Warning: discussion of death, loss, and grief; brief mention of vehicle fatalities.
Death has always been hard for me – accepting it, accepting our immortality.
I spent my last year of high school living with family friends in Belgium. Walter and Maria’s three children were clustered around me in age: Lieve was a year older, Bart was my age, and Veerle was a couple years younger. Veerle was like a little sister, and I felt very protective of her – protective in the sense that I wanted her to have the world, and tried to run interference anytime something got in her way. She had a bright spirit and loving heart. I imagined a time as adults that she would visit me in the U.S., and that our friendship would carry us into old age.
When Veerle was 18, she was struck by a car while walking with a friend. Her friend survived, undergoing many surgeries. Veerle died instantly.
I heard the news two weeks after my son was born. As a new and young parent, I was overwhelmed and terrified by my new responsibilities. Hearing this devastating news was impossible to process. I had neither the time, support, or emotional resources to deal with this loss or my grief. I became “stuck.”
For many years after, my fear of death paralyzed me. I couldn’t bear to consider that life always ended in death, and that loved ones would ultimately die. Any time thoughts about the possibility of death intruded, I could feel the thoughts being repelled, and I sensed the wall around my heart.
I wish I could say that I found a way to love deeply in spite of this, but that wasn’t my truth. As an adult I have had three committed, intimate relationships – and while I loved each, I was unable to be emotionally vulnerable. I always kept a part of myself hidden away – even from myself.
When my son turned 18, he and I traveled to Belgium to see my friends – Bart, and his parents Walter and Maria. Bart and I went to Veerle’s grave, and deep grief poured out of me, sobbing loudly and snot running down my face. After that I felt much of my wall erode. I could think about loved ones’ mortality without shutting down. For the first time, I could imagine surviving such a loss.
There were events that profoundly increased my fear and retreating inward. The gruesome vehicular death I responded to as a park ranger. My son being diagnosed with cancer.
But eventually, love started breaking down the wall again. After a time of being paralyzed by my fear for my son, a deeper emotion emerged: my love for him. It was undeniable and unyielding. It consumed me much as my fear of death had consumed me, and it tore at the wall of my fear.
And then my love for my daughter-in-law, and for my nieces and nephews, rushed in. This has been my touchstone: when I am fearful, when I hide myself away, I think of them and am flooded with deep, infinite love.
One week ago, Walter and Maria came to the U.S. for a brief visit. They stayed with my folks for a couple days. I knocked on my parents’ door and my mom opened it. Maria rushed to me, arms extended, saying, “My girl, my girl!” She enveloped me in a hug, then would pull back enough to look me in the eye and express her delight again, then back to the hug. I was overcome by the outpouring of her love, and wiped away tears.
For a couple hours it was just me, Maria, and my mom. And mostly Maria and I talked. I shared about my life since I’d visited Belgium: about my traumas as a park ranger, my long solo path, about my son and his good prognosis. She shared about her life with Walter, about Bart, about all her grandchildren. We talked about my year living with them, and my struggles to learn the language and to connect with my classmates. I’d been so timid and self-conscious back then.
We talked about how Veerle’s death had hindered Bart in being vulnerable enough to experience true love, and about how he seems finally to have found love and release with his new wife. I shared that it had also hindered me and that my greatest struggle in life is to learn to risk and be vulnerable, to open myself up to love and to loss.
She talked about their recent move from the home Veerle had lived in, the home that still had her room intact, filled with her things frozen in time. She shared how difficult it had been to leave that house, to leave Veerle’s last bedroom, but that Veerle would not have wanted them to be stuck in grief. Veerle would want them to be happy, and for them, that meant moving closer to their grandchildren.
She was right. Veerle would not have wanted Bart to build a wall around his heart. She would not have wanted me to be fearful and closed off. Veerle was always vibrant and fully engaged with life; she would have wanted that for the people she loved.
The rest of the day, I kept thinking of Maria’s expressions of deep love and would smile. Love filled my heart and tears would come to my eyes, a few drops spilling over. I realized, I love this family as my own: all of them – Walter and Maria, and their children Lieve, Bart, and Veerle. I had forgotten, had hidden away that love. But Maria’s open love for me pulled down that wall and more love flowed into my heart.
In the days that have followed, both a lightness in my heart and sadness well up and spill over. This family is so connected to my relationship with love, loss, and grief. Veerle’s death shuttered my heart; her family’s love for me (and mine for them) helped open it back up.
It is probably overly optimistic to think that now I will love with a vulnerable and fully open heart. But I do understand on a deep level:s Denying love feels like hardly living at all. Letting in the love, and letting in the grief, while in some ways opposites, pump strong and genuine feelings through my heart. Both make me feel alive and engaged. Both make my heart feel like it will burst open – I feel my breathing deepen and my body stand taller; I really feel the sun or wind or rain on my face; I feel open to the world. I feel open to love. I feel open to life. And it is good.