It was a cold January morning in Park City, Utah. I was talking with a woman I had just met named Molly. As I sat in her living room, she told me about her two-year-old daughter Lucy and the choking accident that took her life. I will never forget the look in her eyes when she said, "Your brain just can't fathom that your child is so alive in this one moment and gone in the next."
On another morning almost two years earlier in Atlanta, I was out on a bike ride with my dad. I was happy, the kind of happiness that comes with the regular things in life, like a bike ride. After passing the river by his house, we turned and began to climb a long slow hill.
I was riding about ten feet ahead of him when I heard a crashing sound from behind me. Turning around, I could see he had been hit from behind by a car and thrown from his bike. Those next moments were the kind that you can never fully remember, and never truly forget. I held him in my arms on the side of the road, sat with him in the ambulance, and heard those unforgettable words in a small hospital waiting room. "We did everything we could." And just like that he was gone. He was 52 years old.
There was a service at my parents' church. There was food and relatives and flowers. The days became weeks and everyone got back to their lives. I was determined to do the same. I changed jobs. My wife and I moved our family across the country. We had a baby girl. And it all seemed to be working. All of the changes and new things helped me to focus on anything but my dad. I poured myself into work, and did not shed a single tear after the day of the service.
Then a strange thing happened. More then a year later, I woke up with a strange desire. Something inside of me felt like it was tired of the numbness that I had been living with all year. In search of some kind of answers or help, I decided to do the only thing I knew to do. I set about making a documentary film about the topic of loss, and after enlisting the help of a few friends we embarked on what would be a life-changing journey.
I was interested in learning from people who had experienced loss, in situations both similar to and different from my own. We traveled around the country, sat in homes, shared meals and shared stories with people many of whom we had just met. I asked simple questions about what it had felt like to love someone and lose them.
In Park City, as Molly poured out her story. I felt something I had not felt in a long time. The warmth of fresh tears falling down my face. As she spoke, the agony in her words unblocked something inside of me and I wept. The longing in her eyes, and the closeness of pain in that moment, invited me to the very thing I had been trying so hard to avoid. Feeling. As these feelings filled up inside of me, I began to grieve the loss of my dad for the first time.
As we continued filming conversations with people around the country who agreed to share with us, I began to see something emerging from all of their stories. Each of these people had come to find in different ways that they could not out-run their grief. As unique as their stories were, the thread that wove them together was they all had to face their pain to fully live and love again.
As I listened, I began to wonder if when it comes to pain we have it all wrong. We grow up being taught to avoid pain at any cost, to move past it and be quick to conceal any hurt we have inside. As person after person shared with me, I began to see that pain itself holds the keys to our healing. In a society that pushes us toward recovery, perhaps the best thing we can do is to stop and stay a while in the space that loss creates. Maybe that is why it hurts so deeply to lose someone we love; the pain creates a space for the long slow work of healing.
I am in no way an expert on loss, but as I look back on my own experience now this much is clear. We are made to feel deeply. Feeling both the bitter and the sweet things in life is what makes us human. When we avoid the painful feelings, we deny ourselves the opportunity to fully experience and express the good things as well. It is in feeling the full weight of each page that we can begin to embrace the full richness of our story. To me that is the greatest gift of loss: it is an invitation to live and love with even more compassion than before.
For more information on the film visit: http://aftertheendmovie.com
'After the End' is sponsored by Creative Visions Foundation, a publicly supported 501(c)3, which supports Creative Activists who use the power of media and the arts to affect positive change in the world.