What Grief Taught Me About Peace and Happiness

photo of trees turning yellow, with fallen leaves on the ground.

It was nearing the end of September. Though we still had a few warmer days left in Indiana before fall really took over, this particular day was a cool and crisp.

I was dogsitting for a client that lives out in a rural area–a 20-minute drive from my place. It was peaceful, without truly being in the middle of nowhere. It sits behind the township’s fire station, which I imagine sees very little action. There’s a park just up the road. Neighbors around, but not too close. Secluded, but not isolated.

On this particular fall day, I noticed a lot of the leaves had started to change colors. Mostly yellow, but some orange, too. I love to see the fall colors emerge. I find it interesting how we view the leaves as prettier when they’re dead. The wind rustling them over and over gave me wistful, nostalgic feelings of fall.

I was taking my time following Lucy, the pit-mix, around the backyard. The stillness was so tranquil and hypnotic. It reminded me of how little peace was in me.

In 2009, I did a brief stint in the Navy. That’s another story for another blog. But during that time, I wrote one of my favorite poems I’ve ever tried to write. It started out with the line:
“Peace in nature, none in me.”

I think about that a lot. I thought about it there in the middle of nature. How it’s still true 11 years later.

I’m always chasing something. I always have goals and ambitions, checklists and “next steps”. On the surface this might seem like a good thing, but often it leaves me feeling dissatisfied and empty when I don’t measure up or feel frustrated by the process. I’m on a pursuit to change that, but I often use my performance and goals as an indicator of my self-worth. This leads me to feeling bad when I don’t succeed–or just when I find out that something isn’t a good fit for me.

I have wanted to change my pattern of giving up too easily. As a result, I push myself to do things for the sake of due diligence–so it doesn’t become yet another broken dream or shattered illusion. I can at least say I tried before I decide I don’t like it. Because it comes down to this: do I really dislike this and find it a poor fit for me, or do I just hate doing any ounce of hard work and expect things to just work out magically and always be sunshine and rainbows? But that’s also another story for another blog. Besides, I already wrote it (yeah, that’s my second time linking this story; I don’t care. It’s a fun article. You should put aside the time and read it!).

I had all these thoughts swirling in my head about my future, my dreams, what I REALLY wanted out of life. As I was mulling over this, I noticed how the trees shrouded the back line of the property, creating a natural fence. One particular area jutted out from the rest, with the shrubbery and trees creating a perfect, little enclave. With branches hanging down in front of the entrance, it’s hidden until you walk right up to it, or happen to be looking carefully.

A pathway lined with fallen leaves lead to an enclave of shrubbery and trees.
The Enclave

It reminded me of when I was very little, how my grandpa used to take my brothers and me to the “magical forest” behind his house.

September marked 9 years since he passed. He had been in a vegetative state, unable to walk or talk, after a massive stroke in 1999. He was on a ventilator, peg tube, and catheter for 12 years.

September also marked 1 year since my grandmother–his wife–passed suddenly after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She was only 72.

I grieved my grandfather for years while he was alive. Prayers for his healing turned to prayers for “God’s will”. You go from hoping he’ll get up to knowing he never will. You start to believe that maybe he’d be better off in Heaven. That’s if you believe in the first place. I believed for a long time.

I harbored a lot of anger. Why did this have to happen to him? And if God was real and had a “plan” for everything, why was he letting my Papa suffer for so long? Why wasn’t he doing anything? What could be the divine purpose in making my grandmother suffer, taking care of him every day, with little help? I was angry that no one was doing anything. There had to be a way to ease his pain, to help him. I even wished that everyone would stop propping him up with life support and just…let things take their course. But, there was no humane, legal, or ethical way to do it and have a guilt-free conscience.

I’m not saying I wanted him to die. But I did want him to not suffer, and to me, being trapped in a body you have almost no control over, with who knows what kind of mental state and no way to communicate–that’s peak suffering in my eyes. It’s one of my worst nightmares. I cried so many times for him, out of helplessness or frustration.

That was then. Younger, angrier, rough-around-the-edges me. The me of today–who is still angry, but knows how to channel it better–wonders if I would have had the strength to let go, had I been in my grandmother’s position. Could I have let a nursing home take care of him? Would I have found a way to pull the plug and let him go? My Ganny was as strong-willed as she was loving. I can’t say I blame her for hanging on.

My grandmother’s passing, on the other hand, was not gradual. I didn’t have time to come to terms with it. She showed gradual decline mentally in 2018, after a knee surgery, before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2019. At that point, I knew she probably wasn’t coming back. You have to be prepared for that with Alzheimer’s, as tragic and ugly as it is to face. I wrote a little-seen article on Medium about grieving the living; I cried many times, knowing the lady I grew up loving was gone forever. But I was hardly prepared for her to pass suddenly the way she did. I still grieve her to this day.

But don’t we continue to grieve the dead long after they’re gone? Is that wound ever fully healed? Or is it merely a patch job that breaks open, over and over again, until we, too, are released from our physical suffering?

I stood there, in that nature-made enclave, thinking about all of this. Surrounded by tall trees and gentle wind, I felt peace. For the first time in a long time, I felt peace.

I looked up at the tree tops, swaying in the breeze, and I felt like my grandparents were looking down on me.

I felt like they were comforting me, letting me know it was okay, that they would always be with me.

It was at that moment that I had this epiphany: grieving is such a thing of the “flesh”. It is something our mortal, limited, physical self does in response to pain and sadness. It’s understandable. It’s natural. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop grieving while I’m alive on this earth. And that’s okay; it’s designed that way.

I felt comforted knowing that their spirits live on, in some way or another. There’s something beyond this physical realm; something we cannot and will not understand as long as we are mere mortals.

Beyond the physical realm, there isn’t pain and suffering. They’re not grieving us, or no longer being on earth. They celebrate because they’re still with us, all around.

I’m not speaking from a religious place. I’m not speaking as someone who is confirming the afterlife or the existence of angels or ghosts. I know it must sound like that. I’m confirming that I know nothing–about this world or another. I’m saying that I want to believe in Heaven. I want to believe in their spirits surrounding us. I want to believe that because it’s what I felt. More than that, I know that I just can’t know everything. That’s my confirmation: I know nothing. And that’s okay, too.

We as humans have this obsession with having the answer. If we can’t prove it, it must not be real. It’s okay to just not know things, or to admit the possibility of other options. It’s so arrogant to think we humans have all the answers–to think this realm, this plane is the only one. Of course, it could be, but I feel differently.

My “proof” is the way I felt amongst the trees. A little less scientific than some of the other wild claims out there, like the existence of aliens or a parallel universe. But this isn’t an academic journal and I’m not a scientist. I’m not even trying to convince you that the afterlife exists. I can’t convince myself that.

There’s just something that speaks to a part of me that I don’t know how to articulate. A part that can’t communicate with words. It speaks in a language I cannot translate. But the most I can say on its behalf is that: we don’t know everything. But we can be comforted in that we don’t have to know everything.

My grandparents are better off. I will miss them. I will always love them. I will always feel that sadness and deep grief from time to time, because my physical time with them has been cut short. But those beautiful moments where I still feel them, still connect with them–that shows me they’re always with me. Out there in the ether, in the spaces between. I feel them. My love is still going out to them, and theirs to me.

One thing I grieve is wanting to be able to tell them I love them, one more time. In that moment, I could feel that they knew I loved them. They didn’t have to tell me that. I felt it. It was like something I already knew in my heart and it was being revealed to me.

In this moment, I also thought about how short my time in this earthly body is. I don’t want to waste even a second of doing something that makes me unhappy. Why force myself to make something work that I wasn’t sure of in the first place? And what am I even really sure of? It’s good to experiment, to try things out. But I need to let it go when it doesn’t resonate with me. Not everything will. I can embrace my experiences and point to the list and say, look at all the things I got to try and experience! They’ll have to change “Jack of all trades” to “Jessica of all trades”.

I also thought about how much I want to make a difference. It doesn’t have to be for money. It doesn’t have to be something I go back to school for. I want to make an impact on someone’s life though and throw some good back out in the universe. It inspired me to inquire about volunteer opportunities and look for ways to help.

It also inspired me to think about my family and friends. People already in my life who could use a kind word, a reminder that someone thinks about them and cares about them. Doing good in the world isn’t always an Instagrammable moment or a high-profile volunteer job. It can be intimate, quiet, small.

Finally, I felt this sense of peace and stillness that, two months later, I still can savor. I go back to that moment often and try to preserve it and nurture it with self-care, such as meditation, yoga, journaling, self-compassion, and self-affirmations. Simple moments like just taking time to be mindful, time to listen to myself. A second to evaluate if what I’m doing is bringing me that peace or if it’s driving me farther away.

When I think about my grandparents, I still get sad. I well up with tears, still. Even 2 months after this experience. I cried writing this. But that’s natural. That’s what’s supposed to happen. It’s okay. I’m comforted knowing they’re around me, that they love me, and that my love for them can still reach them somehow. It’s not lost.

I may grieve them, but that does not mean they are really gone.

Peace in nature; none in me
So I became the birds and trees
Standing mighty, soaring tall
Nature’s medicine cures us all

Published by Jessica

Writer, YouTuber, streamer, gamer, yogi, self-improver--still trying to figure it all out

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