One time, my son, Spencer, and I walked on the beach in Pajero Dunes, near Monterey, CA. My son must have been about five years old at the time, and he had a plastic bag he was using to collect shells and rocks as we walked. After about two miles, we turned around and headed back. By this point, the plastic bag was full and heavy. The bag was so heavy, Spencer couldn’t carry it and was dragging it along the beach, which caused the bag to tear open, rocks and shells spilling out, so we stopped.
I sat down on the beach with him, and we looked through the bag together. He was visibly upset and near tears that he was losing some of the treasures. I reached into the bag and pulled out a rock.
“OK. Why did you pick up this rock?”
“It’s shaped like a turtle,” he said, and so it was.
“OK, that’s special. Let’s keep it. What about this one?”
“Because it is a pretty white with sparkles in it,” he replied.
“But you have lots of white rocks with sparkles in them, here. Do you think you can let some of them go?”
“I like the sparkles.”
“Right. And what about this one?”
We went through the bag, selecting which rocks to keep and which to leave. When finished, the bag only had shells and sand dollars. I tied off the hole in the bag and gave it back to my son.
“How heavy is the bag, now?”
“It’s super light!” He said, swinging the bag around in such a way I thought it might tear open again, so I stopped him.
“That’s because the shells and sand dollars are much lighter than the rocks. Now, pick which rocks you want.”
Spencer chose seven of the more than fifty he had initially picked up; two white with sparkles, one turtle-shaped rock, two black, oblong rocks, and two nearly round rocks. He put them gently into his bag, and we carried on back to the beach house. I noticed that he only rarely stopped to pick anything up on the return trip, and he often put it back down.
We still have some of those shells and rocks he collected on that day. Some are even framed and hanging on the wall.
Now, I told you that story so I can tell you this one.
It’s an understatement to say I was grief-stricken when I lost my wife of thirty-one years to cancer last year. I had some very dark nights in the first few months of the loss where the only reason I saw daylight was because I had dependents counting on me. I was living entirely as an obligation to others.
The thing about grief is that it’s something we do to and for ourselves, even though it might feel like it’s for the lost loved one. I had to think about it, but my grief benefitted my deceased wife in no way whatsoever. It was merely me, processing the loss and coming to terms with what my life looked like without her. Neither does my grieving benefit anyone around me; in fact, it makes me a burden to them. Yes, it’s painful, like lancing a boil, but adapting to the loss and getting better is the goal. Grief and mourning are not places I could dwell in for a long time without it consuming my soul.
It’s said that time heals all wounds. It does take time, that is true, but it doesn’t just take time. You don’t just suffer, and then it magically gets better one day. It was around five months after my wife passed that I realized I was the only one who controlled my grief. I was the only one who could make it better, and it wasn’t just going to happen without effort on my part. This does not mean you have to do it alone! I certainly didn’t – I leveraged close friends and a grief counselor, who helped me greatly. But when it came down to it, I was the one who could make it better and no one else.
The thing about this new enlightenment that I was the only one who could control my grief was that I didn’t know how to control it. If anything, I felt like it controlled me. I floundered with this for weeks, and then I realized something else: While grief is entirely a self-centered act, remembering our lost loved ones is a way to honor them. They live on through our memories of them.
So, I focused on my memories of over thirty-two years I had known my wife. I remember when I proposed and she said yes. I remember when we agreed to adopt our son, I remember hundreds of small, special, wonderful moments I enjoyed with her.
As you might imagine, in that amount of time, not every memory is a treasure. I have chosen to let those memories fade. Like the heavy rocks in my son’s bag that were not notable, I dropped them, lightening my load in the process. It wasn’t easy at all; doing an emotional inventory of my memories was draining, and some days, I couldn’t face it, but I felt better afterward when I did. I slowly reached a place where I could appreciate all the memories without mourning the loss. Yes, I still miss her, and I always will, but I no longer mourn the loss.
Since then, I have even remarried a wonderful, loving woman, and I’m truly happy again. I’ll have my moments where I feel bittersweet when an old memory surfaces, but it doesn’t rob me of the enjoyment of life like it once did.
We all do this in our way, at our speed, but if you are grieving, I wish you to find your way through it as quickly and painlessly as possible because I know it’s a miserable existence. Grief does not have to be a chronic condition, and life is short. Please, do not misguidedly think, as I initially did, that it honors your lost loved ones by continuing to mourn them any longer than you need to get to a state of peace. They have moved on, and we have to do so as well. When you’re ready, drop your rocks.
Until then, KFG.