The Uses of Sorrow, by Mary Oliver
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that
this, too, was a gift.
I encountered this poem after my dear friend David died by suicide. Even after five years, it has never left my thoughts. In many ways this poem has helped shape my perception of gratitude. It has also helped shape the way I think about hardship, grief, and the many challenging times we all must face if we spend very much time around these parts.
As such, I find myself reading lists of things not to say to someone who has suffered a great loss. I tend to read things like this because I am always convinced that I will say the wrong thing. One of the things that often pops up on these lists is, “Everything happens for a reason.” I totally get that. The last thing someone in great sorrow ever wants to hear is that there is a reason for their misery. While I don’t necessarily believe that everything happens for a reason, I do believe that everything happens. You will lose loved ones, you will see dreams dashed, you will be denied the one thing you long for more than anything in the world, and you will make horrible decisions that hurt people you care about deeply. It is impossible to move through this world unscathed by hard things. Everything happens, and you have power to give it reason.
This is where gratitude comes in. When something horrible happens and you are engulfed in darkness you can and should, if it feels right to you, look for beautiful things around you and feel grateful for them. What if you can also feel gratitude for the darkness itself? Yes – I believe this with all my heart – even the darkness can be a gift. We grieve because we loved. We are sad because we are alive. We lost something special because we had something special. In my darkness I have discovered the most amazing things.
In 2007 when I lost my brother to a heroin overdose, when he was 30, I discovered some powerful things about self-identity and how I was meant to exist in the world. I could no longer rely on the labels I had used to define myself. Was I now an only child? What did that mean? Was I not a sister? These questions allowed me to grow and expand my understanding of myself.
In 2010 when I became overwhelmed by selfishness and betrayed a friend, I lost that friend and many others. I lost my ability to even see the good in myself. I earned that punishment, and the darkness was so dense, I worried, at times, I would never emerge. Still, in that darkness, people came to me and reassured me. They nurtured and healed my heart. They came to me, in darkness, in ways they would never have come in the light. The love and support I experienced during that time changed me.
In 2012 one of the most magnetic people I had ever met, who lit up a room just by walking into it, decided that he was just too sad to live in this world even one more day. How can you feel gratitude for that? You can’t, but the way our friends clung to each other during that crisis, and celebrated David, is something for which I will forever be grateful to have experienced.
Now, in 2017, I am watching my mother die. It is a slow, excruciating death that could as easily come next year as could come in the morning. Again, darkness. I am looking for places where I can feel gratitude. It is hard, but for me, it is the only path to the light.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: EMMA GRAY
Emma lives outside Portland, OR with her husband, two teenage daughters and two orange cats. She spends more time than she should each day thinking about cheese and being sad about the impending empty nest but works hard on being kind to herself. You can find Emma on Instagram at www.instagram.com/emkgray trying to find beauty in all the things.