When Dan and I found out, five months into my first pregnancy, that we were going to have twin sons, we were both pretty upset. It wasn't just the Downs Syndrome false alarm that intially came along with the news of twins and it wasn't just the daunting prospect of having two babies when we weren't certain we could handle one. Part of the problem was that they were boys. For reasons I can't really remember or explain, Dan and I had long imagined parenting a daughter named Rosa (Dan had already picked out his daughter's name when I met him at 19, a fact that I found very endearing). When we found out that we were becoming parents of two boys, we had to do some recalculating.
A few weeks after that surprising ultrasound, I had a dream that I was sitting at a big table, sharing a meal with a group of women I knew from various parts of my life. There was Rita who was a member of the church I grew up in and Kate, one of my college chaplains, and others. I don't remember much about what happened in the dream except that we were all gathered around that table, laughing and sharing a meal. When I woke up, I realized that all of the women I dreamt about were the mothers of two sons. I realized that I was joining a community of women who I loved and whose families I enjoyed. It was deeply encouraging.
This dream has come back to mind as we send our two sons off to college. All summer friends and family have been asking me how I'm feeling, offering sympathy and support. It all seemed a bit unnecessary. Paul and Isaac are going to amazing schools and I have no doubt that they are ready, academically and emotionally. It has been exciting to read their course catalogues with them, to find out about their roommates and their housing. If I've been feeling anything negative it is a bit of jealousy--I'd love to go back to college myself.
But then Isaac left and grief came and knocked me upside the head. It seems incredible that their childhood is over. Weren't they just born? Didn't they just start Kindergarten? I imagined myself running after the train yelling, "Wait a minute! I'm not done yet!"
I posted a note on Facebook, talked to a few friends, and within an hour, I was surrounded by people who had been where I was. Some sent kids off to college last year, others said goodbye 40 years ago. Some of them gave advice or made cheering comments about how we'll adjust to the new configuration of our family. But what helped was the reminder that there is a community of people who have walked this path before. When I sit among them, I feel stronger.
Human beings are hard-wired for community. We're pack animals, and an aspect of this is that our emotional lives are deeply influenced by the people we're around. We start laughing when we're around people who are laughing. We're more likely to enjoy something when the people around us are having a great time too. We catch anger and frustration from each other too as anyone who has had to wait in a long line knows. Obviously, if we want to be happy, we should seek out happy people and avoid angry, negative people.
But grief seems to work differently. We catch it from each other, certainly. When we are near someone who tells the story of a loss and starts to cry, we find ourselves tearing up even if we didn't know the person they're grieving. Having led dozens of funerals, I know that every loss reminds us of other loses. We grieve not only the person who died but re-grieve all the other people we've ever loved and loss.
But somehow, sharing grief doesn't make it worse. It makes it bearable.
Last week, we had to say an unexpected goodbye to a member of the Kittamaqundi Community. Our community has the tradition of gathering at the church in the evening on the day that someone dies, just to be together. We gather again, later, for a funeral or memorial service, but these immediate gatherings are informal, unscripted and raw. Sometimes the family of the person who has died joins us and sometimes they don't. Maryellen told her family about this practice before she died and urged them to go. "You won't want to go," she told them, "but you'll be glad you did."
That's what happened, too. They didn't want to go. Their sadness was just too big to take out in public. But when they came, when they sat in a room of people who were sad too, people who loved their mother and people who were remembering the sadness of losing their own mothers, and they found there was a place for them. Grief had its place too. We offered it a chair and called it by name. There was room for all of us.