The stages of grief are actually circular, or cyclical, or totally unchartable. Take today. I’m in the grocery store, getting ready to pay with my new “chip” card, which is a little stressful for me, being as new technology often throws me off my game. And a song comes over the P.A. They’re on an early 1970s jag in Albertson’s, because I’ve already heard “Muskrat Love.” But now the Carpenters are singing “We’ve Only Just Begun.” And my heart breaks in a new place as my eyes fill with water.
I get a sudden mental image of a statue of a man and woman holding hands and running. My dad gave it to my mother one Christmas, just after he’d retired. He had a special plaque engraved and adhered to the base of the statue, which read, “We’ve Only Just Begun.” My siblings and I thought it was sweet and a bit silly of him; after all, we were grown-ups and our parents were hardly just beginning. We were just beginning. They were old.
That statue, lovers frozen in a run, sat on the mantle in my parents’ living room until the Northridge earthquake destroyed it. The following Christmas, my dad presented my mother with a similar statue, and a similar plaque, but it was an empty gesture. The magic was gone. Over the years of retirement and failing health, my mother’s mindset had hardened into perpetual disapproval of anything life offered, especially if it came from her husband, and my dad had retreated into his own little routine of contentment. They hadn’t just begun. They were over.
My dad has been dead for seven years now, my mom for seven months. I mourn the loss of my parents; I grieve for my own status as an orphan. But life goes on. Time brings healing. Most days I am able to live in joy and fulfillment, grateful for the extravagant blessings God has bestowed on me. But sometimes there are days, or moments of days, like this tiny slice of time in the grocery store, when regret and sadness and longing for what once was stagger me. My parents found ways to make each other miserable toward the end of their marriage, but they also had times of deep love, when they truly felt that they’d only just begun. That stupid statue was a symbol of hope for them. This stupid song had brought so much rushing back to me. I know that everyone who has ever lost someone is familiar with this blindsiding of grief. It’s a little like a labor pain: it will build, it will crest and the wave of hurt will recede. Until the next one.
People die every day, and every day other people mourn them. Other people cry unexpectedly in the grocery store. The sense of loss when a loved one dies is universal; it transcends language and culture and everything else that separates us. But people are born every day, little ones who’ve only just begun. Life balances death balances life. And even if we plunge from joy to tears, from faith to fear, God will not let us fall off the seesaw.
Valerie Schultz is a freelance writer, a columnist for The Bakersfield Californian and the author of Closer: Musings on Intimacy, Marriage, and God. She and her husband Randy have four daughters.