His face is stained with tears. Opaque lines run from the corners of his eyes to his mouth. Lashes clump together, like he’s wearing cheap mascara. A lone droplet sits atop, reflecting the room with a fish-eye lens.
I squeeze him tightly. His little hiccups breaths are finally slowing down. I can smell the salt of his tears as he burrows into my body more deeply. Almost like he is trying to crawl back inside of me. And a part of me wishes he could. So, I could protect him from this world.
I almost wish that I, too, could crawl back into my own mother’s womb right now or at the very least back into last year. Back before we were locked in our homes and kept apart from families and friends. Before touching each other became dangerous and staying away an act of love. Before this plague that is COVID 19.
But that is not why my son is crying. He is only 9 months old. He does not remember life as it was before the virus. He does not know the extent of suffering happening across the entire planet. No, all he is aware of is within the four walls of this apartment.
Yet despite his world being small, his emotions are mighty. He feels everything and not yet having words, he communicates through tears. In many ways, this makes his pain pure. Honest. There is no past story convoluting the clarity of his perception. No inner voice judging his reactions. Or outer one trying to explain it all away.
When my little one was first born, his cries were a signal of something happening in the present moment – hunger, discomfort, exhaustion. But as his awareness expanded, he began to realize that things exist even when they are no longer seen. This is why he is currently crying. I left the room and, though I was only gone a few seconds, it felt like a lifetime with no end in sight. It was a loss and it was excruciating.
He felt exactly like how a lot of us are feeling these days. Wondering when the virus will be over. Waiting anxiously to be together again with those we love. So, though he may not know about the pandemic specifically, he knows exactly what it is like to yearn for something lost and to miss someone he loves.
My impulse, of course, is to shield him from anguish entirely. To erase it before it can even occur. Never putting him down long enough for him to wonder where I am. Surrounding him with everything he needs so he never goes without. Knee-jerking the words, “you’re okay,” as though I could convince him he isfine, when he so clearly is not.
But if I sterilize his life clean of suffering, how will that prepare him for the reality that loss and challenge are inevitable parts of living on this planet?
For even the most seemingly permanent things – jobs, health, family – can be taken away in an instant. We are reminded of that truth every day, especially during this pandemic. And as unbearable as it is in the moment, there is actually a gift on the other side of that knowing. It is what makes life precious. It makes us truly appreciate what we have. We cannot have life without death.
It is also exponentially more damaging in the long run to try and deny our feelings versus being with them in the moment. When we pave over unprocessed emotions with fake smiles and busyness and “I’m okays”, they resurface in other ways, like acting up or numbing out or becoming ill. We end up hardening so much that we have no space to let anything in. Holding so tightly, we eventually crumble.
Instead, if we are able to sit with our emotions as they arise, we see that they are not fixed, but moveable. Like waves, coursing through us. They shift from our belly to our solar plexus and throat, and back again. They ebb and they flow. When we really feel our feelings, we witness firsthand that even the greatest sorrows are transitory.
My job is not to teach my son how to bypass suffering or avoid pain. It is to show him how to be with it. How to be in it.
So rather than willing his feelings away by saying, “you’re okay”, I reflect them back to him. I say, “I know it hurts right now.” Rather than telling him not to cry, I encourage him to let it out, making sure to also tell him that he is incredibly strong for doing so. And rather than hurrying his processing along, I stay with him in it for as long as he needs us to be.
Because crying is not a sign of weakness. Admitting struggle not a sign of defeat. Feeling our feelings takes incredible courage and it is the challenges we survive that strengthen us the most. Like diamonds forged through fire.
Life is hard right now on a lot of levels. Most of us have suffered incredible losses the past year. But there will be another side to this. There will be an end; even though it may not yet be in sight. We will put the pieces of our lives back together and though they may look very different, they will be even more beautiful. Connected by the depth our love. Shaped by the strength of our resilience. And sealed together by our appreciation for how just dear everything we have is.
No, my job is not to never let my son not be okay. My job is to teach him that it is okay to not be okay and that it is what makes life precious.