Our deepest joy is only as deep as our deepest grief

I’ve been having a rich and full year, the most full of my life. It’s been filled with love and grief, with listening and learning. I’ve been thinking a lot, I’ve made some sense of my experience and come to a conclusion I can’t escape: it’s good to embrace grief and heartbreak.

Perhaps that sounds masochistic or just plain nuts. Allow me to explain. The experience began in November 2015. I went to listen to Stephen Jenkinson speak, not far from my home in Wales. At the end of the day, I shook Stephen’s hand and thanked him for ruining my life, for shaking me up so much when I thought I was approaching an age for settling down a bit. What I particularly took from that day was the thought that the more I embrace the inevitability of my death and the death of my loved ones, the more I will be able to love life.

It fits well with Francis Weller’s First Gate of Grief: Everything You Love, You Lose. It might be possible to avoid grief by loving nothing & no one. Which sounds like a recipe for a bleak life of depression & despair. Or we can love wholeheartedly, and embrace the inevitability of losing those we love, right up until our own life slips away.

This all became a lot more real only a month later when my dear friend and housemate LJ was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Being beside my friend in her dying time was a sad, painful, joyous and precious experience, the most precious time of my life. I surprised myself by showing up in a way that was a rejection of what I had been brought up with. Coming from a dull, middle class English family who shun strong emotion, my upbringing told me to keep some emotional distance between myself and my dying friend. Instead, I chose the opposite, I chose to lean in to the experience, to lean into love knowing I was also choosing heartbreak. And by the middle of January, when LJ returned from her last holiday, I knew my love had grown, that I really had chosen the way of love & grief.

LJ died on Good Friday 2016, at the home we shared, in her own bed with two friends beside her, and me in the next room (we had agreed only two of us at a time with LJ — she didn’t enjoy more people). I her final days, she received wonderful care from friends, her doctor, Paul Sartori Foundation “Hospice at Home” & the district nurses.

The evening before, and only a few hours before she fell into unconsciousness, LJ & I connected in a way that is unique for me. I didn’t intend or plan this. I went to sit with her for a while. Knowing she enjoyed company and didn’t enjoy hearing people speak, I chose to sit silently and try to remain present to my friend. What happened next was so far outside my experience, it took a while to make sense of it. We spent about two hours in deep, radically trusting connection, and I experienced something which I will call “love without attachment”. The  experience of these two hours are the most precious of my life so far. I am sure my friend died knowing she was loved.

I wept easily in the days after LJ died. I got more deeply in touch with my grief a few weeks later with friends while I was in Mallorca. Here, I found all of it, and I howled like a wounded animal. I beautiful, precious and painful experience. Grief, someone said, is a way of loving.

So in the first few months of 2016, the deepest connection, gentlest love and the deepest grief I have experienced. Not a coincidence, I’m sure. We can’t selectively numb ourselves — our deepest joy is only as deep as our deepest grief. We can have neither or both.

My suggestion? Show up wholeheartedly for all of it: love, joy, grief and heartbreak. Yes, it’ll hurt sometimes. And the love might be exquisite.