“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, a blessing and a curse.”
Emily Dickinson once famously wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops at all.” But if that is hope, then grief is a thing made of iron that smells like pennies and tastes like burnt, bitter coffee.
I am very good at sadness. It means I find it easy to write from a place of pain.
What I’m not as good at is sharing it. I am very possessive of my grief. I own it. I disappear into it. I write about it, but don’t truly show it to anyone, not even my husband.
I’ve written about grief before, but I’ve never written about the benefits of grief. Why ever not? This is something I’ve thought about a great deal, and decided to dedicate this small article to the topic.
My grief was my blanket, for about a full year after I had my stillborn daughter, Ruthie. My grief was soothing and smothering me in equal measures. It was both a blessing and a curse.
The curse of death, especially of a child one is expecting to be happy and healthy, is obvious. I built up a whole world around the child in my belly — her name, her room, even her future. I saw her cry, laugh, run, jump, fall, ride a bike, eat ice cream, go to school, travel, make friends, marry, have children of her own. She was going to be a blessing to us in our lives, in our old age — and a friend to our first child, our daughter Riva. To lose that, to lose the whole world, even though that world was in our minds only, is a loss so devastating your world becomes “before” and “after.”
What possible blessing comes from such a tragedy? I had the blessing of a loss of anger and road rage for a year — just like that (snap of the fingers). To live with pain is to live in the present, breathing becomes an act of conscious will. I became my pain, and the world slowed down to a crawl.
The first gift that grief gave me was living in the moment — feeling that each activity, each interaction, each moment of life was special and precious. Playing with Riva, taking a walk, washing dishes, reading — these normal, everyday things took on a sheen of the extraordinary — the mundane took on the luster of the sacred. The crunch of a carrot, the sip of cold water on a hot day, the sound of rain on the room, the warmth of the fireplace fire — they were miraculous, and I appreciated each heartbeat of it. At times, even the air seemed to shimmer, as a sheer curtain that fluttered around me, because each moment mattered.
Some people mention a transformation of faith — either strengthened or diminished after a tragedy. It is difficult to talk about the sacred for me, an atheist. Since I neither got more nor less religious after this death, there was no peace to be found in prayer. Indeed, prayer itself was meaningless. But I was as insulated in my grief as I was above it: I watched myself as if from a distance. When I was speaking in English, I heard my slight accent, as if I was pretending to belong. And speaking in Russian felt foreign, my mouth formed the words in that hard, harsh language without my mind’s involvement.
My husband and I were given another gift by our grief — we were given more compassion than we ever thought possible to feel. After you have had the worst days of your life, you start to realize that you cannot really know what another person is going through. You cannot weigh, analyze, or fairly judge their situation, so you have to be kind and give others a break. I do say, “The fuck we needed that much compassion,” but it was gifted to us without us asking for it.
I was given clarity — I had my grief, my husband his. We leaned on each other, finding strength in our love. But I was careful, always careful, not to lean too much, not to pull away too much. There was a line, nearly visible to me, that I never allowed myself to cross. If it sounds calculating, it was, but I did not do it out of cruelty or coldness — I did it so I could be a worthy partner to a good husband and a good father. Jeff needed me nearly as much as I needed him — I was not going to burden him with my burden. I wanted to lift up, not drag down.
The next best gift of this misfortune and heartbreak was the overwhelming gratitude I had for my life, my Jeff and my Riva, my parents.
Sometimes, I think I would give up right pinky to have an unmixed blessing. But as in so many things in life, duality of nature dominates. When the pleasure bell rings, the pain bell echoes. Perhaps we are not meant to ever have one without the other.