Recently, our family experienced a devastating loss. Precious little Gabrielle, only eight months old, slipped away from us in her sleep. She was such a bright light while she was here, and I have come to wonder if such a bright light is destined to burn only a short while. Nonetheless, grappling with this kind of loss is extraordinarily difficult at best.
I never had a chance to meet the baby before she passed away, and yet I was struck by how deeply the loss affected me. I did not have a conceptual place for the baby’s death in the organization of my life. It was so easy to welcome her existence into our lives, and yet I found it nearly impossible to accept her departure. We live in a society that embraces youth, and pushes death away at every corner. It is as if we create a make-believe reality in which the possibility of death does not exist.
I believe that part of our obsession with keeping death at bay, is adaptive, and a matter of survival. As living creatures, we have a basic instinct to stay alive at all costs. When our children are born, that instinct evolves into a desire to keep them alive at all costs. What are we to do when, despite our best efforts, death finds us anyway?
I have begun to see that life, however fleeting, is a blessing. I have long believed that there is a purpose to our existence. I have also long ago stopped pretending that I might have any idea what that greater purpose is. This simple acceptance of the mystery has brought me great peace. I do not need to know what the meaning of life is, in order to appreciate it. I don’t need to know why Gabrielle died, in order to feel the love and the blessing that was her brief existence.
The truth of the matter is, death is a part of life. Acceptance of this can end a deep internal struggle. It does not mean that you are eager to lose those that you love. It does not mean that you are in a hurry to leave yourself. What it does is calm the desperate, fearful animal inside that claws through everyday, thinking it can control life and avoid death. We can’t. What we can control is how we chose to live the life we are given.
Letting go is a skill. People have given me strange looks when I suggest that letting go takes practice. The very definition of letting go implies it is simple and final. But I have learned that I have to continually remind myself to let go. It takes time. And it is a process that one must be patient with. Letting go, does not mean forgetting, or devaluing. In fact, honoring the importance of a feeling, a past event, or a loved one can help us let go. What we let go of is the pain associated with thinking we could have changed the past.
I have also found that avoiding grief is like avoiding death. Like death, grief is inevitable, and the longer one tries to control it, or pretend it doesn’t exist, the longer one suffers. I don’t pretend to know the “right” way to grieve. It is a different process for everyone. The key is allowing oneself to grieve. And through that grief we can remember that we were given a chance to love that deeply.
In the delicate moonlight I stood along the bank of the Roaring Fork river, laid a beautiful yellow rose, as sunny as Gaby’s own smile, into the rushing waters, and I said goodbye. Learning to live with death requires an acceptance of certain loss and pain, but through death new life can be born, and through pain new depths of love and joy can be discovered.
Following is a list of books, and resources that I have found useful in the process of dealing with all kinds of loss and life changes.
The Courage to Grieve
by Judy Tatelbaum
Anatomy of the Spirit
by Caroline Myss, Ph.D
Living With Joy: Keys to Personal Power and Spiritual Transformation
by Sanaya Roman
From Panic to Power : Proven Techniques to Calm Your Anxieties, Conquer Your Fears, and Put You in Control of Your Life
by Lucinda Bassett
The Dragon Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
by Alan Cohen
Chop Wood, Carry Water
by Rick Fields