2020 has been a hard year for everyone. With COVID, the world and our sense of normalcy were shaken. Some of us lost loved ones to the virus. All of us had our lives changed. If we were lucky enough to keep our jobs, we still couldn’t go out as we normally did. Weddings were delayed, holidays missed, goodbyes went unsaid, and hugs became a novelty.
We grieved what was lost. Sometimes things we did not appreciate before. Other areas of life continued on, both the pain and the joy.
While this blog shares my personal relationship with grief this year, I write this with the thought that others grieving may find something in my words. Hope, discovery, a sense of connection…I’m not sure, but if you’re reading this, I thank you for sharing in part of my story
As a human being walking this earth, I’ve had some experience with grief at various degrees. Additionally, as a mental health therapist, I have had a little training in helping others experiencing grief. I learned the well-known 5 Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) by the brilliant Elizabeth Kubler Ross and then watched the videos of Martin Prechtel’s speech, Grief and Praise. If you haven’t yet seen those videos, I highly suggest you do. In short, Prechtel’s belief is that on the other side of grief is gratitude. It is only if we’ve experienced love or joy that we experience the deep sadness of having lost someone or something. Or, better said in the words of David Kessler (Kubler’s protege) “You don’t have to experience grief, but you can only avoid it by avoiding love. Love and grief are inextricably intertwined.” In hindsight, we count our blessings and find gratitude for our sorrow.
On a rational level, Martin’s speech was easy for me to accept and understand. Of course, the challenge is always putting theory into practice. In 2020, there was no escaping hardship and loss, with my only choice being going through. But could I find light in the dark, the rainbow after the storm, and thanks through my tears?
During spring and early summer, I shared many of the same fears and sorrows as most of my friends and acquaintances. Financially, I was worried. I had two part-time, self-employed jobs, both threatened by instability. At Easter time, I was sad that I couldn’t go see my family in Ohio, where both my mom and older sister, Amanda, were battling cancer. In June, I felt the absence of my dad’s yearly trip to Colorado to visit me, my twin sister, and his grand-dog. Then in August, while camping in the mountains, I got the call that the doctors could do no more for my older sister.
Just a few days after getting “the call”, me, my twin sister (Sandi) and my dog (Pacer) were packed up and headed to Ohio. We had 3 precious and sacred weeks with Amanda before she passed on September 3rd.
I remember waking up the morning after Amanda passed. I had gone to sleep in the same bed as Sandi and my dog, like we had with Amanda when we were little, waiting for Santa or the Easter Bunny to come. We opened our eyes at nearly the same time, and in seconds our tears were spilling onto the pillows. Sandi opened the bedroom door so Pacer could sit with my dad at the kitchen table downstairs. Then she laid back down and held my hand, neither of us ready to get up and face the reality of what we had lost.
And while I shared this grief with family, it was sharp, acute, a knife slicing through my heart. An intimate relationship had been severed. My older sister, in physical form, was no longer on the earth to walk through life’s challenges with me.
Weeks and months later, the grief still comes in waves. Within a moment, it feels like my breath has been taken away. Being a therapist, I know my only option is to feel it or let it build and consume me later. Sometimes that’s all it is, a moment of intense pain before it passes. At other times, the tide moves back slower. I need time to let the tears fall in order to let the pain pass.
In fall, I return back home in Colorado to smoke. First from one fire, then suddenly, from several. Neighbors down the canyon are losing their homes. In town, we all had our bags packed. Then it was our turn to go, as the East Troublesome Fire roars over the Continental Divide and burns through Rocky Mountain National Park.
In the mornings, I would hop online, checking to see if the fire consumed homes and businesses of friends in my community. I breathed sighs of relief for my neighbors and said prayers for those in nearby towns who had not been so lucky.
Again, I’m filled with sadness, though this time it is a collective grief. It’s not as sharp, but I feel its heaviness. I share the fear and pain of my neighbors, my fellow mountain-dwellers. While I am feeling more than just my own emotions, there is some comfort knowing that I’m sharing these feelings with hundreds of others.
I broke up with a boyfriend in June. Without getting into the details, I’ll simply say it was rather abrupt and many strings were left loose. By the middle of fall, I was in a more reflective state, ready to have the conversation that should have been had months earlier. We sat down on my favorite rock outside my house, Pacer often poking with her snout to get between us. Each of us spoke our truths, both acknowledging the how and whys our lives didn’t, and couldn’t, fit together as we continued our journeys. Knowing the brevity of life, I decided to tell him a harder truth. That I had loved him. Him, ever cautious, maybe too cautious, with words told me he thought he did and still loved me too. These are the words that ripped all my wounds back open, though I didn’t understand it at first.
I knew he meant what he said, as at the core of his being, he is love. But I knew he didn’t love me how I wanted to be loved: fiercely, wildly, unapologetically. I cried for what seemed like the better half of the next 24 hours. I wanted to text Amanda, and I knew I couldn’t, so I cried more. Slowly, as I let the waves pass, I started to see a little clearer. I realized wounds not only from the year were re-opened, but childhood wounds, wounds from my parent’s divorce and never feeling like I was enough. I heard the questions from voices that I thought had quenched* and healed from: “Am I loveable?” “Am I worthy of love?”
*As a therapist, both from my own experience and those of my clients, I know these voices and stories that we thought were done with still like to pop their head up from time to time, often from new angles, just to make sure we really understood the lesson.
That evening, as I was headed back up the canyon with Pacer, the pain started to recede slightly. Almost with my normal reserve, I was able to sing-a-long with Miley Cyrus:
“She got her hair pulled back ’cause the sweat’s drippin’ off of her face (her face)
Said it ain’t so bad if I wanna make a couple mistakes
You should know right now that I never stay put in one place
Forever and ever, no more (no more)
The midnight sky is the road I’m takin’
Head high up in the clouds
I was born to run, I don’t belong to anyone, oh no
I don’t need to be loved by you (by you)”
Pacer was resting in the back seat. I had just seen my twin and her boyfriend. I had talked to my dad and texted my mom. A friend had bought me flowers. I had all the love I needed, and I reminded myself of all things I loved about me too, coming up with another: a strong will, that will never let me settle for anything but what is right and true. Going through the pain allowed me to open back up to the love and beauty I already had in my life.
“Yet the heart itself cannot actually break, for its very nature is soft and open. What breaks open when we see things as they are is the protective shell of ego-identity we have built around ourselves in order to avoid feeling pain. When the heart breaks out of this shell, we feel quite raw and vulnerable. Yet this is also the beginning of feeling real compassion for ourselves and others.” -John Welwood
I’ve only lived in Estes Park for a little over two years, but even in my list of complaints, I’ve come to love the community and all the people in it. I’ve witnessed so many acts of kindness, sometimes being on the receiving end, and a neighborly love that I’ve never experienced in other places. As for the Rocky Mountain National Park, the more I explored its mountains and lakes, the more RMNP became part of me, leaving imprints on my soul. I nearly cried when I watched the aerial shot of the burned area, my heart weeping for the trees and the animals who called the spaces home.
Eventually, I rode my bike down to Glen Haven, taking a closer look at the charred, black trees from the Cameron Peak Fire (the largest wildfire in the state’s history, although the East Troublesome fire wasn’t far behind when it exploded in size overnight). “I’ve hiked that ridge.” I thought to myself. “I know those trees. I know what they feel like. Now, I feel like them too. Black and charred.” But if I know anything about Mother Nature, with time, space, and the right resources, She will heal. And I will too. Neither of us will be the same. Nor would I want to be. But grow, we shall.
I miss my older sister every day. At night, I’ll often watch a slideshow of her pictures. I cry and smile at the same time. So many wonderful memories! I hear “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and “Hey, Soul Sister”, two of her favorite songs, on the radio, and I know she is watching over me. My life would be so different if I hadn’t had her in my life. Would I have had the courage to fly?
My heart is open. Vulnerable.
“I will be brave,” I think to myself.
I write Amanda another letter.
I can’t promise you much, except that I will live until I die.
Despite the threat of wildfires and floods, I will continue to live in the mountains,
because this is where my soul soars. I will do my best to be a steward of the land, even if my actions seem insignificant. I will continue to put my heart on the line, in all relationships, because life without love is not alive. So I’ll keep my armor off. To give, to receive. And just like I was your little ray of sunshine, I’ll do my best to be that for all other beings, even when darkness threatens to consume me. I will scream in anger and dance in joy. I will laugh until I cry. I will run through pain until I reach the stars. Amanda, for you, I will live.
It’s almost winter now. My grief isn’t exactly one of those friends I want to excitedly embrace once we get a COVID vaccine, but I do open up to it. Nor do I wish pain on anyone, I just hope others allow themselves to lean into their grief when it comes. For it will come, to any living being walking this earth who is brave enough to love. I am also not an expert on grief. I still haven’t found meaning in my sister’s death. Is that even possible when someone dies so young? What I do know is that I have some power to create meaning for myself, a choice on how I will let it define me. And still, though I can’t explain it in words, I know that somehow, I am a better person for having faced the storm. That I am both softer and stronger. I realize that I cannot understand the vibrancy of life unless I accept all of my emotions.
In the morning, I watch the sun’s pink light creep up the mountains.
“Life is beautiful…even when it’s not.” -Amanda Rose Nypaver (1984-2020)
Ray A. Nypaver