We light candles for our dead.
We light them for the grief that holds the living.
We light them to bring hope
in a dark, uncertain time.
Scripture tells us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Because we drag bags of guilt around behind us, often for no good reason, we tend to focus on the neighbor part of this, feeling that we already focus too much on our own lives, and we should be more aware of the struggles of our neighbors and do more to help them. Yet there is a difference between doing things and nurturing, both for them and for ourselves.
Before dawn, fog from the distant river drifts up the hill, filling the woods behind my house. It’s a bit gloomy, but it’s also mysterious, like something’s afoot. Yesterday there was sunshine, and the brightness brought a surge of energy. Today, not so much. I want to put on a sweater, sit on the deck, sip hot tea, and use the fog as an excuse to remember how life used to be.
This is a big step when you’re grieving because you don’t have as many friends as before, because when you started talking about grief, some of your friends edged for the exits because death talk made them uncomfortable. Early in grief, when the darkness descends in mist, so many emotions are surging through you that you’re not sure what your main emotion is. You don’t want to frustrate your friends with inexactitude, but it seems like there are a dozen emotions all fighting for the top spot, so you talk about them all.
Theatre of the Absurd for a time, or we’re still standing on the street trying to look cool, wanting, not wanting, to peek in.
We can observe someone hunched over, sobbing with emotions, hands clenching and unclenching, face wet with tears, and know what grief looks and sounds like from the outside.
The future can be limited by our fears.
When I was going through grief and needed relief from sorrow, several science fiction movies and TV shows kept my spirits up. As their stories became part of my life, I came to think of their characters as real. In Doctor Who, one of the shows on the BBC, River Song says, ‘Aren’t we all just fairy tales?’ They were certainly better companions than some of my friends who disappeared because they were scared of grief. Behind the characters were flesh and blood writers, people who understood the nuances of grief.
We are the sum of our stories.
Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books have been part of my library since college when I tacked a 3x5-foot poster of Middle Earth to my apartment wall. Later they would shore me up when my wife died young because they were stories of physical adventures, and with my mind unable to grasp what had happened, I needed to be physical but rather than battle orcs, ogres, and trolls, I went hiking in the wilderness. Recently I watched the movies again and was struck by how ordinary people did what needed to be done, even though they were scared and didn’t think they had the required skills or strengths. But they gathered their courage and stepped forward. It was also clear that even in the movies where characters often miraculously survive, people I cared did die, even if they were fighting for good causes. The writers got that part right, too.
On Doctor Who, the Doctor has companions he loves as they travel around the cosmos with him. When they leave him to get on with their lives, he grieves their loss. But when Amy and Rory die because of the Weeping Angels, the Eleventh Doctor is so devastated that he gives up saving the universe and hides away as a monk. Until Clara shows up. Because of her compassion, his humor returns (“Bow ties are cool!”) and he opens his heart to caring again. Even when they seemed doomed and survival impossible, the Doctor says, “We are not helpless.” and together they figure a way out.
To be fearful of something is where the adventure begins, if we have the courage to take that first step.
Perhaps what appeals to us most about science fiction and fantasy stories, besides the epic adventures, is that they are often vision quests. You probably grew up hearing about teenage Native Americans being sent into the wilderness to receive the vision that would guide the rest of their lives. Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) explored the similarities of these quests in many cultures, and his work inspired the Star Wars movies, which inspired new generations of those who believe in responding when people are being abused.
When grief strikes, the future we expected with that person is swept away, and what we desperately need, after the shock and numbness have worn off, is a new vision to guide us, a new direction to head, or a new purpose that brings energy and excitement back into our lives.
We are limited only by our imaginations. If we can dream something new, it can happen.
We would all like to live long lives, although that’s not really the point of living. What we want more is to live lives of meaning. The rock climbers I camped with in Yosemite saw life as an adventure, and when I was mired in the doldrums of grief, they encouraged me to take more risks when I hiked. For themselves, they felt that they had to risk falls, broken bones, ripped tendons, even death if they were going to discover what they and life were made of. At the end of their lives, they wanted to look back without regret for opportunities they could have taken.
In movies and TV shows, people took deep breaths and stepped forward into the unknown, even though they were scared and didn’t know if they would survive. This is what confronts those who grieve every day. There were times when I didn’t know how I was going to make it through. It takes an enormous amount of courage to walk into public with grief filling our eyes as we shop for groceries and search for reasons not to give up.
It also takes courage to listen to someone who is grieving, knowing that you can’t take their pain away, and knowing that you don’t know what words will comfort them.
Death is not the enemy of living. Settling for a dull life is. Do something each day that takes your breath away.