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“A Friend of Grief and Hope” by Laura Neibaur

In February of 2023, we released our third Open Call: How might we reflect and reimagine wellness in public health as art, letters, stories and poetry? The following is a story submission we received from this open call.

“Too many people are struggling, sinking, and desperate, and there are so many answers, too many answers. And no answers. There are too many suicides and miserable minds walking the planet without direction but seeking something. Often, an excellent balm for this, even if we are alone, is not feeling “alone,” and shared experience is the most incredible comfort in times of grief and hardship. In ancient times, people were called to the town square to cry out about their ailments and what they did to cure them. People gathered around and learned from these “commoners” who had found some remedy for some issue. It was expected that you would share it if you found healing. But we lack town squares and communities of people close and caring enough to trust. We lack the courage and wisdom to cry out on our proverbial soap boxes and share experiences. Social media is filled with “dandy lives” of perfect people instead of REAL people – and let’s face it, we all struggle with the same dozens and dozens of ailments, but we all still feel alone. My submission is a glimpse into a darkness that found some hope through a friend called Grief.”

Laura Neibaur

A Friend Called Grief

Dear Struggling Friend,

Sometimes foolish, foreign thoughts walk brazenly into our minds dressed in pantsuits and putting on airs. We don’t own them, but we can entertain them nonetheless. 

On those days sprinkled into our lives when everything seems dandy, the thought pings in our minds, life isn’t so bad! Why am I always on edge?” 

Then, some blasted trial hits like a morning-star weapon wielded by ogres in fairytales, and all those thoughts flee like little flies being swatted away from honey. 

When we aren’t having dandy days – which is frequent – it seems we are either on mental and emotional life support or in that strange in-between world that I call – The Waiting Room. 

For some, The Waiting Room feels like the cold uncluttered outer space. Or the center of Earth’s molten iron core where cardinal directions all meet at one point.

Perhaps we’ve just come up for air from the previous near-drowning life experience that was so deep and gripping that it left you totally jaded, lying on an abandoned beach with sand in every crevice and seawater spilling from your body. 

In truth, the in-between feeling of The Waiting Room can be more painful even than the actual submerging. At least, while you are submerged in your trial, you know that at some point, the powers that be will have to drag you to the surface. 

But after that most exhilarating feeling of being wrenched upward and tossed onto a beach, you know that the next giant wave is most likely waiting on the horizon. Waiting to pound the life out of your already sore and bedraggled self. 

What’s the point, you ask? Really? That’s like kids asking why they must go to bed, clean a bloody wound with stinging liquid stuff in a brown bottle, force down asparagus, or wake up for school or work day after wretched day. 

Somehow, these acts are the creatures that magically reduce the wretchedness. Interesting. 

So, what do you do during these sometimes scary, empty, or complacent moments? If you’re asking this, you might be suffering from a symptom of post-traumatic trial syndrome. 

It’s common. Don’t kick yourself. We can’t all pretend everything is dandy.

Is there any answer? 

Maybe. I don’t know about you, but I seriously dislike the trite phrases that come to mind when you or someone else is still gagging up seawater on the beach – you know the ones I mean….and you also know that there is a lot of good to be learned from these – that’s why they come to mind! But, during seawater gagging moments – they can feel trite. 

            Remember to pray

            Count your blessings

            What can you learn from this?

            The sun will always come up (Highly Plausible – 99.990002% chance, according to French polymath Piere Simon Laplace)

            You’re not alone

            I understand

            I have a friend who…and this is what they did

            Don’t worry…good will come from this

            Are you doing everything you should be? 

Heck…at the best of times, I’m not doing everything I should be! That’s practically impossible. Wait? Are there people out there doing everything they should be? Oh, yes, that dandy person on social media. 

I am literally running from plate to plate to keep them spinning, and while I’m spinning one plate, I worry about the plates on the other side of the proverbial room that are slowing down! 

No! I’m not always doing everything I should be. Honestly, from experience, that may NOT be the answer. 

During these wrenching moments, It’s not always about DOING. Do you expect a car accident victim to run off carrying soup to his neighbor? Another word for a soup carrier is a meddler, and if you’re in a car accident, you’re probably busy growing skin, not poking around in other people’s lives.

If you’re a decent human, you’ll probably spend a reasonable amount of time helping your neighbor, kids, spouse, friends, co-workers, and countless family members. Plus, managing money, reading good books, working from dawn until dusk, exercising, drinking lemon water, and eating salmon and salad.

All these things, plus a million others, are the acts that people think, all lumped together, will save you from vomiting gallons of seawater onto the beach. No…none of us can keep all the plates spinning at the same speed at the same time. You’d have to run a marathon every day – and what’s the point of that? To make you vomit faster? 

Well, nothing works one hundred percent of the time – and of course, we all know that trials are an excellent little whip crack to get us up and running after plates, but is that their purpose? 

I don’t think so. I think the powers that be (whatever you believe they are, you may insert here) are really trying to wake us up to what is going on deep inside – 

These times, instead, should be a time to slow down. Calm down. Pare down. If you think you’re already doing this – maybe you’re laying in bed, desperate for relief from grief, wishing you were dead, feeling a weight so heavy the house might as well cave in on you. Guess what – you’re not slowing down!

Your mind and heart are going a thousand miles an hour in a swirling vortex of emotion, and the fact that your body isn’t going with it means you are definitely in trouble. 

I have experienced grief and intense pain. Pain so dark and thick that movement hurt. But there’s always something

Sometimes it takes a moment to figure out where/what the secret balm is. It’ll change from moment to moment – even second to second. 

IF you can forget everything else for a minute, let some stuff fall apart around you, and try to slow your mind, you will see through the thick black and know what you need at that moment – 

Don’t worry – the dark ones will be there to remind you that wallowing is best and to ignore your promptings to head in the direction of a balm. 

You don’t have to be religious to believe in darkness – you know what I mean – the stuff that inhabits dark feelings – They’ll stand in your way, put you back to bed, sit by your side, legs crossed, and sing you a dozen lullabies about pain, anger, resentment, fear, doubt, and grief….

What is grief anyway? What does darkness even know about it? 

I used to think grief was a word that represented some feeling. 

No – I’ve decided that grief has a more physical form. I can feel it very physically. Perhaps it wears a cape, maybe a hood, until you get  to know it better. 

Let’s refer to Grief as He. He brings memories with him – he may even be the transportation vehicle for departed loves to visit, then back off to their otherworldly jobs (of which they have many and cannot spend all day wallowing with you) that you start to feel this physical pain which we call Grief. 

Darkness will vilify Grief. It’ll tell us that it’s horrible, evil, and miserable and that we should not have to be in its presence. THE POWERS THAT BE (INSERT HERE) DID THIS TO YOU.

But really, grief is that feeling of tugging that yanks us up a sharp, merciless mountain all the way to the top, stepping in whenever we slow down and urging us onward until we reach the peak and can look down toward a valley so vast and beautiful – and most importantly breathe in that freeing gulp of first air after months or years of submersion. 

Don’t hate Grief. He is there to drag you up, up, up, and eventually out. You can’t go swimming downward after a loss – you will just get further from the top, and you’ll still have to swim that distance, plus however far you sunk down by trying to avoid Grief’s hand. 

What else do we vilify? Wisdom? Pain? 

What other false melodies does darkness sing by our bedside when the sun goes down? So STAND instead. 

Follow their paths! 

Grief, Pain, Doubt, Fear, all these creatures are on this path- perhaps they are pointing to their fellows who wait ahead – Rest, Healing, Trust, Faith, Honesty, Bravery, Joy, Love, Honor – and the list goes on and on. So keep on the path, and when you take Grief with you, watch it transform into something else amazing. 

Don’t stop to spin plates – instead, gather them lovingly into your arms, and while you’re walking, look through them. Find what you need in the given moment. Soon these plates will be spinning themselves while you get ever closer to the grand and glorious destination, with all these experiences suddenly making sense. 

Into a city of endless shores, the waves are conquered, grand mountains whose peaks are not the sharp tips of cliffs and jagged rocks but are literally the pillars of a great goodness and light that tames every wave. 

The Algonquins referred to it as Gitche Manitou. In Lakota, it was Wakan Tanka. Cherokees call him Unetlanvhi. This being and his realm forever tame the seas and mountains. 

With Love, 

A Friend of Grief and Hope

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