“The only whole heart is a broken one.” Chasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel
A few years ago, I wrote about a woman named Stephanie Nielson who had suffered burns on over 80% of her body after being in a plane crash with her husband. She is a devout Mormon, a mother of five, and has a huge following on her blog. I had read her memoir, “Heaven is Here,” and I wrote about a video I’d seen of her online, showing another woman around her home, talking about all of the simple things she used to take for granted. The two women pause during the house tour to look at some photos of Stephanie’s family before the accident. The other woman comments on how beautiful Stephanie was before the burns transformed her face, and Stephanie points to the “before” photo and says, “That was beautiful…” but then she points to a recent family photo and says, “and this is beautiful too.” I saw this poignant comparison as something to aim for back in my early days of grieving. But then Stephanie noted that she had all of the same people in her life both before and after. I knew I would not have that- but I held on to the hope that someday I would be able to see my life “after” my husband’s death as beautiful. The only way I could imagine seeing it that way at that time was like this:
If I don’t keep looking at what I’ve lost, then what I have still looks beautiful. It requires holding them kind of separately and taking them each for what they’re worth- then and now. It’s when I compare us to others, or when I remember how it felt to have someone help carry up the grocery bags, or tease me, or brush their teeth beside me, or admire my daughter with me, or say softly “good night to you” as I turn out the light- that I feel how empty and full of loss “this” is.
Now, almost five years later, I find myself sitting at the dining table one winter day while my daughter is writing at her art studio- “I’m writing a list of all the great things about you…” she says to me happily. And I actually think to myself, I am the luckiest woman in the world. Lucky was not a word I ever thought would describe me again. I think about the video of Stephanie pointing to her family photos, and I wonder if I’ve made it there, and if so- how? Had the passage of time allowed me to view us “separately” without comparison to what had been lost? Or is it something else that allows us humans to find beauty not apart from, but in the midst of loss or suffering? Not in separation, but in integration?
Just one year ago, my daughter had led me through her elementary school halls to see the annual “Art Show,” which was basically each classes’s artwork hanging up in different parts of the building. Her class project had been a “family pillow.” The “pillow” consisted of two pieces of paper stuffed with newspaper and fringed on the edges, a picture of her family in the center. I walked slowly towards her pillow, trying to sound enthusiastic as she bounced up and down pointing it out. “That’s mine!” “Wow- there we are…it’s great- I love it!” I said, that sinking feeling in my gut. I was inconspicuously eyeing all of the other “family pillows” stapled up around the hall, pitying myself for just a moment. I was looking to see if anyone else was an only child. I was looking to see if there were any other single parents in this homogenous town. “See? We’re at Ocean City!” she said. I examined the picture. We are both wearing skirts and dressed colorfully- we both have red lips and long eyelashes. She drew some of the boardwalk scenery behind us. And the background, I noticed- was colored in black. I left the art show drained- the family picture cementing something I still hadn’t come to terms with: my life.
But finding beauty in the midst of loss or pain utilizes a different kind of measurement than we’re used to. We often speak of love and relationships in economic terms: we invest in a relationship, cut our losses and move on when it ends, pay a friend back if they do something kind for us: “I owe you one,” we say. This is the standard of measurement we’re accustomed to. If we want to save money, we have to earn more than we spend. If we want to lose weight, we have to take in less calories than we burn. But things like love and beauty, they don’t fit in that economy. Love lives outside the laws of nature, and in that way, we might call it supernatural. It doesn’t get used up when we spend it. In fact, its abiding principle is that the more of it we spend, the more it grows. It doesn’t keep a record of wrongs or calculate losses. It is patient, not eager for gain. It doesn’t withdraw when the going gets tough- it perseveres- always. There is no “bottom line” and a cost benefit analysis will be useless when dealing with a substance like love, whose very nature is to lay down its life for another.
It is love that enables one to say, “My life has loss, and it’s beautiful.” Just like it is this mysterious property that allows one to say, “I could not love any child more than I love you,” and then have a second, or a third child, and love them just as well, while never falsifying the first statement. It is love that lets me tell my daughter I will never love her any more or less no matter what she does, and nonetheless feel my love growing with every passing year. The other day when she sings a solo at her school talent show’s dress rehearsal, I tell her I couldn’t possibly be any prouder. “But if one day I’m on Broadway, then you’ll be prouder!” she says. “No, I won’t. I’ll be proud, but not prouder than today,” I answer, leaving her confused. These things don’t make sense, and then somehow, they don’t have to. They are true, and truth triumphs over logic every time.
It is this kind of measurement, this kind of paradoxical truth, that lets me finally sit with the idea that my family is beautiful, despite and even because of what’s missing. It is this truth that somehow affirms and lends dignity to the life I lost, rather than betrays it. To say, “That was beautiful,” and “this is beautiful too.”
A few years ago, I read that loss was like a giant tree stump around which you start to plant tiny flowers. This kind of metaphor comforts those in early grief because they can’t possibly imagine “moving on.” But in the end, I’m not sure it accurately depicts how we live and love in real life. Though we physically live in space and time, and though we have the need to create narratives in order to make sense of our lives, love is not confined to chapters or to the perimeter of a wound. We can’t put love in storage or relegate joy and sorrow to different corners of a room. Life and loss are not linear as we often imagine them to be- but layered. It is less about leaving behind and building from scratch, and more about carrying things with you and building upon. I am less like a stick figure walking on a line and more like a round, full Matryoshka doll- each wooden painted doll opened to reveal another resting safely inside.
We integrate joy and sorrow; we accept a life of sacred contradictions. In her Ted talk on the myth of closure in grief, sociologist Nancy Berns says it this way: “…in art and photography, it’s the shadows that give a piece depth. In our lives, it’s the shadows and the light together, it’s the grief and the joy – that bring beauty and depth and character.” In a beautifully written review of Marilynne Robinson’s newest novel, Lila, in The Atlantic, entitled “The Power of Grace,” Leslie Jamison describes Robinson as “one of those rare writers genuinely committed to contradiction as an abiding state of consciousness.” And of the book’s message, she says this:
“Sorrow casts its shadow, and joy lives under it, surviving in its shade. This bleed between joy and sorrow doesn’t mean happiness is impossible, or inevitably contaminated; instead it reveals a more capacious vision of happiness than we might have imagined—not grace will never deliver you from this mess, but grace is this mess. Or at least, grace is in the mess with you.
Grace in the mess with you. Not neat and orderly- like moving through the “stages” of grief and winding up at a new chapter. There is no subsidy to help pay for the cost, no side by side comparisons to estimate value. Just shadows and light, love and loss, all adding up to an unquantifiable beauty. “Why are you crying? Is it a happy cry or a sad cry?” I ask my six-year old at the end of a cartoon movie we’re watching yesterday. “Both,” she answers between sobs. A mess…but a capacious one- defying economy and logic, with its surprisingly endless reserves.
I have kept those words in my mind for more than four years…”That was beautiful…and this is beautiful too.” And then one day my daughter hands me this, and I smile, and I hang it up on the wall.