Castles Made of Sand Can Be Built Again
The Holidays are Hard for Missing Loved Ones, Give Yourself Permission to Grieve and Accept It for the Gift It Is
I was thirteen when I first heard “Castles Made of Sand” by Jimi Hendrix. I knew he was singing about the delicacy of life and how it can turn on a dime; but at that age, it all sounded so ethereal and poetic and so far from my experience. I am middle-aged and wise now, and I know better. That song came on the radio today, the day I lost another friend to cancer. Mourning is such a necessary journey, but with each loss in my life, it is never the same journey. What I have learned about mourning is that it is a special time to devote our feelings away from ourselves. It is a true act of selflessness because every bit of our being is focused on someone else.
I don’t even like to stop and think about all the people who have passed from my life; it is just too overwhelming. We can’t go back and fix the past; we can’t bring our loved ones back; we can’t change the things we did or said when they were alive. Death is the only certainty that comes with life. I suppose the only way to reconcile that fact is to try to accept it, learn from it, and live even harder with it breathing quietly at our side. Frida Kahlo, the iconic 20th century Mexican artist whose body was mangled in an accident, used to say, “I know Death well; we play cards every day.”
With the holidays upon us, the pain of death is amplified. The holidays mark special times and memories of those who are no longer here, and the holidays shine the spotlight on the loneliness of missing cherished ones who are gone. Some of us go into dark places within ourselves and we don’t even know why. So, I am selfishly writing this piece to deal with my own sadness today; yet, there are lessons to be learned from dying that are universal in truth. If I could console each one of you for your losses, here are the things I would say.
Go into your dark place and welcome every tear that wells up inside. There is no way to avoid the sadness or depression of loss. It is as real as breathing. Articles that give advice as to how to cheer up around the holidays are written with good intentions, but they don’t give credence to death. We, in western cultures, are not given permission to look death square in the face and say, “Bring on this pain, I loved the person you took away from me, and I have earned the right to honor them with this grief.” We quickly bury our loved ones and are encouraged to move on. Eastern cultures view death as part of the great cycle of life, so grief is as natural as worshipping at the altar of Buddha. Death is even welcomed as enlightenment in the higher planes of Buddhism. The gift I give to myself when I think of my friend today is the knowledge that I was part of her journey. It is now up to me to continue the joy she brought me to change my life and affect others.
Thank the people who surrounded your dying one and grieve together. Since I live far from my friend who passed, I learned of her death from a loving email that she requested to be sent on the day of her death. After I cried and paced around the house, I sent her niece a long letter of all of my favorite memories of her aunt. I know that this particular niece was with my friend every step of her illness. I spent most of my words on thanking her for her loving presence and being there to usher her aunt to a better place. I think death teaches us how to be more present with our feelings; it teaches us how to be empathetic with those who share our grief. Death teaches us humility and kindness a gives us a sense of community.
Bring the people you miss back symbolically for the holidays. I had hopes that I would see my friend in December one last time, but God had other plans. Thanksgiving is around the corner. I want to hang her beautiful painting in a room I just refurbished and I will share with my family a picture book of her African safari, her last big trip. I will invite her to share my Thanksgiving. I will make sure my friend is never forgotten. Death teaches us that people can go on in our lives because they were always in us before they died.
It’s okay to let grief consume you as long as you have a safety net. Yes, we know people who couldn’t go on living when they lost someone of great importance. It happens. For all the people I’ve lost in my life, I know I will never be prepared to lose my mother. My mother is 83 and we have always been extremely close. Even when I think of her passing, I cry. However, my safety net is that my mother and I have the death conversation frequently. She wants me to continue living with her memories and her lessons long after she’s gone. I know when it happens, I will go to ground, but her influence on my life will pick me up by my bootstraps. I will rely on those who knew and loved her and we will keep her alive in our hearts. Her love will give me the strength to go on.
Finally, don’t forget to cherish the ones among us. My wish for you this holiday season is that you use death to help you celebrate those alive in your life. Talk about things you don’t want to go unsaid, make special memories, and keep gratitude and appreciation at the forefront of all of your holiday events spent with family and friends. When the time comes for our exits, we will have carved our existence into the hearts of those who matter. Frida Kahlo also said in unspeakable pain before she passed at the tender age of 46, “I hope the leaving is joyful and I hope never to return.” Frida left an exciting life with many people who loved her, but knowing her body was broken beyond repair, death came as a friend to take her home.