A Grief-Soaked Love

Mary Oliver writes in Snow Geese 


Oh, to love what is lovely and will not last!

What a task

to ask

of anything, or anyone,

yet it is ours,

and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.

Everything we love in this world will not last. We will not last.

“It’s never too late,” we say, smiling at one another in an encouraging way. But that’s not true. “You’re not dead yet,” may give the same encouragement but without the lie.

Sadness, pain, and death are difficult. How do we cope with them? We are drawn to beauty, goodness, and love, but can we open our hearts to life without also opening our hearts to grief?

One of the mantras of our culture is “don’t worry, be happy.” We are encouraged to think positive thoughts, improve ourselves, and rise above our problems. As we strive to feel good, the sadness and pain that surface are an indication that we have fallen short and so we may work even harder to eliminate them.

Promoting happiness by excluding sadness denies a vital part of what it means to be human. Sorrow is a part of life, and not accepting this reality inevitably leads to more suffering.

I attended “The Soul of a Well-Lived Life” workshop with Stephen Jenkinson, who is well versed on the topic of death. He explained that grief is an expression of love, and love inevitably leads to grief. He calls grief and love two wings of the same bird. When we bring a child into the world, we need to acknowledge that she will not be immune to heart-ache and sorrow, and that she will eventually die, likely before she is ready. By giving life to this child we are complicit in her suffering. Rather than feeling regret or guilt, Stephen Jenkinson calls this “a grief-soaked love”. He says that death is the cradle of our life of love. We need to live as if we will die – it’s the only sane way.

According to Buddhist teachings, impermanence is one of the three basic facts of all existence. A student recounts this story.

Before saying a word, he [Ajahn Chah] motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

We cannot avoid grief, for it is inextricably linked to everything we love.

Oh, to love what is lovely and will not last!

Let us celebrate the grief-soaked love of being alive.

Margaret Verschuur