You can’t fully experience, enter into, own, gain victory over, or learn from what you refuse to name.
Igal Shidaad is a well-known character in Somali folktales. He is sort of a bumbling fool, clever and cowardly, and always the butt of jokes. Here is one story.
Igal Shidad’s beloved she-camel was killed by a lion. He swore he would kill the lion. He took a gun and went to the bush in the evening to search for the lion. Soon after leaving home Igal came across a dark shadow in the middle of his path. He knew it was the lion and his heart raced. If he shot and missed, the lion would pounce on him. He was too frightened to shoot so he crouched down in the dark where the lion couldn’t see him. He decided to wait for the lion to come closer so he would have a better shot.
He waited all night long. The lion never moved. Neither did Igal Shidaad. Finally, morning came. The sun rose and revealed that what Igal Shidaad had thought was a lion was actually a tree stump. He was such a coward that he had spent the entire night in terror of a tree stump. He said,
“What I thought! And what you are! And what I will never do!”
Which meant: I thought you were a lion. But you are just a small tree that can’t harm me. And now I will never go into the bush again at night even if my camel is missing.
If Igal Shidaad had simply gumptioned up all his courage and approached the shadow closer, he would have discovered the tree stump, saved himself a sleepless night of fear, and quite possibly have successfully hunted down the lion.
Grief is a heavy word and, like a coward, I try to avoid it primarily through calling it something else.
“I feel sad,” sounds a lot more manageable than, “I feel grief.”
“That makes me want to cry,” sounds a lot less vulnerable than, “I am grieving.”
I spoke a few years ago with a friend who has a Master’s degree in counseling people who have experienced trauma or grief and as I shared some of my parenting experiences in Djibouti, she said, “You have a lot of things to grieve, don’t you?”
I almost laughed. The thought was ludicrous. I had a lot to grieve? Grief was for people who were mourning the deaths of loved ones. Grief was for refugees or victims of horrible crimes. Grief was for this year’s Boston marathoners and the family of another journalist murdered in Somalia this week. Grief wasn’t for someone who didn’t understand parent-teacher conferences or who could never fully participate in after-school activities or for someone who was stretched so thin from language study and work projects and team meetings and general culture stress/shock that she didn’t play games or have dance parties with her kids. Grief was too big a word for a mom who simply felt like a failure. It was like calling a tree stump, a lion.
She said (my paraphrase): Grief comes with the loss of someone or something. You’ve lost a lot of someones and somethings, including who you thought you would be as a parent. Until you start calling it grief, you won’t be free to discover who you are as a parent.
And just last week in a post at A Life Overseas, Kay Bruner wrote about writing down the things lost for a TCK or for expatriates on sketches of tombstones. So here I am, learning to stop calling the tree stump a lion. Learning to write losses on tombstones. I’m learning to stop saying “sad” and to start saying “grief.” To step closer to the pain, to the thing that has been, or is being lost, and to name it.
So this is grief, this past Monday afternoon when the twins got back on the plane and went to Kenya. The school break is over and I feel more than sad.
I miss my kids when they are gone. If there were a more poetic way to say it, I would, but there stands the naked truth. And even when they are home for break I miss the undercurrent of knowing they will stay. I miss the sound of squealing laughter as Henry tackles Lucy or Lucy tickles Maggie. I miss the fighting. I miss calling for three names when it is time to leave the house and squishing into the car. I miss setting five plates and hearing children banter at the table. I miss running out of cereal in the middle of the week and arguments over what to eat for dinner and who gets the last bite of Daddy’s Special Recipe treat.
I’m going to stalk this grief, like Igal Shidaad, but not to slay it. I’m going to stalk it in order to embrace it, live with it, and love out from it because I don’t think it is going away. Tombstones get covered in grass or snow but they don’t disappear. This is a grief I will bear for the next three months and will enter fresh after the next school break. But I will name it and shine light on it because lions turn into tree stumps in the light of day.
What do you need to name with courageous truth?