Good grief

Yesterday Dean let me know that Stanley, a long-ago friend of mine that he was still close to, has passed.

Each time I hear news like this, I remember my other since-departed friends from that era of my life, their number growing with the number of years since I have been in touch with any of them. And so today I think of Jose and Micah in addition to Stanley.

[All photographs (c) Dean Fidelman]

One thing that was particularly strange about hearing the news yesterday was a certain backstory that I wasn’t even sure how much of I was supposed to know, much less divulge as I grieved… I wasn’t conscious of any discomfort until it lifted, which it did quite dramatically as I read this story. Steph covers the entire backstory, in beautiful and heartbreaking detail.

“Life is too short,” I remind myself, one more time.

But this frustrating adage is entirely useless at resolving any of an over-thinker’s dilemmas. Is it: “Life is too short to do _____[fill in one alternative of your life’s big dilemma here]______”? Or is it: “Life is too short NOT to do ___________?” The mind spiral continues…

This is all a rather long preamble to a post about grief that I’ve been mulling over for some time. Though on the one hand the type of grief I’m about to delve into seems absurdly insignificant when compared to the grief of losing one’s Love in the event of death, on the other hand, the whole point I’m trying to make (to myself more than anyone) is that trying to qualify grief is a recipe for disaster, so Here Goes:

The particular brand of grief I experience lately is the sense of having lost certain things that I made very conscious decisions to give up, which means that it inevitably comes accompanied by the feeling that I shouldn’t be having it in the first place.

“You knew what the consequences of leaving Bolinas would be,” goes the tape in my head when it encounters my most frequent source of grief. “You have no business being sad about it.”

(Perhaps this explains the tendency to fall into the “Life is too short” trap. As if some forms of grief are more justified than others, or as if there existed perfect decisions that could prevent any sense of loss.)

Here is what I’m discovering, after having attempted a number of approaches to receiving this grief: the sooner I allow myself to actually FEEL it, as opposed to trying to rationalize myself out of it, the sooner the mind spiral settles down.

A corollary: the harder I try to stifle the grief, the stronger it will become, and the more it will disrupt my current reality.

And so lately, I have been making space to let myself feel really, really sad about having “lost” (= decided to leave) a Perfect House, with a landlady-elder-sentinel and creative, fun, welcoming neighbors, in one of the most beautiful parts of the world I have ever experienced.

In grieving, I write long lists of things I loved about my previous lives. I don’t bother trying to balance them with lists of reasons why those situations were challenging; I did plenty of that in order to justify leaving, and more importantly, I find it doesn’t help my grief.

Sometimes I write love letters to former sweethearts, though I have finally learned not to send them.

I almost deleted the preceding sentence from this story, thinking that if I’d truly learned that lesson I wouldn’t need to write about it. But how can I leave that part out, when what moved me so deeply about Steph’s tribute to Stanley’s passing is that she included an account of his love for the late Roberta, even when he left behind a wife, eight-months pregnant?

Life, and love, are complicated.

I do not believe that acknowledging my love for others takes away from my love for my current sweetheart. My unintentional experiments show me me time and time again: it is only when I do acknowledge and process the full complexity of my feelings (not with my partner, but during time spent alone, or with trusted friends) that I can be fully present with him when we are together.

What good does it do to withhold any parts of my story? Does doing so rob myself of an opportunity to experience the connection and relief that comes from acknowledging the truth? In more public scenarios, is the possibility that deeper connections might be possible actually worth the discomfort that speaking the truth causes to people who aren’t used to hearing it?

Would Steph’s story about Stanley have been as moving or resonant without including his love for, and loss of, Roberta?

Perhaps life is too short to stifle grief, or appreciation, or any feeling at all, “appropriate” or “inappropriate,” my own or anyone else’s.

Or maybe — the debate, like the end of the story, is always the same! — life is too short to do anything other than receive whatever comes up with kindness, including the grief, the urge to stifle it, and the awareness of both, or of neither.

It doesn’t really matter, does it.

Goodbye, Stanley.

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