I read an article once with the title “Grieving Someone Alive.” I didn’t find the contents of that article particularly interesting or helpful, but the concept stuck with me. No one really talks about grieving people who are still alive. But it’s a real experience that just about everyone goes through, especially victims of divorce. I believe the topic deserves a little more attention. Who knows, validating real life problems could help someone, in some way.
I sat down by a river, concealed from the forest path by foliage in case anyone should pass. Finally alone, I waited for my heart to explain itself to my brain. I had been feeling down for a full three days without understanding why. What was wrong with me? I was in New Zealand, camping out at a beautiful spot after completing one of the best hikes of my life. I should be thrilled. But I just couldn’t shake the inner heaviness that kept joy at bay.
Quiet and solitude would be the trick; it’d pull out the subconscious struggles I couldn’t figure out. Tears began to fall. “Ah, we are getting somewhere now!” I thought. “Okay, it’s coming out. What is all this from? Why am I sad?!” A pale complexion framed by blonde hair crossed my mind’s eye and -as cliché as the phrase is- struck a chord with my sadness. Remembering Lydia explained the stone stuck in my gut.
Lydia, my sister, was still alive and well. But she had gradually fallen out of my life, starting when I was 13 years old. About six years older than me, Lydia left home at age 18 to finish high school while living with a friend’s family. Sadly, instead of attending school, she filled the time with drugs and fell into alcohol abuse. After that, I only saw her during visits in mental hospitals, rehabs, and halfway houses. She became the victim of a hard life, and I was just the baby sister with a sweet, carefree life. Or so she decided to believe. Her resentment of my easy life hardened her to me and we were never quite sisters again.
Three days ago, I met a young, newly-wedded Canadian couple at another campground. He was named Reid and she was Carissa. Her hair was blonde, her complexion pale, and her age just about tied with my sister’s. They invited me to hike New Zealand’s famous Tongariro Crossing, plus the volcano Mount Doom with them. We hiked together for about ten hours the next day, I running to keep up with their long-legged strides. Getting to the top of that active volcano was one of the coolest things I had ever done. And since the Canadians were both Christians, we had some great conversations and a fun time together. Yet, without consciously realizing it myself, their presence provoked my ignored grief. They reminded me of someone I loved and had lost, but hadn’t finished grieving.
It wasn’t just that Carissa was blonde and looked similar to my sister. It was more the fact that she was Lydia’s age and had just gotten married. I had received news that Lydia had gotten married recently too. The difference was that Carissa celebrated her special day with all her friends and family. For one of the most momentous decisions of her life, I hadn’t been invited to attend or participate in Lydia’s wedding at all. However, I never grieved over it, because Lydia was alive. But apparently to my heart, this was another death, another level of separation, another loss.
Losing someone alive means you don’t only resign yourself to knowing you’ll never have their presence or participation in another special event nor in life’s mundanity, as you must when losing a loved one to physical death, but you lose them profoundly again and again as each holiday or experience that you should have shared together passes. They celebrate a birthday, so do you. But neither of you celebrate together. You not only lose the person, but the experiences that keep happening, the life that continues unshared.
I sat, in the quiet, by that river because I had forgotten to properly grieve another significant loss. My heart, it seems, understood better than my brain. I had lost the joy of sharing in a new chapter of Lydia’s life. Clarissa and Reid, while recounting their wedding day to me, reminded me of how family life should be. It’s never perfect, but when together, family can be such an empowering, beautiful thing.
Our society understands grieving the passing of a family member lost to death. Some companies even extend a grace period to employees dealing with the death of a loved one. But losing loved ones, not to death, but through divorce, distance, misunderstandings, bitterness or other means, more often leaves people shifting to deal with their grief alone, unsupported and unacknowledged.
Since expression of grief helps us on the road to healing, let’s not forget to allow ourselves and others to also grieve those who have exited our lives alive. And not just once, but with keeping in mind that you may need to grieve just as much years later as the day they left.
The end goal of course is learning to push forward and embrace all the joys of today, leaving what’s been lost behind. I don’t mean to imply that we will be grieving forever, but, to use another cliché expression, the key to moving on is truly in letting go. All I mean to say is that sometimes in the rush to move on, we skip over letting go in our hearts, where it matters most. Validate the situation by facing the loss and pain it puts you through. It is a kind of death. It is a mountain to get over before healing sets in.
Sometimes we run up volcanoes and get busy with life, thinking if we move, our hearts will move on too. But I think the help we need more often comes from quiet moments spent beside rivers, taking stock and acknowledging what’s been lost, but then standing up, dusting off, ready to step into the better things that lie ahead.
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
~C. S. Lewis
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”