By Betty Ann Rutledge

I’m learning to love spiders. Not in the way that I love chocolate, a walk on a crisp, sunny day, or the dimpled smile of my beautiful nephew. I’m learning to love spiders in the same way that I’m learning to love the line-ups at Loblaws, the delays on the TTC and my “descendant-of-Irish-potato-farmers” body. Maybe some day, I’ll be able to love George Bush, but I’m still a work in progress.

Spiders have decided that my beautiful apartment is just a lovely place to hang out. (The myth that spiders will only live in a really clean home is no comfort to me). At first, I tried to deny their existence. But each night as I came home and turned on the lights, I was confronted by their unmistakable presence. Next came the awful phase of trying to rid my space of them altogether, the karma for which I will be paying for many lifetimes. Every once in awhile, I tried to capture one and take it outside, but the persistent little buggers seemed to find their way home. One night, as I was down on my hands and knees wiping up a spill, my hand brushed against what can only be described as the king of spiders. He sat there staring at me as the cycle of emotions (fear, anger, frustration, indecision) worked their way through me and finally came to land on acceptance.

Just like my impatience on the stranded TTC train, my simmering anger in that line-up at the grocery store or the many moments of unpleasantness experienced in any given day, I figure that I’ve got a choice as to how I will respond to my unwanted houseguests: I can choose to churn up a gutful of anger, resentment and rage, to give in to my irrational fears and to let that cycle me into a state of emotional distress. Or, I can choose to accept that these spiders are, like me, just trying to make it through another day on this planet that we share. And given that they were probably here first, I at least owe them the courtesy of trying to live in harmony. Sigh.

It’s hard to love the things in life that give us such distress. And it’s even harder to love the broken and unfinished pieces of ourselves that we long to be different. Gandhi said,“You must be the thing you want to see in the world”. I take that to mean that if I want to live a peaceful and contented world, then I need to take responsibility for creating that peace and contentment, as best I can, in each and every moment, starting inside of myself. If I can love my own wounded heart, instead of staying stuck in my pain, shame and fear, then I think I have a better chance of truly learning to live with my grief.

But how do we heal those gaping holes in our hearts? How do we learn to live with our grief? One of the gifts of our community at Bereaved Families is our model of mutual support. I hear time and again from newly bereaved (and not so newly bereaved) people the comfort and relief that is felt when one has an opportunity to connect with someone who has experienced a similar loss. “Finally, someone who understands.” “It’s so good to talk with someone who really “gets it”. “I thought I was the only one who felt this way.” “If they can survive, maybe I can too.”

Sharing our stories – of pain and loss and struggle, but also of surrender, coping and hard-won wisdom – is one of the best ways I know how to begin to heal our wounded hearts and find a way to learn to live with grief.

I know that I’m never going to stop missing my mom or any of my beloved friends and chosen family members that I lost to AIDS. Because of my experiences with multiple loss and grief, I also know that every “hello” that I experience in my life automatically comes with a “goodbye” attached. And I have two choices in how to respond to that reality. I can close up my fragile, broken heart to the world and never choose to love again. Or I can step boldly and confidently ( and some days, tentatively and cautiously) into each new day determined to find moments of joy, beauty, peace and even love, trusting that my heart is strong enough to receive whatever comes into my path.

With Valentine’s approaching – yet another day focused on love and family that can trigger us into a painful grief spiral – I invite you to take a few minutes to think about the parts of yourself that maybe require a little more patience, nurturing and acceptance. Opening our tender, bereaved hearts to the love of the universe is a scary thing – but I believe it’s also the only thing that can truly heal us. Send yourself a Valentine of loving-kindness today. Forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ve made, be gentle with yourself when you struggle with your sorrow and know that you are, like the rest of us, a beautiful work in progress.

As for me and my spiders? Each night as I crawl in to bed, knowing full well that my “housemates” are surely active in their nocturnal routines, I take a deep breath and say a prayer as I turn out the light. I thank the universe for a safe place to lay my head, I asked for the patience and grace to accept whatever comes into my life and then I just hope for the best.