Embracing Sorrow So We Can Savor Joy
Forgive me if this post is a little raw. Life has been raw for me these last couple weeks.
My youngest brother Peter (above, with my kids) died just over two weeks ago and I’ve been living life at its rawest ever since.
Pete, who was 31, suffered from schizophrenia for the last ten years. All mental illnesses cause enormous suffering for those who have them and incredible heartache and angst for those who love them. Peter, number 6 of the 7 kids in my family, was very loved by our family and we all did the very best we could, each in our own way, to help him. Over the last decade, as Pete returned to hospital again and again, his dreams crashed to earth, his enjoyment of life disappeared and his hopes of ever living a fulfilling life gave way to severe paranoia, to ceaseless torment, to despair and, on Good Friday, to death.
As I type these words I am sitting on a plane high above the Pacific returning back to America from Australia where I’ve shed more tears with my family than I thought were possible. But in the midst of our sorrow, we have laughed at the fun times we shared with Peter — his boyish pranks, his humor, his brilliant athleticism and charm. We have been lifted up by the extraordinary outpouring of love from friends, family and community, near and far. We have savored the rich bonds of love that come to the fore during times of heartache. It has been a deeply moving, and extremely touching, two weeks.
Peter’s funeral last Tuesday was beautiful. Several people came up to me afterward to say it was the most inspiring funeral they’d ever attended. As hundreds gathered with us to mourn his death, we celebrated his life and joined together in faith that Peter’s spirit is now in peace. But ahhhh… death is so final and burying someone you love so confronting to the mind and wrenching to the heart.
I have written before about sadness and the importance of acknowledging it. There is nothing happy about having someone you love suffer from an illness you cannot cure. There is nothing happy about saying a last goodbye. It is sadness, pure and true. And while my sadness is mine alone, inevitably we all find ourselves in circumstances that give rise to sorrow, grief and a deep sense of loss. After all, that is what it is to be a human being. None of us can avoid it, however hard we try, however safe we play it, however strong we try to be.
So I have not tried to be strong this last week. I have cried and wailed and sobbed like a child. My brother Peter is gone and I will never see him again… at least not during my years on earth. And while I will grow old and my skin will wrinkle, my eyesight will fade and my hair turn gray, Peter will remain forever young. When I spoke to him last month on his birthday, in the hospital again, he said he looked forward to shooting hoops with my oldest son Lachlan on our trip back home to Australia in July. However unwell Pete has been, he never stopped being a loving uncle and making my kids laugh (see the picture above of him with my four children taken two years ago). And so I shed another tear that he will never shoot another hoop and that my children will never play with their Uncle Pete again. (You can watch the slideshow we created of Peter for his funeral at this link)
Whatever your beliefs about what happens after death, there is no escaping that death brings with it a finality that can be hard to comprehend. I know that in death Peter has found the peace that eluded him in life, but that thought doesn’t stop my sadness. At least not yet. And while I know my tears don’t help Peter, they do connect me to that which matters most to me in life — to those I love, to the blessings I have in life and to the many magnificent people I share it with. I am more acutely aware than ever that life is a precious and temporary gift and that it is our responsibility to make the most of it; to do the best we have with whatever hand we have been given.
And while I’d like to think I will never experience grief again, I know that is not so. For all of life is about letting go what has been, embracing what is and opening our hearts wide to our hopes for tomorrow. If there is a lesson for me from this experience (and I hope for you also), it is to live each day, each moment more deeply, to experience it more fully, and to dare pursuing our dreams more boldly.
If my words have stirred anything in you, may it be a deepened awareness for the love, the people and the gifts in your own life. There will always be elements of your life that aren’t as you’d ideally like them to be. Embrace them as fully as you would those which are exactly as you want. They all combine to create the rich tapestry that is your life. That is our shared experience of life.
Pete never lived the life he had imagined for himself up to his early twenties. He never realized the exciting ambitions that fuelled his youth, never played professional sport, never established a successful career, travelled the world or drove a cool sport car. And yet his life, and the suffering he had to endure, affected the lives of those who loved him in ways we could never have imagined. He taught us to be patient, he taught us to be compassionate, he taught us not to judge those who suffer mental illness, he taught us to love without condition and to give without expectation of return. And in the end, he taught us that life can end suddenly, sadly but that love never does.
For that, I will be forever grateful. And as more tears find their way down my cheeks in the weeks, and likely the years to come when my family gather together, less one, I will offer up to God all my tears, knowing that by connecting with what makes me most sad, it also connects me with what brings me most joy. Our lives, like all great masterpieces, require the darkness in order to highlight the light.
Until next time, feel deeply, love boldly and embrace all of life, however raw.
Question: What lesson did you take away from a loss in your life which caused you sadness and sorrow?