This has been a time of transition, difficulty, and loss in our family. My older son is struggling to recover from hitting a major roadblock on his path to college. My younger son is working through the aftermath of his first great heartache after a breakup. I spent the past 48 hours on a marathon trip to and from the Cleveland Clinic with my father and sat with him as he made the very difficult decision not to treat a medical problem and to let the disease run its course.
There is no moving through this life without loss and pain. We have choices only in how we cope with it.
I grew up with a mother afraid of her own strong emotions. Perhaps her early personal losses, or the time she lived through made this so. Regardless, I have vivid memories of bringing her my own heartaches and losses and having them minimized.
“It’s not so bad.”
“You don’t really want that.”
“A year from now, it won’t matter anymore.”
While from a pragmatic standpoint, all of those statements may be true, that truth matters less than the underlying message I received: I couldn’t trust my own experience or emotions. It nearly crippled me.
It took me years of hard work to find and trust the core of myself. I still have to work hard at it. Long before I had children of my own, I swore I would never minimize their pain. Not that I would coddle them and go to that other extreme (‘oh, you poor thing, how terrible, let me make it all go away.’), but there is a middle path that acknowledges pain exists; pain of the heart as real as that of the bruised shin, broken bone, or burst appendix.
And another truth–you can’t compare pain. It’s all to easy from the jaded perspective of an adult to belittle those first experiences of loss. My 16 year old’s pain after his relationship ended is no less devastating to him than my experience of watching my mother’s dementia steal her from me. Loss is loss. Playing the oneupsmanship game only diminishes us.
I wanted my children to grow up experiencing both the joy of accomplishment as well as the desolation of failure. I ensured that we talked about both as a family. Along the way, in helping them navigate through their growing pains of the heart, I realized that my own heart had become more resilient, too.
I hope that I have given my children what they will need to move through their own heartaches, if not with grace, than a kind of balanced understanding.
I have come to believe we grow as human beings in facing the reality of loss and moving through it. I believe heartache stretches the container of our selves and leaves us expanded, with more room to feel. I believe this is our greatest strength, our greatest asset, and our greatest challenge.
Without the lessons we all taught one another, I would never have begun to trust my writing and my stories. I wouldn’t have been willing to risk failure or what I saw as the humiliation of rejection.
I wouldn’t have been able to sit with the terrible knowledge that my father will die, likely of the aneurism he has chosen not to treat. My heart hurts. I want to throw myself to the floor and kick and scream like a toddler in the grip of a tantrum. Instead, I gather up that toddler and hold her tightly. She will hurt, she will cry, she will rage, but she will be okay.