Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard. Kate Bowler
I grew up on quotes and motivational sayings. Not the cotton candy kind that leave you with a sugar hangover but the kind that encourage strength and striving while acknowledging how difficult life can be. Their overarching message was that while there will be stumbles, roadblocks, unfairness, sadness and heartache, life will even out in the end.
There is no loss out of which some gain does not come.
Living well is the best revenge.
This too shall pass.
Time heals all wounds.
Everything will look better in the morning.
Life never gives you more than you can handle.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
And for a long time, these platitudes helped. With a painful breakup, an abusive boss, a vengeful client, a dream job I couldn’t accept, a project I wasn’t chosen for. They inspired resilience, determination and a belief that better days were coming. They helped me believe that I had control over my life, and that there was nothing that could happen that I couldn’t fix, change or improve.
Once Jimmy died, the platitudes became a painful reminder of all that had forever changed and could never be made right again. They stopped helping and only added to my sadness. Whatever gain might come from my loss, the price is too high. The longing for my son isn’t going to pass. This wound isn’t going to heal. Jimmy’s death isn’t going to look better in the morning. And no amount of living well will ever make any of this okay.
Platitudes offer a silver lining and a focus on a future that promises to be better than the present. They are about fixing, putting a better face on it, bucking up, letting it go, shaking it off, moving on, getting over it. And they come with a not so subtle message that if you can’t or won’t do these things, there’s something lacking in you.
When faced with an irrevocable loss, what makes space for the grief, the sadness and ultimately, some degree of healing is truth. Life is hard. Life is unfair. Grief is painful. What’s happened cannot be fixed but it can be borne. We have to sit with the pain of what’s happened before we can find a way forward. We can’t change what we said or did or what we failed to say or do. We can only come to accept that we did our best in the midst of a terrible situation. It’s a state of helplessness that those of us who believe in platitudes aren’t used to. As humans, we like to think that we have control over what happens to us, and thus, an ability to change or improve it.
What moves me forward now is what Barbara Kingsolver calls “the subterranean ebb and flow of being alive among the living”. Over time, the light and beauty have come flooding back into my world. I remind myself how desperately Jimmy wanted to live, the way he envied older people and the long lives they’d had. I cling hard to what’s true about what I have now. That I am still alive despite missing such an critical part of me. That Dan has walked this path with me, despite his own pain. That we have found ways to grieve separately and together but have never let go of each other. That Molly is healthy and thriving, holding Jimmy close and living her own life at the same time.
Now, instead of trusting platitudes, I try to remain open to the truths. That my pain will continue to ease. That I can still laugh, find joy, dance. That there is a way forward, carrying the pain and longing for my son with me. That over time, I can access the happier memories and remember all that we shared together. That doing so will be a way to keep his spirit alive even though he’s no longer here. That this fragile, beautiful life remains a gift for as long as I’m here to live it.
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