Grief is cumulative. My sister, Peggy, died in a single car roll over on Interstate 80 just shy of her 23rd birthday. She was moving out of the family home after returning there from college. She needed out, she wanted to live closer to me, and had gotten a job in Reno, a short mountain pass away from my home in Tahoe. Other than a family dog or 2, Peggy was the first person close to me that died. It was devastating. It took months until I felt like I was functioning on anything other than auto pilot at work and in my personal life. Slowly, I began to see in color again. I could introduce the idea of voluntary change in my life. I quit my job, I moved to Oregon, I fell in love with Jim. I stopped working in orthopedics, and took a job as a pediatric physical therapist. I liked the ongoing and deeper relationships I got to form with my clients, and their families.

I had one special child on my caseload. She did not really need my services. McKenzie had a heritable form of muscular dystrophy called Charcot-Marie-Toothe. The rest of the family and extended family had the typical presentation of ankle foot abnormalities. In Kenzie, it manifest in a much more severe way. By the time I met her, she was in a trunk brace for scoliosis, and drove a power wheelchair. She did not really need me, as I could do nothing for her spine, and she was a very proficient chair driver….even advocating before the city council in Philomath to add a curb cut to the sidewalk in front of a new minimart. Kenzie did not really need me, but I kept her on my caseload because she was fun. She wanted to learn to line dance, she could only stand up in neck-deep water, so I set up hours at the high school pool and taught her every dance I knew. Kenzie went in for routine back surgery, and never awoke from the anesthetic. It hit me hard….way harder than I thought it should have. It made me realize that grief is cumulative.

Grief cut me wide open. It opened me up to all the pain in the world. Watching others lose their sister and child opened that wound again. I’ve lost many more children in my line of work, it is an occupational hazard of loving and caring for each individual and their families. It hasn’t gotten easier, and death doesn’t look at “fairness” statistics when it decides to strike. Each time, the wound eventually closes up. My body and soul heal, but the scar remains, becoming a bit more ragged with each accumulated loss. While I know that healing does occur, it doesn’t hurt any less for that knowledge. I don’t “get used to it.” Grief still cuts me wide open, and it is cumulative.

This summer, with all of my travels to see old friends, family, my river tribe, I realized that joy is cumulative too. Shared stories of “remember when” with my Tahoe buddies had the wine threatening to spurt out of my nose again. I hadn’t seen these girls in over 20 years…it didn’t matter one tiny bit. I am adoring reconnecting with Jim’s family…his sister, their kids, their lives. I love knowing that Jasper will have them close by, and will be adding stories of his own to their kitchen table. Seeing kids that have grown up on the river shift from green to competent behind the oars or behind a dish bucket. The tribe has goofy memories of Jim, sad ones too, but happiness is even there, just below the surface. The anticipation and the joy of adding to our shared history is cumulative….just like grief.

Grief and joy are cumulative. Perhaps joy is what weaves the edges of the hole created by grief back together. The resulting tapestry is this wild and precious thing called life. 

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