A beautiful friend died just days ago. After five years of living with cancer, she died surrounded by love—family and friends. Ten years ago to the day my brother died. And, so, grief, that well-known companion, has circled back upon me.

Tom Stoppard says of death that it is “the absence of presence, nothing more.” However, my niece Monica, honoring her father, sent me these words about grief attributed to Edna St Vincent Millay, “the presence of that absence is everywhere.” I’ve been living into those words for days now. Pondering them in my heart.

The presence of that absence of someone whose physicality, voice, mannerisms, jokes and stories, laughter, tears perhaps, were a part of our days and our very selves. Almost anything, a place, a name, even a smell can bring a flood of memories and longing. And for me at least, one grief brings up others—raises other losses to consciousness. My dear Kathryn who died only months before Dan—at home too, surrounded by family and friends. The presence of that absence everywhere.

To be an older person is to know loss, is to grieve. And it isn’t just about the past, there is much to grieve in the present: daily reminders come of losses in the here and now: the hearing aid, the root canal, aching knees. Friends die or move away. “Retirement” (no matter what that means) requires a letting go as well as an embracing. But, age has no monopoly on loss and grief. We know that although our wealth and comfort sometimes insinuate otherwise. I read an article the other day describing children who are AIDS orphans in Zambia and their incredibly painful grief—made worse perhaps by the fact that some of the adults caring for them imagined that the children were too young to know what really happened—too young to grieve their losses. Not so. Not so.

We grieve all kinds of losses. The grief I’m living with right now is a measure of love—a measure of connectedness—my relationship to those who’ve died. A measure too of the ways in which we are really constituted by those who love us; I often think of how I have been made new—been made into a different person than I was because of those who have loved me—and even (to be honest) of some who did not particularly love me. Those who have challenged me, changed me, comforted, and discomforted me. The ones who live on in my heart. We are connected. They come to me bidden or unbidden.

The fragility of life—perhaps this is at the heart of grief. I don’t like that about life, in the lives of those I love, and particularly I don’t like it about my own life. The limits. The reality that life can get hard, that we can’t heal every disease, that life ends,. That the good sometimes do die young. I will die. These realities grate against me. I wish it were otherwise.  At least part of me does. Another part of me knows that coming up against the fragility, the pain of loss, and letting go, is where we can find courage, strength, resilience, and the deep passion to live life more fully.

Not always. Some losses seem to be too much to be borne: people end up simply diminished or destroyed. And there is no judging really what and who. When I was in South Africa I met people who came out of prison on Robben Island nearly destroyed and full of vindictiveness, and others full of strength and forgiveness. I don’t know why that is.  I have not suffered such abuse and loss. But, I know that my own rather ordinary times of loss and the losses themselves have transfigured me. Enlightened me in the sense that I see with new eyes. Strengthened me. Compassioned me. Humbled me. And most of all filled me with thanksgiving for the gift of life—fragile as it is. For the gift of others—as absent as they may be. Life is precious. Joy and loss are connected. The fullness of life linked to the emptiness.

The presence of absence is everywhere. I’ve come to understand in some very tentative way that the presence of absence is not only about death of a loved one. My friend’s grieving partner told me that she is determined to live into this great loss in her life—keep her heart open to it. It takes courage to live open to such emptiness and pain. My intuition is that this is as much a spiritual matter as anything else. The divine whom we long for who seems so very present at times and so very absent at others is enmeshed in the presence of absence. In fact I understand “the presence of that absence is everywhere” to pretty much sum up divinity in our midst. To keep your heart open to that absence is to open it to God.

I saw a hint of this recently on a Sunday. I went to a small church where there was a special space for children set up in front of the front pews. A little boy maybe 3 years old occupied himself with scissors and pieces of paper, and a little car, and attended to the readings for a time, and the sermon for a time—going in and out of his other activities. But when the deacon brought the incense to the congregation to cense us, the boy stood up and silently opened his arms wide, in a V above his head—open to receive the incense as it wafted toward us. Then, he tried to catch the incense between his outstretched arms. The presence of absence everywhere. Elusive. Indefinable. Impossible to clutch. Filling our lungs and sometimes smarting our eyes. And then, invisible. Outside us and within us. Intangible.

Grief puts me in touch with my longings. Most essentially for the divine. The mystics talk of the God beyond God. “The other side of nothingness” is how Beverly Lanzetta puts it. Mystical openness comes in vulnerability, in letting go. There is no possessing of God. But, our longings for connection so deeply felt in times of grieving are a part of God’s own longing. Mine very finite. God’s infinite. The emptiness is strangely the place of communion. The presence of that absence, everywhere.