The Good in Feeling Bad

Not all negative emotions are bad for you. Plus, greeting obstacles with joy, pain but not suffering, nastiness and what matters to us.

Does Faith Help Us Grieve or Let Us Off the Mourner's Hook?

Are you a believer? Do you believe in signs? Should I?

Anniversaries of grief and loss are the pits. My family and I just lived through another one; four years since we lost my brother. People bring it up. "It must be hard, with the anniversary and all," they say. Like living with his shocking, senseless death somehow gets harder near and on this one day. I always want to say no, it's not harder, living with the impossibility that he is gone - waking up every single day to realize anew that he is gone - is just as horrific as it was on that first day and remains so. But people assume that the birthdays or anniversaries and the holidays that those of us who have lost loved ones feel especially bad or sad on those days.

Killing With Kindness

And, of course, I realize people are just trying to be kind, trying to show us they're thinking of our loss and wishing us strength. But what I really want to say is: It's only worse because so many people force me to have these conversations! THAT'S what makes anniversaries harder.

But that's not entirely true, either. Thinking about how the day would have gone if he were alive is its own special category of awful. Because it would have been the best, the loudest, laughingest, most rockin' fun celebration ever. Everything about my baby brother was the loudest, laughingest, most rockin' fun celebration ever. He laughed like a lion's roar and danced like a maniac given the slightest provocation. Even just walking the dog or taking the kids to the park. He was the most joyful, most gratitude-filled, most good-spreading, most soulful man I've ever met. And every single day I wake up forgetting, and have those glorious few milliseconds of half-sleep that are immediately crushed by the brutal reality of his loss.

He knew everything about me. He was a healer. He was my liver. I'd go to him with my ugliest feelings, my meanest thoughts, just the most horrible, the most ungenerous, unhealthy, most bile-filled toxic stuff, and somehow, with the enormity of his compassion, insight, and grace; through the sheer force of his tremendous empathy, he'd hear me, yeah, I hear you. I understand how you got there...I'm not there...But I get you. I can see that....

My brother healed us all

And he'd heal me. All of my rage and ugliness would somehow, pass through the magical alchemy of who he was, and would be ground into sand by his compassion. His love and listening turned it all into something manageable, something I could live with, heal with. I will never understand how he did that. His ability to talk — which was tremendous — was only outdone by his ability to listen.

The only person who could get me through my brother's death, is my brother.

And every single day I wake to the impossibility that he is gone, to the grief and loss all over again.

Some days, I look for signs, signs he's out there, somewhere, watching over us. It's unbearable to think that's possible and it's unbearable to think it's not possible. But I know there must be some kind of monkey business because of what happened with the license plates.

Back in the hospital, during those brutal, horrible days when we lost my brother, several of my friends who are Buddhists were around a lot. During one of so many awful moments, I'm sitting there in that hospital room, and I'm in agony, and one of my friends, one of the Buddhists, keeps saying: He was a wave...he is a wave...we are all connected...

Do You Believe in Miracles?

And while I resisted - and continue to resist - all things I perceive as bumper-sticker solutions, somehow, I heard that, I allowed myself a teensy bit of comfort through my blinding agony. So I'm like, he's a wave...I'm a wave....okay...I got this.

One of them gives me a card and it says this:

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

And I open it up and who said it? Albert Freakin' Einstein. The most rational guy on earth believed in miracles?

The Signs

These things literally happened. It is a fact. Now, unfortunately for me, my only witness is a Buddhist, and his interpretation may be something like, maybe it was always there...maybe it was never there... Buddhists make lousy eyewitnesses. But I'm telling you it happened.

It was on that last horrible night, the night before we lost my brother, Joe. I was in alone in the ICU hospital room with him. I was out of my mind with grief. And I said to him, look, I need you to talk to me. I need you to be loud and clear and tell me you've got my back, that you're still here, that you're with me. I'm so fogged up with grief and pain I can't hear and I can't see, so you better be really loud and you better make sure I get it, okay?

One of my Buddhist friends picks me up from the hospital after that, and we're walking towards his car and he has this odd look on his face. I say, what's wrong, thinking his car was stolen. He says: "I parked behind this white SUV, and, well, I'm not sure what to say."

Then I'm thinking, what, is there a Nixon for President bumper sticker? And we get to the car, and I look at the license plate on the back of the SUV, and I swear to whomever, it says:


And I say, okay, I hear you. I hear you.

Reluctant Witness to Miracles

I bear unwilling witness; I trust little about anything and don't have time for hooey. Maybe that is why I believe; because I do not actually believe.

The day after, I was driving home from the hospital with my best friend from high school. She's a Buddhist, too, I should mention.

The Second Sign?

We're driving towards my mom's house and I'm just shattered, just a mess. And I'm telling her how I've lost all my faith, lost my anchor of belief, and am utterly lost. What if there's no one to give my pain too, I ask. What if I just sit here and hold onto all of this pain and anger and dismay, this toxic ball? Even if there were a higher power, what if I'm holding on so tightly to this pain, rage, grief and loss, and I never give it up, can a someone like god come down and take it from me?

And literally, I swear to, well, whatever, just as I said that a car zoomed by. The license plate: GODSLUV

"There's your answer," she said.

The Last Sign

The third sign revealed itself while we were pulling up at the airport. I was heading back to Oregon after the memorial service and saying how angry I was, how terrified I was, how stuck I was in my rage and pain, grief and shock. How was I going to get through this? I was convinced there was no way I could make it through all this pain, no way to live through this grief and loss.

We pulled up to the drop-off curb at the airport and the license plate on the mini-van in front of us said: BREATHE


The Good in Feeling Bad