I came to witness grief young. I didn’t lose a parent or a sibling, like so many of my friends, but I lost my Kindergarten teacher because she lost her son – the five year old boy who sat directly in front of me in a class taught by his mother.  

I kicked his chair every day to get his attention, because I had two older brothers and that’s how I got their attention. I made Brian laugh, made cut out paper glued to other paper for him and finger paints.  Sometimes he turned around and flashed his smile that seemed too broad for his small face he would never grow into.

In a horrible twist of fate, this five year old boy rode his blue bicycle into the street and was killed. Just like that my daily world of the best teacher ever – the teacher who wore her heart outside her thin cotton dresses and was never short on love and hugs –  was shattered.  

And the desk in front of me stayed empty for the rest of the school year.

There were no grief counsellors then for anyone. I’m certain it was my mother who gently lit a cigarette, exhaling the impossible news toward the brown tobacco stained ceiling, because my father pushed grief aside like a monster at the door with an open mouth. 

My father”s way of dealing with sorrow was with dead bolts and tools, to lock the monster out, and his way of curing my mother’s sadness was to build something for her, or get out a wrench and tighten everything that had become loose.

That was the same year when my mother’s grief of leaving her beloved city for the country a few years before caught up with her, and the trees our builders had stripped from our land against her wishes made her cry daily, and I was going to school every day to an endless stream of substitute teachers and an empty desk in front of me, carrying grief back and forth in my metal lunchbox.

I became an early student of grief and how we carry it.

My father brought in railroad ties and soil and built my mother large gardens placed on our acre where she could plant seeds and push bulbs into the earth.

When I was cleaning my desk I found a yellowed, cracked, typed note from over fifty years ago given to parents at the close of Kindergarten, with these typed words – “this has been a challenging year for all of us.”

And it made me think of all the grief the world is enduring now, and all the joy and all the hope that walks side by side with the grief, inviting the grief stricken back to the light of the world.

I’m writing this today to tell you we all have empty desks in front of us, missing people who have imprinted us forever, now gone.

Who can understand why those we love are taken from us, by death or by the wave of grief that sweeps them to a distant shore? 

I know this for sure –  this is what we came here to learn – how to reconcile that we are mortal beings learning how to release the people we love, the homes we love, even the land we have come to love and revere as the oceans rise and the weather shifts.

What if the whole plan for our earthly existence is to learn to love and release, love and release – not just to love small, but to love big, to love each other every day in our bodies…. and then when we are separated, to learn to love beyond the bodies? 

We need new words for grief and love that exists beyond the boundaries of time and space. Perhaps cell by cell we are re-making each other every day, through memories and story and art. Perhaps the language needed for this experience of loving and releasing needs new sounds, new words, new notes for a new song.

We are all the same choir, ready to open our throats and reconnect our broken and mending hearts to each other.

Poet Jan Richardson reminds us how the light comes through in her poem, which is my prayer to all of you today in this beautiful, fractured and wonderful world filled with trees and gardens and people we love:

I don’t know how the light comes,
but that it does. That it will.
That it works its way
into the deepest dark
that enfolds you,
though it may seem
long ages in coming
or arrive in a shape you did not foresee.

And so
may we this day
turn ourselves toward it.
May we lift our faces
to let it find us.
May we bend our bodies
to follow the arc it makes.
May we open
and open more
and open still
to the blessed light
that comes.