To Insist That Sorrow Not Be Meaningless

I recently spoke at a festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan and this was the title I gave to my talk. It comes from an elegant essay by Jayne Anne Phillips, one I sometimes read to my students, and each time I arrive at this phrase – “to insist that sorrow not be meaningless” — my voice trembles and catches. It has been the story of my life: this sorrow, this insistence.  As I delivered my speech, I found myself focusing on the word insist. The work of being human, of living a life of meaning, does not involve merely, say, hoping that our sorrows not be meaningless. Nor may we kind of, sort of try. No. This insistence is what’s called for, because only insistence will do.

It has been a challenging time. The world seems turned upside down for many of us. All we need to do is turn on the television or spend five minutes on Twitter and we’re faced with a cascade of terrifying news. In my own life, I have been unusually sad — my eyes wide open — the reality of time’s passage, mistakes made, trust misplaced, opportunity squandered. At the same time – eyes wide open – I am aware of enormous good fortune, privilege, great love, profound friendship. This too, this too, as the great Jack Kornfield is fond of saying. This too.

I spent two days of this past week in a locked Alzheimer’s unit at an assisted living facility, listening to my beloved mother-in-law scream in agony. I watched my husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law be broken open again and again by the stark underside of love, which is loss. I wandered the halls and saw elderly people staring into space, or lying in their beds, or gazing at fish swimming around in a fish tank. They were all once active, vibrant people. It was impossible not to think: Is this what it comes to? Is this what it all comes to, in the end?

Which, of course, it does.

And so: what does insistence look like as I sit here on my chaise, sleep still in my eyes, my house quiet, dogs snoozing at my feet? Once, this life would have felt out-of-reach, unrecognizable to me. Downstairs, my husband is working on his own writing, or lost in his own head, as I am in mine. We have been together for twenty years. Out the window, the greening of early spring has finally begun. A bird has made a nest atop our porch light. This afternoon, our boy has a tennis match. Once – a long time ago – I rocked him in my arms, fearing for his life. Tomorrow I lead one of my favorite private retreats. Then I head to Miami for a few more days of teaching.  Once, the idea that I had anything to teach anyone would have seemed laughable. It has come – all of it, every last bit of it – from the stubborn, dogged insistence that all I can do is make something of this life. Make books. Make a family. Make meaning. I can’t make my mother-in-law better. I can’t protect those I love from their own pain. But I build a path with words, one following the next like a trail of breadcrumbs out of the wilderness.

  • I’m gasping. Achingly beautiful. Thank you for this.

    • Danishapiro

      That means a lot to me, Elissa. xx

  • Warren Dittmar

    Beautifully said.

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you!

  • katiejdevine

    Oh Dani, this is perfect. Thank you for teaching us even in the non-teaching moments, and for helping lead us to the meaning we strive to find in our own sorrow.

    • Danishapiro

      You are doing precisely this, Katie. I’m full of admiration and respect for you. xx

  • Along the breadcrumb path is a magnificent string of words you previously wrote: We cannot afford to walk sightless among miracles.

    • Danishapiro

      Ah, the Hebrew Sabbath prayer. Yes. :))

      • Aha—I didnʻt remember that was the source. Mahalo from Kauai.

  • Barbara Boyd

    Breathtakingly true and beautiful. Thank you.

    • Danishapiro

      So glad, Barbara. Thank you.

  • Thank you for this, Dani. Perfect timing. ❤️

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Norma. Glad it resonated.

  • Karen

    I so love this! I loved your conversations at the Festival in Grand Rapids, too! Please come back again!

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Karen! I loved being at the Festival in Grand Rapids as well!

  • Priscilla Warner

    Dani, I am so sorry for what you are all going through. I know the life behind locked dementia wards very well. Please know that I am thinking of all of you, and always available if there’s anything I can do, including simply sit still, listen, and bear witness to what you’re feeling. I send you all a huge hug.

    • Danishapiro

      Oh, that means a lot to me, Priscilla. I know you know. Thank you. And a big hug back. xx

  • David Kendrick

    Once again you touch my soul and awaken my conscience with images of the revelation of the only promise life ever gives us. There will be an end, In everything else we must be present while we still have the strength to pull our own strings. Unfortunately, we will one day reach that point where we are at the mercy of that which holds the great mystery of the universe. I believe your in-laws will be in excellent hands! For your part, and I know this goes without saying to you, but be present and absorb their love and their memories while you can. I expect to read about them in the future. Blessings and love wherever you may go!

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you, David, for these words.

  • Evelyn Becker

    Dani, Wow. Yes. For me too, it has been a challenging time. A dear friend whose 11 year son is a close friend of my son’s was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor a month ago and I too have been watching & wandering at Children’s Hospital of Colorado and feeling the stark reality of the underside of love. I am so looking forward to meeting and writing with you as I continue to try and make meaning and build my path. Thank you. Evelyn

    • Danishapiro

      I look forward to meeting you later today, Evelyn! I’m sorry to hear about your friend’s son — that’s the hardest thing there is.

  • Katrina Woznicki

    So sorry to hear about your mother-in-law, Dani. Watching such things is extraordinarily hard, and often pushes us to do our own inventories.

    • Danishapiro

      So true, Katrina. Thanks.

  • Maria Casale

    Such a beautiful post.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Maria!

  • Laura Day

    Thank you. How is it that you read my mind and write about exactly what I need to remember?

    • Danishapiro

      This makes me smile, Laura. Sending you love. xoxo

  • Sue LeBreton

    Oh this made me tear up. I too feel an insistence that I make meaning of my life and especially the sorrow. Thank you for sharing.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks so much, Sue.

  • George Blair

    I just wrote last night about the realization that my life is completely overrun by my grief. In 2008 my life ended. In 2011 I was convicted of “DUI Causing Death.” Etc., etc. The point is, it was (and remains) a shocking bit of news for me. “Really?” I read what I had written on FB… “Oh, gosh, it really is that bad.” And, yes, it was because my grief insisted that I write and confess. Teaching? Well, yeah, me, too. A rich and mostly funny story, there, for me. I have to listen to my grief, or I suffer the surprise attack… Stupid, pithy stories on Netflix that make me cry. Hard. So, yes. The end comes for us. And just like we say in AA, “sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.” In the fullness of time. We breathe in. We breathe out. We wake, we sleep. Life goes on.

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you so much for sharing this, George. This too, this too.

  • Priscilla Lohrmann

    I was drawn to your speech in Grand Rapids because of the title and the decription about making art out of the chaos of our lives, as you have so beautifully done and continue to do. I love that you insist on meaning… And you find it in writing. This was a whole new concept to me, and it has given me courage.

    • Danishapiro

      I’m so glad to hear this, Priscilla. Thank you.

  • Pat Battaglia

    Today I made the gut-wrenching decision to end the suffering of a beloved pet.The weight of it feels like lead in the bottom of my heart. I held her and told her over and over how much I love her, and afterward, when I could cry no more tears, when my family members had gone their separate ways and left me alone, I opened this page and read these words. And yes, I insist this sorrow is not meaningless, that the life of my precious cat was not meaningless, and this love is not meaningless. This pain is fresh and raw and deep, and if I knew when I first adopted that sassy little kitten that it would come to this, I would do it all over again. Because to avoid this level of heartache would be to avoid love and joy in greater measure, and there lies the meaning of this sorrow. I insist. I thank you for the gift of these words that are helping me walk with this pain.

    • Danishapiro

      Oh, Pat. I’m so sorry for the pain you must be feeling, and for the loss of your beloved cat. I’m honored that my words found their way to you at a time you needed them.

  • Ayala

    Thoughtful and beautiful as always. I am sorry for what you and yours are going through. I have been in a similar situation and it made me question life, the passage of time and what remains. Sending you love.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Ayala:) xx

  • So grateful for the words that are perfect for this moment in my life. Thank you so very much.

    • Danishapiro

      You are so welcome!

  • Lori TS

    Thank you for this. And for the link to Jayne Anne Phillips essay which is also beautiful. My writing life has taken off since the death of my husband. I frequently have to remind myself that I am honoring him by committing to and hopefully someday being successful at, this practice. It is to insist that my sorrow and his pain were not without meaning and value. And yet, to have and mostly enjoy this new life often seems a betrayal to my old life of being a wife and mother (my kids are now both in college, so that has changed as well). It is a challenge when honor and betrayal seem to be two sides of the same coin. Thank you again for these words of reminder.

    • Danishapiro

      Lori, if you haven’t read my essay “Evil Tongue” you can find it on my website under the “stories and essays” link. It speaks very much to what you describe so eloquently. Good luck with your writing.

  • Shelley Motz

    Once again, you have laid yourself bare and, in the process, tapped into something universal. You are right that insistence is required to make sorrow meaningful. What I am thinking now is that courage is also required. Courage to be vulnerable and to walk with or through the sorrow. You’re a courageous writer, Dani. Tremendously courageous.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Shelley.

  • Wow, Dani. Powerful. Riveting. Devastating. Thank you for being you. xoxo

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, my dear Linda! xx

  • Josephine Louise Pennicott

    In another lifetime I nursed the elderly and the heartbreaking and most poignant deaths were when clients died with no family support. Part of my duties involved packing their tiny suitcases after their death. A toothbrush, a set of dentures, a few generic clothes… I also thought many times – is this what life comes to?

    Michael’s mother is fortunate to have love present at her side.

    Such a powerful piece of writing that, as always, connects with so many. Much love to you and your family with this sorrow.

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you, Josephine.

  • Kathleen Mickelson

    This is such a beautiful mixed offering. That phrase, the stark underside of love, is perfect for the way loss takes a scalpel to our feelings, our hearts. We are at our most powerful when we lay everything out like this, tease apart the threads for meaning.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks for the phrase “mixed offering” Kathleen.

  • Thank you, Dani. I am so sorry to hear your family is also struggling with the horrible disease of Alzheimer’s. We write to make sense of something so sad there are few words to explain it. We write to help each other find meaning.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Sheila.

  • Bridget

    That last paragraph spoke to me in ways I can’t articulate. At least, not right now. But I wrote in my quote journal so I can ponder it. Thank you Dani!!!

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome, Bridget!

  • I’m so sorry about your mother-in-law. My mother died of Alzheimer’s. Now I’m guardian for my 100 year old mother-in-law as she loses her memory. Although she’s living in her apartment with health aides, we’re perched on a threshold that leads either to death or a nursing home.
    I’ve spent the last month blogging or submitting articles about my brother’s illness and recent death. After writing about grief for five years (and digesting it for three years before that as I grieved my husband’s death), I wanted to focus on something else. When I read your piece, I face that life gives me experiences that lead to sorrow. The best thing I can do for myself and others is put that sorrow into meaningful words.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Elaine. Wishing you strength.

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  • Eileen

    Some years ago a colleague/friend and I ran writing retreats for teachers. One of my favorites was the one we entitled Moments of Being. Yesterday I was searching the web for a blog to inspire my own writing practice and I found your site. I like to call ocurrences like this serendipity. Thank you!

    • Danishapiro

      Serendipity, indeed! Glad you stopped by, Eileen.

  • Linda Sue Brown

    Beautiful! Thanks, Dani Shapiro. Your writing and experience is genius.