A number of years ago, long before cancer was even a part of our vocabulary, years before John was even diagnosed, I took part in our hospice organization’s first Children’s Bereavement Camp. As part of the weekend activities, the children were to create their own grief masks as a way of expressing what they could not express in words.
In order to help them, the art teacher felt that we, the buddies and counselors, needed to experience the process ourselves, in advance. It was partially about understanding the mechanics of working with paper mache, but on a deeper level, it was an engrained part of the philosophy of our hospice that we cannot skillfully help others in their grieving process until we have worked through our own grief.
Just last week, while re-arranging and sorting through the external aspects of this new life of mine, I came across that grief mask that I created in 2 hours time so many years ago. I was struck by how still-relevant my symbolic representation of my grief at that time was to the way that I view my new life as a widow:
My life symbolized in a mask— the tears that I shed, the clouds that still drift across my emotional landscape, the awe-inspiring rainbows that accompany those clouds, and the reality of what I only dreamed of at that time: the unimaginable gift of how that grief has shaped me into a stronger, more resilient and deeper human being.
I must admit that, in my pre-widowhood days, I thought that the people who talked about carrying their deceased loved ones in their hearts forever had succumbed to wishful thinking. My thinking has been radically changed as a result of my own experience. Let me preface that by saying that John and I could not have been two more different people. Many friends found it rather amazing that we were married at all, let alone married for more than 40 years.
John was uber-pragmatic, convinced that everything could be understood through rational analysis; I was more drawn to the existential realms of the spirit. He was profoundly biased towards a fundamentally conservative point of view; I was decidedly more liberal. If John had a mantra, it was “Shit happens”; he always mocked what he referred to as my “Magic happens” philosophy. When death began to enter our lives in the form of bad things happening to good friends, John was quick to offer support in his own unique way, telling them, “You can count on me to help in any way I can, with financial arrangements, wills, trusts— but if you need emotional support, Rachel is the one you need to talk to.”
Two utterly different people, John and I. Yet who I am today is profoundly, mind-bogglingly influenced by and intermingled with whatever that is that is the essence of John. I continue to be astonished (not really a strong enough word— just because it seems so preposterous, and yet luminously beautiful to me) by just how much I actually think like John now, 2 years after his death. When this comes up in conversation with dear friends, I ask if they notice that I sound a lot like John— to which they chortle and agree with the same incredulity that I feel.
This has been an incredibly reassuring and comforting revelation for me, one that leaves me, in many ways, not feeling nearly as alone and bereft as I might have imagined 2 years ago. So for those who are not yet at the point where I find myself today, it is my fervent hope for you that you discover, as I have, that grief contains some hidden and breathtakingly beautiful gifts within its harsh exterior.