The Grief We Carry

“No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.”  — Dorianne Laux

One of the paintings on our wall is a palimpsest. Layers of color and design overlaying other layers of color and design, it seems a visual allegory of mind or memory—what we carry beneath the surfaces—beneath what Eliot described as a face we prepare “to meet the faces that we meet.” Grief is always there somewhere—the patch of midnight blue later covered by striations of red, the one brushstroke of pitch black that suggests a faultline in the green. We carry it, more or less consciously, shifting its weight as we go, sometimes gently leaving behind bits we no longer need, acquiring new ones.

A friend has been diagnosed with what is cancer, probably already metastasized. Another has contracted pneumonia in the wake of surgery that removed most of one lung. Another, having lost her husband, is coping with severe behavioral disorders in one of her children. And not many days ago seventeen people, most of them kids, were arbitrarily shot in Florida. Public sorrows and private ones begin to mingle in the disorderly mix of memories, physical shocks, media images and waves of feeling we carry. Grief, disbelief, morbid fascination, horror, dread, puzzlement, unsettled stomachs and wakeful nights lie in crosshatched layers, impossible entirely to disentangle, but always teasing us to return and see what we can piece together—see if somehow old stories might shift toward new resolutions.

Dorianne Laux’s poem, “For the Sake of Strangers,” from which the above lines are taken and which I read immediately after reading an article by a doctor who treated patients gunned down with an A-15, reminds me of how “commingled” our sorrows are with the kindnesses in which we find comfort. None of us knows what we bestow in the course of a day—how the merest gesture or word might fall into a well of need. When the need is mine, I am aware of how often occasions for gratitude go by so quickly, there’s no way to express the thanks, except to pay it forward.

Gratitude doesn’t paint over the grief, but it complicates it in ways that allow us to live more thoughtful, interested, curious, attentive lives where losses are not lost, but held and, perhaps just when their weight shifts a little, healed.

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