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Good Grief

I was recently at an end-of-year dinner with friends during which we each reflected on our "roses and thorns"— the positive and difficult experiences in our lives over the past year. When it was my turn to share, one topic quickly came to mind, but it was difficult to name it either rose or thorn.


Grief.


In September of 2022, my mom passed away after a brief and horrible illness at the age of 65—too young and too suddenly for it to have been anything other than a tragedy. I was on my way to meet her for a long-awaited post-pandemic family beach vacation. We had talked the day before about the recipes we'd make together at the beach house: margaritas (her favorite) and Alison Roman's grilled chicken wings. The last text I received from her was a response to me saying our plane was taking off.


"Yay!" She wrote.


I was in flight the moment she was rushed to the emergency room. She had been admitted to the hospital by the time I landed. She never came home.


The hours and days I spent with her in the hospital were simultaneously some of the most meaningful and terrible of my life. When she died, my heart cracked open at its core and every emotion I had ever felt came flooding from the fracture. It was all I could do to keep from drowning in the deluge.

A person with a broken heart where their head should be

That fall and winter was a sludge of shock, trauma, and deep sorrow. There was the usual outpouring of support immediately following her death, but as the space between the loss and the present grew, things became quieter. It was in that quiet that I often wondered what it would be like to live as this new person I was becoming. A person with a fractured heart. A person with grief.


A New Roommate

In 2023, I made a commitment to myself to make space for this grief. It lived with me now, after all. I figured I'd better get to know it.


Thanks to some planfulness and supportive colleagues, I was able to give myself the gift of a summer (mostly) off. I turned down work, which was both a privilege and a risk, and tried to just be. Every day, I lit a tealight candle next to a framed photo of my mom standing on a mountaintop on a cloudless Oregon day, her arms triumphantly stretched to the sky. I read some of The Year of Magical Thinking and a lot of Mary Oliver poetry. I listened to podcasts on grief and watched a glut of Seinfeld. I spent time with loved ones, spent time with nature, did the Sunday Times crossword most weeks, and rested. I did not paint the front door that badly needed painting. I did not organize my closet. Over and over, I hushed the voice in my head that demanded I do something "productive" until it finally kept quiet.


Grief turned out to be a pretty conventional roommate at first. Sometimes I wished it would go away, but sometimes I appreciated its company. It hung out with me in my backyard where I spent a lot of time sitting in the sun or meandering around the garden, plucking figs and tomatoes and sugar snap peas while my border collie dutifully dropped the frisbee at my feet. When Mom visited a few summers earlier, we bought Halcyon hostas and a Japanese painted fern for the shady bed beneath my pear tree. I watched them all push their way up through the soil again, sturdier and more full than the year before, even though I had nearly stopped believing in perennials.

Flowers growing out of a broken heart

As the days and weeks went on, grief evolved from acquaintance to trusted companion; a sherpa guiding me through the briar patches of profound loss. It accompanied me to the depths of my sorrow, which, in turn, led me to the depths of the love my mom and I share. It introduced me to who I am as this new person. This person with grief.


A New Practice

I learned to be alone with grief. Eventually, I knew I'd have to learn to be with it out in the world. The work I do is rooted in a belief that connection is the birthplace of all effective collaboration. Operating from this theory of change requires a level of openness that is often taboo in professional settings. I decided that grief was my opportunity to test it.


Many of my meetings begin with an opening check-in that invites people to share what's happening in their lives. These moments challenged me to be honest about grief. Sharing this aspect of myself while holding my professional identity—without fear or shame—was the new growth edge of my practice. It was a risk, but one I was ready to take.


One person handing a broken heart to another outstretched hand

What I found was that this act of vulnerability was often the permission others needed to share at a personal level. To my delight, it allowed me to connect with people in ways I never could have predicted. One person opened up about the grief they were feeling after a divorce. Another talked about their anticipatory grief for an aging pet. Since I decided to include this part of myself in my consulting work, clients and colleagues have shared their griefy feelings with me about parenthood, career changes, the climate crisis, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, relationships, imposter syndrome, and other tender subjects both individual and collective.


These conversations didn't darken the tone of the meetings, nor did they derail our agendas. Instead, each time, they added a new dimension to our collaboration that allowed us to work from a place of deeper understanding. Our willingness to be human with one another didn't detract from our work; it enriched it.


A New Perspective

It's been a little over a year since my mother's death. I still light the candle next to her picture every day. Grief is integrated into my life now. It informs my work, my relationships, and my sense of self. It's not my whole identity, but among the multitudes.


In the legendary words of Poison, every rose has its thorn, but it feels too simplistic to call grief one or the other. In my experience so far, grief is not a single emotion, but a dynamic presence that will continue to evolve alongside me. Its rose and thorn features are akin to polarities: interconnected qualities with equally meaningful lessons to offer.

To be clear, this is not a silver lining story. My mother's death is a painful reality that I wish weren't so; a wound I will always carry. Early on, when that wound was too tender to touch, I assumed it was grief that made it hurt. Over the past year, I've come to believe that loss is the wound, and grief is the medicine that allows me to live with it.


Grief hasn't fixed my broken heart—it's helping it stay open.


A woman standing on a mountaintop with her hands stretched triumphantly to the sky
Mom at the summit of Neahkahnie Mountain overlooking the Oregon Coast

"You must keep breaking your heart until it stays open." —Rumi


2 comments

2 Comments


Guest
Jan 19

This is beautiful Amelia! I miss her too… I was so thrilled when she called me out of the blue and wanted to come visit! My cousin… someone I had known since childhood, but not really. I had probably seen her only a handful of times.

she came and spent a long weekend with us!

It was love at first sight! We bonded immediately! There is something very familiar about someone brought up by your Daddy’s brother!

After that we spent some time together, but not enough! My biggest regret is thinking that you have endless time to spend with the people that you love.

I have so many things to ask her and to tell her. I hope that…

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Guest
Jan 18

I will share this with my husband. He (we) lost his daughter in 2022. You write so well. The landmarks in the first year and beyond (birthdays, holidays), the things that prompt a memory such as a song, an article of clothing. All of these. I don't think grief every goes away, it changes and evolves.

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