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Dear Julie,

Thank you for your sweet note concerning my work. Thank you, too, for entrusting me with this question that’s been weighing on your heart: “How does one hold both grief and joy at the same time?” I’ve been carrying the question gently, mulling a reply.

If you and I were sitting together over coffee, or leaving two sets of footprints along a stretch of sand, I’d turn the question back to you: “How do you hold both grief and joy?”

I’d redirect the question because I believe you’re already living your answer. Somewhere inside, you already know how to do what you doubt you know how to do. And you’re doing it.

The truth is, most of us are well-practiced at holding contrary emotions at the same time. Think about it. When we recover a lost child, we’re tremendously relieved, yet we may also be vexed by whatever took the child beyond our reach in the first place. When we caretake someone we love, we may feel the sacredness of ministering to them even as we endure incredible sadness and stress. When we attend a wedding, we may find ourselves weeping—from joy, yes, but maybe also from loneliness, or a sense of loss …

* * *

Allow me to sharpen your question: “How do I hold both joy and grief when it feels unbearable?”

To me, this feels more to the point. I don’t have “the answer.” But I can muse.

Like you, I want to live my life with an open mind and heart. The more I do that, in my experience, the more joy I feel. But I also feel more grief. Both joy and grief are the offspring of love.

Big Love sets us up for Big Hurt, even as it prepares us to survive it. Often, Big Love and Big Hurt are so twisted up together, they can’t be untangled.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I was facilitating a Zoom group that’s been meeting for a while. Our members have developed a warm intimacy.

Only a few minutes into our gathering, a woman asked me a simple question. Suddenly, I was all choked up. My gratitude for the group, coupled with my exhausted sorrow over the world’s turmoil, stole my voice. Tears spilled into my eyes.

I felt “unprofessional.” But there I was, lost in my emotions on the screen.

I closed my eyes. I breathed. Aware of the silence in the Zoom room, I knew my friends were waiting the Good Wait, quietly supporting me through cyberspace.

Once I reclaimed my voice, I confessed to the group how desperately I wished that more people “would make clear by their actions that they give a damn about the world.” I admitted how beat-down I was feeling, bearing witness to all the cruelty around me, powerless to stop it. I said how much I needed to believe that the humble kindnesses we offer one another do make a difference against the overwhelming tide of suffering …

Our group wasn’t “supposed” to be talking about any of this. But, as it turned out, other members needed to share their own distress and tears. By the end of our 90 minutes, we’d helped each other limp back into the field of hope.

After the Zoom concluded, I called a loved one who always has a song at the ready.

“It’s been a tough day,” I said. “WIll you sing me a tune?”

* * *

My little Zoom anecdote reveals what helps me hold joy and grief at once, especially when it feels unbearable.

First, I remind myself to breathe. (Breathing is always a good place to start.)

Second, I acknowledge the truth of where I am—right there in the thorny knot. I don’t deny it. I don’t dismiss it. I don’t suppress it. Rather, I accept it. I name it.

Third, I find a safe place (or a safe person) where I can fully feel and express the excruciating pain of that thorny knot.

Then—and this is so important—I deliberately seek out what might bring me a little consolation or relief. I apply this soothing balm to calm the energies swirling within me.

On the afternoon of that Zoom, my balm was music, supplied by a voice dear to my heart. Long, tight hugs are a balm for me, too. And poems. And the companionship of animals. And getting lost among thick trees. And dancing. And writing heartfelt letters. And banging the piano. And having a good ol’ cry—I mean, the bawl-until-you-can’t-bawl-anymore sort of cry. (Sometimes, sweet laughter comes soon after, like sunlight breaking through the aftermath of a storm.)

* * *

I suggest that you fill your soul’s medicine cabinet with all the balms you might ever need. Best not to wait until you’re in despair to stock up. Do it now.

Then, especially when your Big Love is in the grip of the Big Hurt, open that cabinet and freely take whatever presents itself. There will be enough. That will be the precious last step in tending your tender heart—

Until you start back at the beginning, with your breath.

Always, always, begin again, remembering that you know how.

Always, always remember that you aren’t crazy, feeling as you do.

And always, always remember, you’re not alone.

I, for one, am right there with you.


Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash


Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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