Recently, my 8-year-old daughter Maddie came home with a school assignment, to make a Mother's Day card. She didn't know what to do. You see, Maddie's mom, my wife Cecily, died 6 years ago, when Maddie was only 2. Maddie was matter-of-fact about it: "Why do I have to make a card if I don't have a mother?" I, on the other hand, fell backwards in time, to the morning I saw Cecily die. From there, it was a short tumble back into the memory of grief overwhelming me to the point where, if not for our little girl, I don't know how I would have gone on. I studied my grief as I was in it, and I've thought a great deal about it since. These days, though, it doesn't take a reminder of Cecily's death to make me cognizant of grief. Grief surrounds me. I see it in my friends, my colleagues, in the news, in the culture. And the grief I see has little directly to do with death.
In The Grief Recovery Handbook, John James and Russell Friedman define grief as "the conflicting feelings caused by a change or an end in a familiar pattern of behavior." Clearly, grief by this definition exceeds its popular sense of relating only to death. Divorce, betrayal, loss of job, home, or savings, all are cause for grief.
"These are the times that try men's souls," said Thomas Paine in 1776. I doubt there has been a time before or since that didn't feel that way to many people. My parents grew up in the Great Depression, my father living his entire childhood in a 500 square-foot dustbowl shack with nine siblings. Comparatively few in the U.S. grow up in such straits now, but there is nothing un-trying about the effect of today's times on men's souls. The past few years have left many Americans grieving the radical changes enforced on them by economics, war, weather, and our own diminished faith in our ability to interact humanely with one another.
When a woman loses the job that provides her family's sustenance, when a man learns he must leave his family for a third or fourth tour in an unpopular war, when the lifetime savings of seniors evaporate due either to the crass willingness of Wall Street to make bad bets or the mortal sin of conniving fraudsters, the nation itself grieves. And every person's grief is individual and felt 100 percent. There are no levels of grief. When the heart is pummeled and bruised, it hurts deeply, no matter the cause.
So how to deal with this grief? By sitting in sackcloth and ashes, bewailing fate and cursing one's betrayers? I find nothing helpful there. To me, life is not back there, with death and loss. Life lies ahead.
The morning Cecily died, family and friends gathered at the hospital. After we said our goodbyes to her, we milled about, reluctant to leave, to admit that there was no saving her, no bringing her back, no returning for another visit. No one wanted to be first to abandon her. Finally, my closest friend pointed down the hall away from Cecily's room and said, "Life's that way. Let's go."
"Life's that way." Those words became that day the watchwords of my life and remain so today. As Tom indicated that morning in a hospital hallway filled with grief, life is found by moving toward it, not in surrendering to the depredations that accompany it.
Life is that way -->. Life is a goal, not a passage or a receding image of what once was. And the path is lit by determination and by forgiveness.
Forgiveness? Yes. Forgiveness isn't just something we do for others. It's something we do for ourselves. Forgiveness is the refusal to continue being hurt by an injustice. In the loss of my wife, I found peace through the act of forgiveness, by forgiving her for the mistakes she made in our life, and by forgiving myself for my foolishness and the pain I caused her. We can only move toward life, as individuals or a nation, by refusing to lean into pain, refusing to choose to be hurt, refusing to continue being injured by past injustice. Worldwide we see evidence of man's tendency to be unforgiving. From the Middle East to Ireland and all points between in either direction, man continues to hold grudges, to be hurt by deeds committed so long ago that they sometimes disappear, leaving only the pain behind. Justice must be served, of course, and I don't suggest that we idly watch evil go unchastised. But until we learn, as men, women, and nations to forgive and move forward, we will never know which way to go. Once we let go of unfairness and unjustness and move forward, the path will reveal itself.
Life's that way -->.
Jim Beaver is the author of the memoir Life's That Way. He is also an actor known for his leading roles on Deadwood and Supernatural.