This may sound a little melodramatic, but I feel like I died on July 26, 2011.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, the second day of our annual beach vacation. I hopped out of the car at my favorite beach-side coffee shop, and without a hint of forewarning, a ball of pain hummed at the base of my spine and a sharp ripple made its way down my left leg. I stopped abruptly, stood up straight, startled. Within seconds, though, the pain subsided. “It’s nothing,” I told myself, “Nothing to be concerned about.”
Denial. This is what we tend to do first when dying is on the doorstep—we deny it.* Dying begins with denying, so I bought my coffee, plugged in my ear-buds, and settled into a good book. When I arose to leave the coffee shop, I stood slowly, not consciously thinking about my back, but moving gingerly (is any kind of denial ever complete?). Then I went home and plopped down on the couch, anticipating an evening of fun with my kids at the boardwalk carnival.
When I stood up this time, though, my plans changed for good.
Something exploded in my lower back, and burning waves of pain crashed down both legs. I only remember looking at my wife, and I know there was fear in my eyes, because that kind of pain does violence to denial. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t lie down. For a year, I had anticipated the boardwalk bumper cars with my eight-year-old son, digging holes and building sandcastles with my four-year-old son, and lifting my two-year-old daughter through the waves on my shoulders. All of it gone in an instant.
Anger usually comes next in the grieving, and come it did, boiling up inside. The anger of a man with expectations that have been shattered, the why-me-I-don’t-deserve-this (as if someone else does) kind of anger that tantrums until the world is the way I want it. I knew that my vacation, as I had planned it, had just ended, and I was furious. Then…
Bargaining. The third stage of grief, and it feels a lot like anxiety. The call to the chiropractor, the beseeching for any idea that might turn this thing around. The dedicated, hoping-against-hope cycle of ice on and ice off, gentle stretching of knees to the chest, fixated on the idea that if I do the right things my reality will be returned to me. But then, the waking at three in the morning, pain lighting up everything below my belly button like a screaming siren, sinking deeper into the realization that it is what it is, and no amount of bartering or effort is going to fix it.
Depression. When something is dying, depression usually comes after the anger and the bargaining. It is dark and hopeless, it says that this pain is all there is, that this moment contains nothing but loss and fear and injustice and shattered hope. It is a deep, dark canyon from which the sun cannot be glimpsed. The depression of grief is a lie of omission, but at the time, the loss is all you can feel, and its totality seems like the truest thing you have ever felt.
Like I said, I’m guessing this all may seem a little melodramatic. After all, people deal with back pain and herniated disks (that was the ultimate diagnosis) every day. So, why all this talk of death and grief? I think it’s because, although my back would ultimately survive the ordeal, there are a number of things inside of me that couldn’t survive it. I like to be in control of my world. I like to think that if I work hard enough and play all the right cards, I can fix everything. Despite all my experience to the contrary, deep down I wish to believe that good things happen to good people, and I wish to believe that I’m one of the good ones. I like to be in my kids’ memories, not sitting on the sidelines watching them make memories with others. I like to be healthy enough to push the lawnmower in the summer and the snow blower in the winter and assure myself that I’m a man. I like to think that I don’t have limits, that with a little more coffee and a little more determination, I can accomplish whatever I want. I guess what I’m saying is, there is physical death and all of its grief, but life also ushers us through a series of psychological and emotional deaths. And we need to know how to grieve them, as well.
We come to therapy, oftentimes, in the midst of a dying that we don’t fully understand. Sometimes we are literally grieving the loss of a life. Sometimes we are reeling from a lost relationship: a girlfriend who became disinterested or a husband who was unfaithful. But sometimes the dying is even more subtle. You pushed a kid too hard, and your façade of self-control is finally cracking. Or, you have always believed that your father loved you and that those things your mother said were harmless, but those ideas are no longer holding water, and it is time to let those parental images die. Or, you inherited a faith from your parents, but while your doubts have increased you have refused to think about it and stubbornly insisted on believing what they told you; now, that time is coming to an end, but before you can find your own belief, you have to burn down the old beliefs. Or, you demand attention and you want to be adored, but you begin to realize the kind of affirmation you are looking for is the kind that only a kid can receive from a parent, and your opportunity to get what you want has passed, and it is time to move on and start seeking something else in life. Can you imagine the courage of someone who is willing to choose this kind of grief, willing to sit with another person and have so much of the old self stripped away, willing to slough off the skin of a lifetime, in order to find something new, and strong, and lasting that they can believe in? How does it work? And what can possibly transport us from this place of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression?
By Friday evening of that beach week, the pain in my back continued mostly unabated, and laying in the fetal position was the only way to get some relief from the agony. However, although the pain had persisted, somewhere in the midst of the anger and depression, I had decided to fight, not for a healthy back, but for a way to salvage the vacation in the midst of the pain. Late that Friday evening, after a final trip to the beach, I wrote these words:
We elected to go to the beach in the early evening, the beach emptying for the day, the noise leaving with the people, individual laughs becoming more distinct in the salty air, the sound of waves taking center stage. And the light, oh the light, slanting with a warm glow around everyone, shadows long. Me, laying on the beach towel on my side in the only painless position, forced to be still and to watch, to exist at the level of my children. And I watch as time stands still, slowing down and enveloping my family: Caitlin playing quietly in a small hole, repeatedly running her hands through the sand and letting it drop on her feet; Quinn playing with his army men in a sand fort, completely consumed by the strategy of battle; Aidan in the water, the ultimate beach bum, making friends as waves crash against his spindly knees, somehow closer to college than the crib; and my wife, easing back and forth between each of them. Me, laying there, incapable of more, doing nothing, absolutely nothing, to deserve any of it, not yet ready to admit that all things are gifts, but knowing for certain that the most important things are.
Acceptance is usually considered to be the final stage of grief, but I wonder if it should be gratitude.** You see, somewhere in the midst of that excruciating week, it occurred to me that, unless I could be grateful in the middle of the pain, I couldn’t really be grateful at all. What I mean is: if I can only be thankful in the midst of pristine vacations with long hours of sleep, stacks of novels to read, laughing children, and just-the-right-amount-of-salt margaritas, I am not really experiencing gratitude. Happiness maybe, but gratitude is something different. It is a defiant insistence that no matter how bad it is, no matter how eviscerating the pain, no matter how deep the agony, there is something more. Gratitude is not just the discovery of a gift, it is the determined insistence that a gift is present, that it can be found, and that it can be received, regardless of what else is happening. It is the hopeful seeking for the rest of what is going on, right here, right now.
Gratitude is what makes it possible to be bowed low by grief and pain, to be brought to one’s knees by the agony, and yet to defiantly raise our eyes, look around, and believe that the view from this angle could become a gift. Gratitude is pain’s redemption. Gratitude makes you aware of gifts that have always been there, but that you couldn’t perceive when you were strong, confident, and upright. Sometimes, for instance, pain lays you out on the sand, and gives you a different vision of life, and you become grateful for the reminder that your frantic efforts to take control, fix the world, be a man, and keep it all together are causing you to miss out on an incredible gift. In the end, you may even look back into the pain and the grief, and you will never want to do it again, but being grateful for the vision it gave, you might find it hard to imagine your life without it.
You might not even want to.