The inseparable nature of sorrow and joy

20 May

When I first arrived in at my new place in Asheville mid April, I met a new friend – an articulate, sociable, industrious, healthy and accomplished retiree in the community where I live. A few weeks ago, I happened into a conversation with this person and learned that, like me, he too had lost a family member recently.

I shared how my 81-year-old mother and I had worked very hard together to make her impending death the best transition that it could possibly be, both of us knowing full well that the outcome we were moving toward was, indeed, her death – which knowledge only barely, I think, prepared us both for the final separation.

Joel and IQMy new friend then shared how he received a call on May 21, 2011, informing him that his only son, a vibrant, successful and extremely athletic 38-year-old, had been tragically killed in an accident.

My friend also shared a tenderly compiled scrapbook chronicling his son’s life from early childhood through his teens and on into adulthood. The numerous pictures spoke volumes: the curly-headed boy smiling with his family, the dreadlocked teen playing with his sisters, the mature athlete excelling in extreme sports, the affectionate uncle hanging out with both hisjoel and ella nieces (shown here), the professional young man traveling the world, playing golf with his dad in Ireland… This person was obviously a larger-than-life character, someone who embraced living fully with each and every day he was on earth.

Amid the tastefully intimate collection of photos, mementos, magazine articles, obituaries and memorial program was a Father’s Day card given by the son a few years ago. A section of its hand-written personal message struck a chord because I recognized some of the same sentiments I had written to my own parents when they were alive:

“Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington – I got to see them all, but not without your enthusiasm and support. A lot of fathers of my friends don’t talk to their children or don’t have much of a relationship with them. It’s very sad and every time I meet someone on the road who is out of touch with their parents, I feel so fortunate. I have a father who is curious and active in participating in my life. I want you to know how much confidence that gives me and how lucky I feel.”

As I wiped away the tears, I hoped this card with its precious message could somehow comfort the grieving father, who surely knows that the connection he shared with his son – transcending so many of the material world’s distances, distractions, trials and trivialities – made both their lives richer and fuller.

Joel and dad, Anniston AL 2009

This experience came to me at an amazingly relevant time because just the night before, I had come to an important decision to embark on a journey that will undoubtedly reconnect me with my own parents.

As children, we tend not to listen to our parents. It’s one of the universal ways we learn to think for ourselves. But when our parents are gone, we wish we could know all the things they were trying to tell us, and we wish we could hear their voices speaking to us again, if only just one more time.

Over the months since my mother’s death, I have made countless decisions about which things to keep, and which to sell or give to special family friends. Now that I’ve sold the family home and moved to a new state, the suitcases, boxes and tubs have dwindled to one particular group of clear plastic containers that I have carried with me for many years – within them, thousands of pieces of paper. And it has slowly dawned on me that what I’ve dismissed as a packrat obsession with all things written is now actually the key to hearing my parents’ voices once again: I have kept every single card and letter either one of them ever sent to me.

So, on July 24, 2013, the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, I plan to begin to re-read the letters written to me by my parents throughout my life. And, as you can probably guess, I will write the story of what I learn.

We can never know the full extent of suffering of those around us. Nor can we comprehend the depth of another’s joy.

Joel- photo of self- snowMy new friend Steve’s son, Joel, died in an avalanche two years ago while fully immersed in the outdoors sport that he loved the most, backcountry skiing. In a memorial to Joel, Steve shared part of a familiar quote from Kahlil Gibran, which had been shared with him by a sensitive 18-year-old hotel clerk where the family was staying to attend Joel’s funeral. I think it contains great comfort for those who are grieving – which, when we have lost a parent or a child, I believe we do to some degree for the rest of our lives.

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

Joel on top of mountain

In honor and remembrance of Joel, an indomitable spirit.

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8 Responses to “The inseparable nature of sorrow and joy”

  1. tgnoe May 21, 2013 at 7:43 am #

    beautiful frances. enjoy your reconnection. what a fabulous gift you are. and your parents.

  2. Paula Lodge May 21, 2013 at 8:00 am #

    Absolutely beautiful! So glad you kept the letters your parents wrote you. What a wonderful gift to be able to look back on the wisdom and love of your Mom and Dad! What a great life this young man had. His father should be so happy to have raised such a person!

  3. Paula May 21, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    What a beautiful article Frances…..you are an amazing woman and I couldn’t love you more !!!

  4. amy rosato novak May 23, 2013 at 8:58 am #

    hi! i have been friends with kristen for over 20 years now. She is Joel’s youngest sister. like most young girls i had a crush on Joel….you were right he was larger than life. i have known this family for over two decades. When Steve and his wife would come into town we would go out dancing at a local gay bar with all of us, they would stay up and hang out with 20 year olds…a true testament to how open, loving and wonderful this family is. I spent countless nights sleeping at MAry Jane (their mother’s) house…she always welcomed us in. Kristen was my only friend in high school (after i was in a car wreck and wouldnt drive) who would drive 15 miles one way each night to pick me up and take me home…….this family has those kind of people in it !!!

    I lost my brother 3 months ago…he lived in and loved colorado as well. kristen (joels sister) has been there every step of the way. I watched at joel’s memorial how his parents-divorced more than 20 years ago sat together and greeted friends and comforted each other…as a united front.
    my parents did not even speak at my brothers service. this family is a beacon of hope…how through trial and error (as all life is) a blended family can come together and work as a loving unit. My brother was also a character who lived out loud and i cannot help but think he and joel are in the great mountains, snowboarding, skiing, having an excellent craft beer looking down on their family and friends below.

    i am so glad Steve met you and that his story, Joels story, your story …all of our stories are being told….you speak for many . thank you for honoring your family and this family as well….as it has allowed me honor to mine……..how lucky we are to have these people in our lives…the new ones, the old ones…those yet to meet…….no matter how long. thank you!

    • Frances Figart May 23, 2013 at 9:11 am #

      Thank you so much for this touching and heartening message. I am going to share it with Steve as well. Since losing my mom, part of my grieving process has been to try to support others who are hurting. Sometimes that takes the form of simply listening, which is how I came to learn about Joel’s amazing life. I am so blessed to know this family and to share a neighborhood with them. They are helping me feel I belong in my new town, and easing some of the loneliness.

      I am so sorry for your loss of your brother. I have read that loss of a sibling is the most difficult in some ways because it is overlooked by others since it’s not a parent or child. There is no easy formula for getting through the pain.

      I am reading a book right now that is helping me, though, and it’s called The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Frank Cherry. Their premise is that society does not teach us how to deal with death, and so no one knows how to help each other through these times. They also promote doing certain work to “complete” your process, and I’m trying to follow along as I can and do that work. My writing helps. But I know I’ll always miss my parents. Maybe you might want to check it out at some point in the future.

      This all takes a great deal of time, and so please be patient with yourself. Do what you feel like doing and that helps you most at any given moment.

      Please keep in touch with me and feel free to e-mail ffigart at gmail. And again, thank you so much for this feedback. It is hugely helpful in my process!

  5. Carol Kistler May 23, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

    Frances, I’ve just now read this one, and it truly touched my heart. I lost my mother also, just last Fall, as well as having lost my husband in July 2010. I will look forward to your blogs as you re-read your parents correspondence, hoping it does bring you the joy that is inseparable from the grief.

    • Frances Figart May 24, 2013 at 8:02 am #

      Carol, I remember reading that your mother died not long after mine. I did not realize you have lost your husband so recently as well. Sometimes grief is like being under water and coming up for air only to realized we are in more water, just a slightly different kind.

      As I mentioned in another comment here, I am reading a book right now that is helping me called The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Frank Cherry. Their premise is that society does not teach us how to deal with death, and so no one knows how to help each other through these times. They also promote doing certain work to “complete” your process, and I’m trying to follow along as I can and do that work. I recommend it.

      I think you and I need to meet up sometime. Let’s talk about that.

  6. neachtan May 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    Looking forward to reading your story!

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