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Two Empty Chairs

My name is Nicole, and I am a mother of two young men. One doesn’t walk this earth with me anymore. We lost Jackson a week after he’d returned from college. He had just graduated, and he’d just celebrated his 22nd birthday. I carry the grief and weight of his loss with equal measure to the joy and delight of witnessing his younger brother grow into a lovely young adult. I have a profession; I’ve started a blog, Down In Ink: Permanence In An Impermanent World. I am going back to school. But at my core, I am Jackson and Eiseley’s mom.

While 2020 will always be remembered as a horrible year in many ways, for us, 2019 was by far worse. We lost Jackson in June and my sister, Kathy, in November. One death sudden; the other slow and painful. Kathy had pancreatic cancer which is such a cruel way to have to die. On the evening she took her last breath, I think we all felt sadness and relief. Her suffering was over.

Two weeks after she passed, we sat at our Thanksgiving table. A somber event. Gratitude hard to muster up. The weight of those two empty chairs nearly unbearable. Continuing to breathe took concentration. An intention to stay present .. here. I have thought a lot about those chairs and what they represented for us. It was a holiday season of deep, personal grief. For us and for the many who were impacted by their lives.

The loss of each of them was immense. Each life creates a ripple effect when lost. The inner circle – our closest people. As the circles expand, there are extended family members, friends from all parts or times of our lives, people we worked with or went to school with, those we found through shared interests, etc. Kathy and Jackson were both friendly and outgoing. People connected with them. Their ripples ran wide and deep. Each death left permanent marks on many, many people. What I realized is that each empty chair does not equal one loss. It is equal to the number of people they impacted in some way in their lifetimes.

This year was different. COVID changed the dynamics. And, honestly, I was grateful for that. There were no expectations to go anywhere or plan events. Our loss is still palpable, but it made it easier to not have to sit at the big tables where we’d feel the heaviness of those empty chairs in the same way we did last year.

But, this year was different in another way, too. Now, many of us, are navigating new empty chairs. Nearly 350,000 at current count. Each person lost impacting the lives of many others; the ripples expanding. It really is too much. The weight is heavy. We are a wounded country. (World, really.) We are people experiencing grief in the midst of so much craziness. So many experiencing their own deep, personal grief along with a deep, collective grief.

If everyone can connect to Kevin Bacon within six degrees of separation, I would imagine that any one of us is within three degrees of a loss to COVID.

I have learned a lot about grief in the last year and a half. I’ve learned that grief demands to be heard. Demands to be felt. Time actually doesn’t heal all wounds, but with intention and willingness to participate in our own grief, we can learn to carry it forward with us. It may sit quietly for periods, but in an unexpected moment,  it will come banging on the door. It will drop you to your knees; it will punch you so hard you cannot breathe. What brings this about? Anything. Anytime. Anywhere. It has its own agenda. The amount of grief flowing in our country now is palpable. We each carry some. We each now sit in the unknown, wondering where our country will be in a year or five or more.

I attend a grief group for parents who have lost a child. The club no one wants to join. I find it comforting – albeit hard – to sit with others who truly understand what I am feeling. To sit with others who know they will never be the same. Shortly after Jackson died, we moved. I met one of the neighbors soon after, and she asked where we’d moved from. Instead, I told her why we’d moved. How we couldn’t live on the same street where the accident that took his life happened. She said they had friends who’d lost a son, and they were never the same. I really wanted to slap her in that moment. I didn’t want to believe that I’d never be the same; it felt scary and absolute. Many months later, I had a revelation. It is TRUTH. I never will be the same. And, why would I want to be? My life was permanently altered the day he was born; my life was equally altered the day he died. One a happy event, the other not.

Another thing I have gotten from grief is a greater capacity for compassion and a willingness to see the humanness in people and in myself. To be forgiving. The things that used to feel like a big deal just aren’t. Having said that, patience can be in short supply some days. I’ve had moments of great anger that show up without warning. I have said aloud to myself or in my head ‘fuck you!’ to many unsuspecting people.

For a long time after Jackson’s accident, I felt like I needed to tell everyone what happened, or I needed to wear a sign that said Be Kind to Me. I was fragile and lost and consumed with the pain of losing him and then losing her. That has changed. I don’t tell everyone I meet about my loss. I don’t feel fragile in all moments, many but not all. And, I find myself wanting to be kind to others as I know that I have no idea what they are going through or what pain they carry in their hearts.

Early in the pandemic, one of the fathers in my group shared a poem with us. It is called Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye. It became more well-known last summer when Emma Thompson was recorded reading it.

The line that has stuck with me: Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

I think often about this line as I watch the unfolding of the pandemic and the divisiveness in our country right now. Can we heal collective pain with a collective intent to be kind? It seems hard to imagine in this moment, but for those who have lost one of their people from COVID it hasn’t even been a year. And time in grief is much like time in COVID. There is the before time and the after time. There is the warped experience of time – what day is it? Each individual’s experience feels like yesterday and a really long time ago all at once.

At the end of the day, here is my belief. Grief can make us hard, or it can soften us. Or, sometimes maybe both in different ways.  How will all those empty chairs impact our collective lives? How will the ripples of pain and sadness and anger change us as a people? Will we find kindness as the deepest thing now that we’ve known such sorrow?

We are not going back to normal after this year. We will continue to live in the after time. We will need to find a way to manage grief and its impacts. We will need to make space for people to feel their grief and be patient when it may be inconvenient. We will need to see each person as a carrier of grief – even if they didn’t lose someone close during this pandemic. Because we all have lost this year.

There are more empty chairs to come in 2021. There will be more ripples expanding. Hold tenderly your heart and the hearts of those around you.

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