Joy and Grief

My husband and son, celebrating a goal.

I haven’t known what to write in a long time. I’ve started things and stopped, saved drafts and deleted them. I thought I was stuck. I now realize I was overwhelmed.

This year has been hard. For me, for my family, for so many of my friends. All around me, there’s been sadness — death and divorce, illness and pain, strokes and cancer. Horrible things happening to good people.

Just a few months after my stroke in March, my father-in-law told us he had ALS. He passed away in August. This disease has now killed four of six men in my husband’s family in just two generations. My father-in-law and both of his brothers and one of their sons, who was only 28 when he died. When I think about this, about the very real possibility of losing my husband to this disease, I cannot breathe. I cannot find a way to get air into my lungs.

And now, at 37 and 35 years old, my husband and his sister have lost both of their parents. Their father this year and their mother in 2012. I cannot fathom their grief.

The list of sadnesses and tragedies among my small village of people seems endless. I am tired, and I am too realistic to believe that something magical will happen and these things will cease in 2019.

Life is heartbreaking. The weight of loving people with your whole self often feels crushing. Because you treasure them, and in a blink they could be gone. Our kids, our partners, our friends, our family.

But life is also so beautiful and so complex. And what I know now is that all the pain makes you love harder. It makes the colours richer and the sun brighter and getting up at 5:40 in the morning to go to the gym feel like the most amazing gift because you can — your body can do it, and it feels like a miracle to be strong and capable and healthy.

And I realize, now, that I’ve been drowning these last months in what the brilliant Brené Brown calls foreboding joy — the constant fear and panic rising in your throat, telling you that all the good things in your life are going to be snatched away any second. And you are filled with so much anxiety about losing your joy that you can’t experience it.

Foreboding joy is hard to fend off. It’s why I couldn’t write. And why during this holiday season as I watched my gleeful, beautiful, healthy children bask in the magic and wonder of Christmas, I had to fight back that fear, that overwhelming urge to grab them and hold them and never let them go because I’m terrified of losing them. It’s why I struggled to be present. It’s why I cried. It’s why I pushed my husband away instead of telling him how I actually feel — that I am terrified he will die.

And then yesterday I was at the gym, where I had retreated after I’d gotten upset with my husband about something and found myself incapable of enjoying my kids’ squeals and giggles as they played games with each other on the living room rug. And I was running at 9 miles per hour on the treadmill. And my legs — legs that needed a walker and a cane in March — didn’t buckle.

And I felt so grateful. Not scared. Not worried. Not anxious. Just grateful.

And then I thought about how my little girl curls up against me in bed, one of her legs thrown over my back, about her face when I bounced her up and down on the seesaw at the playground the day before after watching my son toss his hockey stick down in the middle of the ice and join a pick up game at the neighbourhood rink, about him high-fiving his dad after he scored a goal, about how the sun hit the ice and the air filled my lungs and the breeze felt on my face as I stood there and watched.

About how I felt alive and at peace, even in the midst of all the sadness that sometimes feels capable of swallowing me whole.

When I was a teenager I read the Bible voraciously. I highlighted verses and stories and psalms and proverbs, I studied and wrote in the margins. But no matter how much I read my favorite verse was always the same.

“Even in laughter the heart may ache and joy may end in grief.” Proverbs 14:13

When I first read that verse at 14 years old, I had never known grief. But somehow I did know that proverb spoke to life on a bigger scale than I understood then.

I know foreboding joy will always be there, lurking. I know it will rise up, and I will feel overwhelmed again by all the things I have to lose. But my resolution for this next year is to keep fighting it off, to never give up, to hold close to my heart all the love in and around me, because, really, the beautiful thing here is how much of that there is.

I’ll choose to accept love and to give love and to be present, to be grateful for sore muscles and tiny humans who need an extra snuggle at night and a husband who thinks I’m capable of anything no matter the growing blank space on my resumé and a house that’s warm and a country that is safe.

I don’t read the bible anymore, but these last weeks I have found myself reciting that verse over and over in my head, most especially when I was going through photos for our family Christmas card. And so I’ll end this the same way I did that card — in 2019, may we all have enough laughter and joy to sustain us during the heartache and grief.

Happy New Year.

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