I watched a dance performance last week that impacted me very deeply. Pam Kuntz and Co. put on fabulous show called “Spokes” at the Firehouse Café here in Bellingham. The storyline centers on a woman who dies in a bike crash, a detail we know from the start, and the important relationships she forms during her lifetime (her parents, sister, friends, husband, daughter) and how those individuals are impacted by her death. There was no dialogue between the characters, but the dance movements conveyed so powerfully exactly what was going on. My friend, Anni, informed me that this is because of ‘mirror neurons’, pathways in our brain that allow us to mirror inside ourselves what is being felt by a person, based on what we perceive. Let me tell you, my mirror neurons were firing. I felt everything.
And I needed it. I needed it so badly.
Just days before, a couple of conversations with insightful friends revealed to me how much anger I hold inside. How mad I (still) am that my family is dead. I realized that I often feel my grief in the form of resentment, directed at people who have what I don’t. Basically, I hate everyone who still has their family of origin. Ok, well, not actively, all of the time. But my grief instincts are most triggered at times when I am reminded of my family’s absence. For instance, Kevin’s parents are at my sons’ birthdays, but my parents are not. So, they become an indirect target for my anger. My neighbor’s sister— who is so much like my neighbor, looks like her, talks like her, walks like her, laughs like her— visits from out of town, and suddenly I resent them both for being such beautiful sisters. Not that I am actually outwardly mean to these people, but it creates an anger response in me that’s reflected on them. Let me be clear: I love my in-laws and my neighbor. What I’m saying is: grief can make you crazy—do crazy things, think crazy things, feel crazy things. It’s madness.
At some point since the death of my sister and my parents, I became more able to be mad than sad about my losses. Anger seemed a stronger, more appropriate reaction, one that I could better manage. Sadness seemed to generally be perceived as weakness, and something I couldn’t control. And who likes feeling sad, anyway? I was avoiding it as long as possible.
So, this dance performance just undid me. I could hardly get out of my seat at the end, and could have sat there and bawled all night (I actually left and sat in my car and bawled for a bit more before driving home). But here’s the magical thing: there was no target for my grief to manifest itself as anger, no trigger. I was just sad, in the purest sense.
I watched a couple fall in love before my eyes and was reminded that my own parents had a beautiful love story, full of letters and visits and regular old-fashioned courtship. Before their lives were ravaged by disease and death, they fell in love, got married, and had two daughters they loved.
I watched sisters become sisters in all of the wonderful, competitive, and forgiving ways sisters do. I was transported back to my childhood, making up dance routines to Sandi Patty songs with my sister, Jeni, on the merry-go-round at school. She was always the boss, a trait I despised and envied.
I watched a young woman bring her husband home and go through the delicate dance of teaching him the culture of her family. This is a dance Kevin never had opportunity to learn, and one I still struggle to teach, with so many missing pieces. When he entered my life, Kevin was seen as my savior. There was no gauntlet to run, no time to run tests. The torch was passed, few questions asked. I, on the other hand, had to try to learn the dance of his family, while so desperately longing for my own.
I watched a daughter be born and be instantly loved and cherished and delighted in by her parents. My parents were always so proud of me. There is no love like a parent’s love.
I watched all of these characters lose this beloved woman. I was the sister, I was the daughter, and I could feel the grief of every character on that stage.
All of this, right before my eyes. It wasn’t real, but it was very real at the same time.
I’m not sure I would have given myself permission to feel all of these things, had I been sitting there alone. But I was surrounded by the sweet family of the girl who played the daughter on stage. Relatives had flown in from all over to be there for opening night, friends of mine. Twice during the performance my friend Kate, sitting two seats away, reached over and squeezed my shoulder, as if to say, “I feel you. I’m here.”
Grief can be such a lonely place. And bold is the hand that reaches out to say, “I feel you. I’m here.” More and more, I am convinced healing can only happen in community. I have cried a lot of tears in private. A lot. But it is the times that others have met me in my sorrow, that I have felt truly seen and known and healed just a little bit.
In Christian culture, we’re taught that the dead go “to a better place”, but that doesn’t make it easier to deal with as the person left behind. It doesn’t bring me joy like people say it should. If Jesus thought that life after death was better than life, why did he raise Lazarus from the dead? Maybe he just missed his friend.
I just miss my people.
I do not hope to one day wake up and be happy my sister died young, or somehow feel like my mom’s illness was justified and that her early death was a gift, or to not miss my dad like I lost my right arm. But that is what our culture preaches. Get over it. Move on. Quit being sad. Everything happens for a reason. Be transformed. Look beyond.
My grief is too sacred to be put down, set aside, overlooked, gotten over. Somedays I don’t want to feel transformed. I just want to feel sad. Without feeling mad. I sent a message to the director of the dance, telling her how much I was moved. I told her I hoped they would have another run, and if they did, I would invite everyone I know to see it. I would go again too, maybe twice, with a giant box of tissues. In the meantime, feel free to send me sad movie recommendations. Better yet, come cry with me.
P.S. I found this picture of my parents a couple of days ago. They are in one of their happy places, Kelowna, BC, waving to family out in the boat. I didn’t take the picture, and I wasn’t in the boat, but I’m pretty sure that was the case. There were other people in the picture, but I blew up this part and put in on my fridge. I like to think they are waving to me, to us, from wherever they are in this universe.