I’ve been struck with the truth recently that the more people I connect to in my life, the more potential there is for grief. I wasn’t expecting this.
I’ve suspected for some time that the other side of love is grief; the other side of gratitude is grief; grief is present simmering under the surface of everything. Now, as I feel myself living in community with more people, opening my heart more, I am aware that each connection breaks me open in some way. Every time I love someone, however briefly or however long, loss is already mapped somewhere in our future. Sometimes birth and death, creation and destruction exist in the same short breath, in the same glance. Sometimes grief is a brief moment of heartache, sometimes it is weeks of wild railing against the impossibility of life.
And so the challenge is to have the courage to keep opening my heart and moving forward. Not to close up, not to retreat, not to steel myself against the potential for pain.
Right now I’m seeing three of my closest friends, three of a close community within a community, moving away within a few months of each other. Each departure or anticipation of it brings grief. There is no way around it. I see that each person has a part of their story that is pulling them away from here, from me. I need to let them go, to let our bonds stretch and trust that they will not break.
But I am not good at non-attachment. I am always attached to people, to experiences. I want to hold on. I stamp my feet and cry and don’t want beautiful things to end. Shouldn’t I have by this moment in my life learned to let go? And yet, there is no point arguing against the truth that I haven’t, not in my heart.
I want all of the people I love to live in a village around me so I can walk to each house every day to drink tea, knit, laugh, cry, plant seeds and harvest them, celebrate and mourn, hold babies and listen to the stories of elders. This is not actually going to happen. There are cars and phones and internet connections, but I want to look into people’s eyes and hold their hands. I crave their physical presence. And yet in the end, I will take whatever substitute is available. I will integrate the changes.
But every departure, every impossible possibility, every fleetingly perfect connection is in some way a small rehearsal for the bigger griefs that will inevitably come. I break apart over and over again, and then I put myself back together, and I think each time I’m better for it, but it hurts. It’s frightening to realize, although also blindingly obvious, that a good life will never mean a life free of pain.
I am blessed right now with many people I trust, many people I can confide in, many people who I can laugh and cry with, many people who I love. But loving more people doesn’t mean that I love any one of them less. Each person is in their own way irreplaceable. And the more love, the more potential for grief.
Last week my son Malcolm, a six-year-old philosopher, said to me “People think that love is great romances, but love is what happens when you die.” This stopped my breath for a minute, because it was bigger than I could understand. “But what if I say I love you? Isn’t that true?” I asked. “Yes” – he, impatiently – “you do love me, but you won’t understand the meaning of love until you’re dying.”
If you finally know love when you die, I thought, you begin to know death when you love.