and how much small gestures could lift my spirits and bring moments of joy to my life. A text sent out of the blue inquiring how I was or sharing a memory of Jimmy. A loaf of zucchini bread, still warm from the oven, handed to me after a long walk by a dear friend. A bouquet of flowers sent by the team at UCSF’s Family House after they learned that Jimmy had died. A neighbor putting away our trash cans on a day when I felt too sad to leave the house. A mom and her daughter making yellow and white JimmySTRONG hair bows for Molly and her teammates to wear at a softball tournament. A fellow customer at Raley’s inviting me to go ahead of him on a day when being out in public was hard. The hearty thank you! or warm smile from someone I opened a door for or the cheery wave of the driver I allowed to merge into my lane on a crowded freeway. Reminders of the essential goodness of other people and of how much a smile or kind gesture can lift a flagging spirit or help heal a broken heart.

A bouquet of yellow and orange flowers with one purple flower and a card in a glass vase sitting on a brown marble kitchen countertop

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