Grief and Joy Live in the Same Chamber of the Heart

We just returned from three days in Estes Park. We had promised Everest that we would go to one of his favorite spots up in the mountains after Mocha died so we could unplug from work and connect as a family. Although his struggle with seasonal allergies but a bit of a damper on the trip, the slow days and time in nature had a positive effect, and he returned calmer and more centered than he’s been in weeks.

I hadn’t anticipated that the time away would trigger memories and inspire healing of yet another layer of my own grief – both old and new. Although I’m steeped in the framework and vocabulary of transitions, sometimes it’s easy to forget the patterns when in the midst of one. Whenever we’re in a transition, old grief and unfinished transitions will rise to the surface. When we understand this as an opportunity to complete past transitions at increasingly deeper levels, we stop resisting them and instead breathe into the feelings and watch them wash through. For me, the combination of Mocha’s death and the blank slate of a vacation spot activated a series of momentary waves of grief and flashes of memory which centered around three areas: Mocha, my grandparents, and my son.

Although the bulk of my grief about Mocha occurred prior to her death, grief is not linear, and I expect to feel it in these weeks and months following the loss. As we locked up to leave for our trip, the emptiness inside the house was palpable. I realized that it was the first time I’ve traveled without leaving a cat behind in almost seventeen years. A wave of missing Mocha washed through me, as well as a remnant of grief about my beloved cat Spunky who was with me for eighteen years. When we arrived at the cabin, tears filled my eyes as I thought about how I would normally check in with the pet sitter. And when we arrived home to an empty house, the grief came again. These weren’t debilitating feelings of grief, just brief yet painful moments triggered by reminders of her absence.

Being away in nature always reminds me of my grandparents, as it was with them that my brothers and I camped with them each summer for a week or two. But the visceral feeling of their loss is not always palpable the way it was the last few days. Small moments brought them back into my body: The sound of the cheap utensils banging against the plastic as I shut the utensil drawer and I’m sitting in their little camper, playing rummy tiles at the table while my grandma prepares dinner. Packing up our belongings on the last morning and I’m eight years old, playing with my brothers while my grandparents break camp. Driving through a campground in Rocky Mountain National Park and I’m riding my pink bike behind my brothers through the paved roads of a Yosemite campground. The memories are both painful and heartwarming, as I simultaneously miss them and am with them again through re-living the memories.

We decided to drive home down a back road which took us past a cabin we went to almost three years ago. As we neared the turn-off for the cabin, grief washed over me again. It took me a few minutes to understand what I was grieving, but then as I remembered our time there when Everest was not-yet three and still an only a child, it became clear: I was grieving the loss of that Everest, the innocent toddler, the purity and lightness of that boy, and our one-on-one relationship. His essence is still pure and light, but he’s grown into a real person and the challenges have increased exponentially since that time. Everest, while challenging in some ways as a little boy, was incredibly easy in other ways. He hadn’t exerted his will yet so we hadn’t encountered any discipline issues. The magical love-bubble that grew to divine levels in that first year of motherhood was still in tact. And without a baby brother in the picture, my husband and I could focus all of our attention on him. For better or for worse, the exclusivity of the relationship was at its height during that trip.

When I shared this grief with my friend, Carrie, who has a daughter the exact age as Everest, she said, “Oh, I know that place well. Sometimes I look at my daughter and say, ‘I miss you.'” That’s exactly it. I was missing Everest and our relationship as it was at that stage, which it will never be again. It’s one of the areas of parenthood that is so painful: our children are constantly growing, so we’re constantly asked to practice letting go. It reminded me of the time when Everest was about a year old and I needed to clear out his drawers to make room for his new set of clothes. I stood there with tears streaming down my face as I folded up his tiny baby socks and sweet baby blankets, knowing that his babyhood was over and that he would never wear them again.

As I encourage my clients to do, I inhaled into these painful places, wrote about them, talked about them, and allowed them to pass through me. Then, as always happens when we attend consciously to the feelings spawned by a transition, this morning I awoke in joy. It was that quiet joy that follows a full allowance of grief, the joy that follows sinking into a dark night. After days of waking up with a heaviness in my soul, this morning I woke up happy.

9 comments to Grief and Joy Live in the Same Chamber of the Heart

  • Amber

    Oh Sheryl!!! I’m sitting her crying after reading this post. You just say it so well I do not even have to tell you what I mean. My cat I’ve had for thirteen years is very sick and possibly dying and I am feeling so many things…Our dog died in my arms in November, and grief is just like you say. Grief is cyclical and organic.

    My daughter turned two today–more feelings! At least once a week I cry just from looking at my babies’ faces and feeling that “love, but oh the love!” feeling. My first reaction to your thoughts here was dread: No! Don’t let that love-bubble pop!!! He is my everything! But I know if I want to survive it and survive it well I have to feel and move through the reality of that grief.

    I am sorry for the loss of your beloved pet. Thanks so much for your words of honesty and wisdom, as always. 🙂

    • Welcome to the blog, Amber! I love seeing so many women from the CW message board over here. Let me just say that my love for Everest is still massively overwhelming. It’s just that it’s shifted from the pure state of “in love” into the grounded love that happens when a relationship becomes real. In fact, it’s not so different from what so many of you went through before your wedding when you had to fall out of love in order to discover what real love is. Does that make sense?

      I think at some point every relationship comes down to earth, and that’s when the work begins. But with the work also comes a deepening and growing. I was challenged as a new mother in many ways but I’ve grown so much more through my relationship with Everest in the last couple of years – and I have a long way to go!

  • I, too, was brought to tears by this blog. I well remember the same feelings about you, my third child, when you started to walk, knowing that your babyhood was over and that having babies was over. Here is where being a grandma is so wonderful – being able to experience some of it all over again!

  • Yes, Mom, I think about being a grandparent a lot! It does comfort me to know that I’ll get to experience babyhood again, even if they’re not my own. As much as I grieve the end of Everest’s babyhood and little boyhood, watching him grow up into this amazing bigger boy is so exciting! The two feelings always seem to co-exist, don’t they?

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  • Katie

    Your boys are adorable! 🙂 Thanks for giving so many of us the courage to face difficult, uncomfortable emotions and transitions!!! Your words have truly changed my outlook on life and relationships. I look forward to reading your blog every day 🙂