2013 04 07 11.42.28

To insist sorrow not be meaningless

Four years ago the first Monday in July was the 2nd. That Monday, July 2, 2012, I was sitting at my desk at work typing an email. It was late in the morning, and there was a Human Resource quandary to deal with. That’s the type of work I did back then, HR consulting. My cell phone rang. I looked at the display and saw that it was my mom’s boyfriend, Bob. I let the call ring through to my voicemail even though Bob had never called me, not one time, in the twenty plus years he’d been with my mom. 

I clicked the icon to send the email, grabbed my phone, and listened to Bob’s message.  “It’s me,” he said. “I’m on the way to the hospital. I think your Mom had a stroke.”

Three weeks later my mother was dead, and soon thereafter my daughter was diagnosed with severe depression. The last four years have contained much sorrow for me and for my little family.

The notion of not wanting our sorrow to be meaningless isn’t new to me. Sorrow and my healing work around it is one of the reasons why I try to give back, why I volunteer for NAMI and why I’m writing my book. But the words had never strung together in my mind so succinctly until one day a couple of weeks ago. I was perusing my Facebook feed and there they were—to insist that sorrow not be meaningless. I stopped scrolling. The notification I saw was a blog post by Dani Shapiro. I clicked the link.  

Dani wrote:

“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.” (Read Dani's full post here.)

That’s exactly it, I thought. I copied and saved the post, not sure what I was going to do with it but struck by what Dani had written. Only insistence will do.

Between the time of my mother’s death and my daughter’s illness and now, our personal sorrows have greatly lifted, but sorrow befalls the world at large on a daily basis: shootings, attacks, intolerance, and hatred. In the face of such violence, it seems preferable to cling to sorrow and fear. To park my butt back on the couch in front of the TV and watch endless reruns of "SVU." To forget where we were. To ignore where we're going. And sometimes, I do just that because the problems of the world can diminish the importance of personal growth as fast as turning on the television.

But what I realized this morning, as I reflected on the void in my life where my mother should be and my father and on my family’s good fortune and on the blessings of our complicated nation, was that Dani’s post was one dropped hint in a line of hints that the universe has been giving me—much the way Hansel dropped the tiny white pebbles to find his way home—for me to remember. To insist on remembering. 

There were my own words spoken to Rhonda Hayes Curtis during our interview, “Healing work is endless. I didn’t realize it would require diligence, but it does.” There was Liz Gilbert’s challenge on Memorial Day to write a letter to ourselves from persistence and my shocking revelation that my dogged refusal to give up has always been and will be friend, not foe. (Read my post here.) And Beth Kephart’s latest Juncture memoir newsletter contained this line from an interview: "It is the blueprint of a journey, a memory palace, a deep tunneling into the mountain of all that would otherwise be lost." 

And so, I sit here now, writing an ode to insistence, to what it looks and feels like today to wear around my neck a cheerful patriotic bandana, to be filled with anticipation of a lovely day with good friends and delicious food. Outside, my husband babysits the cat because we don’t let him out unsupervised. My daughter sleeps peacefully (at 11:15am!) in her bed. I can’t cure the world’s ills or bring my mother back to life or undo the painful reality that was watching my daughter suffer from a bout of deep depression. But I can remember. Through remembering, I can make meaning of our journey for myself and, hopefully, for other people. I can insist–by the work I do now–that what we went through to get from there to here will never, ever be wasted.

Happy Independence Day!


  1. Such beauty and heartfelt stuff, as always. You are showing many of us the way to make meaning of our sorrows. So glad to be on this path with you.

  2. Oh, Tracey. Tracey. How well I understand this. How much hope I have for our time together. Insist is an excellent word.

  3. Tracey, this was a needed read. Many times I feel guilty or as if I am weak if I "replay" or reflect on the pain of my father's death and the circumstances surrounding it. This validated my need to do so. Thanks for your insistence on working through your pain in a positive way that impacts the world.

  4. Beautiful post, Tracey. I think of a quote I read recently, "Life isn't meant to make us feel good, it's meant to make us feel." Yes, no one, no person and not the Universe, ever promised life would be easy and grand every second. So what is the lesson here? With all the tragedy I've experienced or heard about, I need to choose between life feeling like a series of "gotcha agains" or that there are lessons to learn to make meaning of my time on this planet. After reading your post, I will begin to insist I find the meaning. Thank you.

  5. My goodness, Jessica, Beth, Christine, and Sue-thank you all so much for taking the time to read and for leaving a comment. Your words mean the world to me. Sometimes it is hard to remember we are not alone, but moments like this, right now, reinforce that this is so. Thank you

  6. Lovely article, Tracey! The Hansel & pebble part was a great analogy.

    I'm happy that you don't give up on sunshine. Hang in there. Your prophetic second-to-the-last sentence is a great reminder.

  7. Tracey,
    I really enjoy reading your work! I admire your ability to express your feelings in a meaningful way that helps others as well. I believe that all the experiences in our lives ( good and bad) are meant to teach us something about ourselves and to prepare us for future experiences. It's not always easy to see where these experiences are leading us, but clearly you are on the right path. Thanks for sharing your healing gifts!

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