Very recently, I visited the town in which I did a good part of my growing up. It is the town where I graduated from high school, the town where I lived during half of my college years. It is the town where my father is buried, dead forty years ago this coming June. It is the town where I experienced my first love and my first subsequent break up. It is the town where I had my first job, my first driver’s license, my first wedding. It is the town where I said a final goodbye to a former boyfriend, just days before he took his own life.
As I drove through the beautiful tree-lined streets among colorful Victorian homes, some of which I had visited or even lived in at times in the past, my heart felt heavy with grief. I was grieving the loss of not only the people who had died or with whom I had lost touch, but the loss of my own youth. It was startling to me, as I drove past the home of my former boyfriend whose loss still cuts deep, that his suicide was over twenty years ago.
In the time since my own youth I have married, divorced, and married again. I have borne and raised two children, now grown and launched into their own lives. I have moved through my days one by one, unaware until recently how they have drawn together like pearls on a string, creating an astonishing distance between who I am now and who I was so long ago.
Driving through that town, I longed to somehow go back, to do it all again: to do it differently, and better. I wanted to be at the beginning again and be able to experience everything once more because I thought that I could surely, and would surely, make the most of every moment.
Grief is often accompanied by regret, and mine certainly has been. If only I could have done or said something different, or more. If only I had more time or knew what I was about to lose. If only I had paid more attention to what I had or whom I loved.
As a therapist I often see people who come in because they are grieving. They want to feel better, to feel an ease to the pain of their grief. Perhaps I am not always the right person for the job because I have come to the conclusion in my own life that grief is inescapable. Forty years after my father’s death, my grief, which lies dormant much of the time, can come alive in seconds at the sight of a flag-draped coffin or a military funeral, at the sound of his favorite song, or at the smell of his favorite after shave.
As I find places within me to store my grief for people I have lost, I have new grief for my own lost youth, the loss of my cherished role as a parent, and the loss of the easy health I often took for granted. I grieve the loss of my ability to envision my life ahead without the awareness that the years are numbered and that there are fewer years ahead than behind. I grieve the temporary nature of our lives, our loves, and our relationships.
While I do believe that grief in this life is inescapable, I also believe that grief can make us more compassionate, more loving, more aware, and more human. I believe that grief can give our lives meaning and depth, even in our greatest pain, and move us further toward living in ways that won’t leave us later with regret.
As I drove out of my old hometown and headed toward home, toward my present life, I felt a sense of urgency to make my life right now as meaningful and full as possible. I thought of some of the dreams of my youth and wondered how I might resurrect some of those plans and make one or two of those dreams a reality. I thought of the people in my life right now and resolved to be more open with them, to make sure that I tell them and show them how incredibly much they mean to me.
The pain of my grief was a gift. A gift to myself, to the rest of my life, and to the people I love and will love. I cannot go back and relive one day, but I can begin in this moment to live this day in such a way that I can look back in time and know completely that I couldn’t do it better if I had it to do all over again.