I arrive at the dinner party. I am late. Other people brought tokens of hospitality, like wine, or cheese, or flowers.
I brought a cactus. No one quite knows what to say to me. It is awkward, standing there with my cactus.
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, the host reaches out her arms to take the cactus from me. “Oh no,” I quickly say. “This is not a gift. It’s mine. I take it with me wherever I go. I wouldn’t dream of leaving it with you – if you touch it, you could get hurt.”
We sit around and drink wine. There is my cactus, in the corner. A few people glance at it but no one says anything. It is a bit awkward. After awhile someone might ask what kind of cactus it is, or how long I’ve had the cactus. I have no problems talking about it.
At the end of the night, after the wine and cheese are gone and the flowers have wilted in the warmth of the room, I pick up my cactus and take it home.
The cactus does prick me when I touch it. If I were to take it into bed with me, the night would be rough. It isn’t exactly pretty and it doesn’t go with my decor. But it’s there.
The cactus knows how to take a tiny bit of water and live on it for months. It is a stubborn and hardy survivor. It will always sting, but I have learned how to live alongside it and not touch it too often. I am constantly reminded of its presence, sitting in all its thorny glory in the window. Many other plants have failed to thrive under my neglectful care, but not that damn cactus. Even though I don’t like it, I can’t throw it out, because it reminds me of the person who gave it to me. I have learned to live alongside it.
So it is with grief.
And if you’re lucky, at the end of your cactus a flower will bloom.
When you are living inside deep grief, you’re consciously aware of the dark presence you bring. You may find yourself conveniently not-invited to the neighborhood barbeque, or left off the guest list of your friend’s wedding. No one wants the presence of death to show up. It would be so unseemly. And definitely not festive.
Or maybe you’ve felt this way and decided to exclude yourself, first. After all, you have nothing to offer but death and grief. There are no other topics.
Your presence brings the reality of life – of living here, so close to the fault line of death – it can be hard to feel welcome anywhere.