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The hard task of hope

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 17, 2013 06:21 AM

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Every year, around my dead son’s birthday, I usually find myself wanting to write about the gift of him and the hard-won blessings of grief.

This year, I’m not feeling all that blessed. This year I’m feeling very sad, and thinking about just how hard hope can be. 

I don’t actually plan on writing about Aidan every year. It’s just that writing is how I process what I’m feeling, and his birthday brings so many feelings. And while it’s a sad day, usually what I mostly feel is stronger and wiser because of him. It feels good to write about that; it anchors for me that everything we lived, and his loss, had purpose. 

But this year, I’m not feeling so much sanguine wisdom. This year I’m remembering just how hard it was to make it through the days when he was so sick, and after he died.

Part of the reason, I think, is that my middle daughter is going through a tough time right now. Sometimes when she talks to me about it, there simply isn’t a way to spin it positively for her. All I can say is: You’re right, it sucks.

Because sometimes things just do suck.

Bad things happen all the time, sometimes even awful things. Yes, you can find ways through—even ways to emerge stronger and wiser. But it’s really hard work.

It’s that hard work that I am remembering this year on Aidan’s birthday (which is a lot less fun than feeling blessed, I have to say). Getting through it takes courage and strength, but it takes something even harder: hope.

It takes a particular kind of hope, because no amount of hope can make sure things turn out the way you want, let alone cure incurable diseases or bring people back from the dead. This is a different kind of hope. It is a hope that rises above and finds a different way to see and think. It is the hope that life can get better. 

That’s what I’ve been trying to tell and teach my daughter recently, without a whole lot of success. Because it’s easy—normal, actually—to feel powerless in the face of sadness and loss.  Sometimes it truly does seem that life is unfair, that everyone else gets to be happy and you don’t, that you are stuck in an infinite loop of pain.

Sometimes it’s little things that you have to grab onto to slow you down as you go around that infinite loop. Like comfort foods, or favorite movies. For brief moments, you feel better—and the simple fact that you can feel better at all helps. So does the simple fact that you can identify and choose these things, that you can say: I’m going to make cocoa and watch The Sound of Music. The choosing gives you a glimpse of the possibility of power over your days and feelings. It’s just a glimpse, but it’s a beginning. 

And when somebody smiles at you, and you smile back—or when a neighbor leaves a casserole, or you laugh with a friend or hug someone you love, you are reminded of the goodness of the connections between us, and how those are always possible too.

And when the bright red of a sunrise, or a haunting melody or a poem or the intricate patterns of ice on a window catches you and momentarily takes your breath away, you are reminded that as awful as life might be sometimes, beauty doesn’t go away. 

That’s the essence of this kind of hope, I think: it’s the understanding that badness and goodness coexist, that the fact that sometimes things truly suck doesn’t mean that there isn’t reason for optimism.

I managed this kind of hope finally when we lost Aidan. Which isn’t a guarantee that I’ll always be able to do it—but at least I had the practice of it, and maybe that means I can help Elsa out of her loop. 

Which, I guess, is another hard-won blessing of grief—and another reason for hope.


Thumbnail image for aidan.jpg

Aidan, at 5 months


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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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