I have come to realize over the past few weeks that there are two kinds of people in this world.
There are the people who have suffered terrible loss that hit so close to home, they feel forever punctured with the wound. These are the people whose empathy is right there with me whenever they hear of my brother, their own felt sense of loss so visceral and permanent, they know exactly what it is to be at those early stages of the grieving process.
Then there are the other people who have yet to lose someone close to them. So they just don’t know the scope of grief. A friend of mine likened it to explaining color to someone who has been colorblind their whole life. How can you understand the nuances, shades and subtleties of something you’ve never seen?
And within this group I have found there are two more kinds of people. There are the ones who have known pain or hardship or suffering in other forms in their lives, so they know the brevity of grief. The ones who have these giant, compassionate, bleeding hearts that are so empathic and open to imagining how it feels, that they offer comfort, patience and kind words with extreme sensitivity and tender care.
Then there are the ones who just don’t get it. Some of them have good hearted intent, but won’t have the experience base or the emotional range that comes from that experience, until it is their turn to go through a magnitude of loss some day. Some of them don’t want to get anywhere close to the pain, so they avoid it, avoid getting close to the sadness.
And for some, death is just too scary and real a topic to confront- too much of a reality check that nobody is getting out of here alive. One of my dear friends had the idea of trying to pack a row of seats at my brother’s memorial with friends as a show of support for me and was answered with a row of no’s upon asking people to come. Too busy and too sad of a thing to go to something like that, she was told.
Nobody likes a memorial service, they really bring you down.
Yeah… I get it. Those were my exact thoughts too on the day of the service. Except I didn’t have the choice of checking out, I had a eulogy to deliver.
In recent days I have reflected that no matter how hard or sad it is to go to a memorial service, there will be nobody in attendance who feels sadder or struggles harder than the family who suffered the loss. Which is why I will also never forget the faces who set life aside, paused for awhile, and showed up that day to offer support and be present for our grief.
The truth is that death will show you exactly where people are at in life. It will show you where you are at. Where your family is at. Where your friends are at. Where your community is at. Where your culture is at.
It will teach you about emotional availability and a person’s capacity to face pain square on. For them and for you; for our ability to be emotionally available for others is only as deep and wide as our ability to be emotionally available to ourselves.
When I was younger, I used to believe I could be available and love enough for two people. I had this tendency, especially with men, to see the best in someone- the person they could be if they would just actualize all that potential. So I twisted myself into all sorts of knots and shapes and molds, trying to support them, meet them where they were at, encourage them to step into better.
I believe in you!, I’d say. I’m here whenever you need me!, I’d say. I will love you so much I will make you see change is possible!, I’d say.
I was a one woman cheer squad trying to light the way by supporting the pyramid of somebody else’s messy mass on my shoulders alone.
The more I’d hear them speak words of better and change and I want to be different- all while returning to the same behaviors, people and patterns that got them stuck in the first place- I’d hunker down and square my shoulders even harder, raise that torch of hope even higher, and keep trying to burn bright for both of us.
It is a very traumatic lesson to discover that this is not a healthy way to sustain love and relationship.
That trying to be someone’s lighthouse is the emotional equivalent of trying to crawl into another’s spiritual space, patch up the cracks on their walls, seal the leaks in their ceiling, and leave a Get better soon! basket filled with rainbows, sunshine, love and unicorns in the hopes that these gifts of light will be enough for them to find their way through their own darkness.
Inevitably it is not enough, because it is impossible to do somebody else’s work of heart and soul for them-each of must do it for ourselves. As a psychology professor said years ago in regards to being a therapist- you shouldn’t be working harder than the client.
You can’t change somebody who doesn’t truly want to change. When we try to do another’s work, we will end up feeling tired, used and depleted, and we fail to be present for ourselves in a loving and caring manner.
It took me awhile to figure all this out, but after a magnificent crash and burn that marked the culmination of four years of doing life according to this relationship model, I finally got the whole self love thing.
Self love is not just feeling good about yourself. It is not just learning to speak kindly and compassionately to yourself. It is not just learning to love over the darkness inside of you. Self love is the act of showing up for yourself. Learning to be present with yourself. Learning to turn all that magnificent love you were pouring into everyone else, inwards.
Learning to hold that torch of hope so high for yourself, You embody You. Not some image of who you think you’re supposed to be for others.
I met my husband a few months after I finally learned to live the truth of this lesson. He learned to show up for himself almost 7 years ago this month and has his own powerful story of life change and doing his own work of heart and soul. Since we have both found what we need to keep our own torches lit, it leaves us free to not have to be anything for each other other than what we already are.
I don’t have to show up for him, he’s already present with himself. Nor he me. But I choose to stand by his side, and he mine, as we do this thing called Life together. With buckets of love.
During a wind storm last week, one of the whimsical, quirky signs I have hanging on my porch fell down with a giant clatter making us jump. “Free Porch Therapy” it said. I laughed and took it as an ongoing reminder from the universe to stop giving away the best parts of myself for free to people who aren’t interested in doing their own work of change.
And to continue to be present with myself in this time, embodying my own experience of love, loss and grief.
As I finish writing these words, I am looking at a picture of part of our beautiful galaxy, because a friend named a star after my brother this week. “Jedi Brent” is what it’s called, coordinates RA: 2h03m.65s, Dec: +70°59’54.2”. His star lays somewhere between Cassiopeia and Camelopardalis, and I like to imagine he currently gleaming down on us, having a party with all the other star people lighting up the sky, beautifully reminding me:
Before we can shine bright for others, we have to learn to shine bright for ourselves.