The Grief of Choosing

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Words by Becky Castle Miller

Onions don't cry for themselves. They leave the grieving to us, we who cut them open for our own pleasure. We leak stinging tears with each slice of the knife as if we know on some level what we're doing to them. The tears continue while we quarter, julienne, dice. We throw them into butter and sprinkle salt into the wounds. Only after patience and fire have done their work does the crying stop. The onions are a transformed substance beyond the ordeal - softer, sweeter, darker. They can never go back to what they were before. What remains is better than what was lost, and the crying is an unalterable part of the process.

Of course, I'm not just talking about caramelizing onions. The burning tears that come with chopping onions feel the same to me as the tears that accompany grief. Grief is not just for death, though many of us think of grief as occurring only then. Rather, grief is a natural reaction to any loss. And loss goes hand in hand with change, so some amount of grief is part of any change. One feeling associated with the grief process is sadness and when humans experience sadness, we cry.

Fourteen years ago, as my brand-new husband drove us away from our wedding, I burst into tears. The force of my gut-clenching weeping shocked both of us. I wanted to get married, I was in love, so why was I sad?

I thought I was a horrible person for crying on my wedding day, ungrateful, wrong. I thought that when I chose something good, I was supposed to be happy about it. Any feelings of sadness were out of place, unhealthy, strange.

I grasped at my wild emotions as they escaped, and I shoved them back inside, caged them. I squelched them, silenced them. The tears stopped. I composed myself. I ignored the muffled pounding from inside the cage.

I didn't cry again for five years.

What I didn't realize is that making choices breaks our hearts. Pain and sadness are inherent to every decision because when we say yes to one thing, we say no to another. No matter how positive the choice is, there can still be grief in the loss.

Grief will not be denied. It will break through any cage we use to lock it away, shattering us in the process. That's what happened to me. When I finally cried again, grief came in an emotional breakdown. Years of pent-up sadness over the changes in my life when I got married caught up to me, and I fell apart.

The change from single to married was good, and moving away from home was worthwhile, yet change means loss and loss means grief and grief means tears.

I hadn't stopped the tears after all; I had only delayed them. There is no going around grief, there is only going through. Working our way through the tears of grief is the only path to a healthy heart. It took therapy to pull myself together again, and there I learned how to welcome my emotions, even the uncomfortable ones like sadness

I have lived in the Netherlands for five years. I moved here for a job I'm passionate about, to a city that immediately felt like home. I wanted this change with all my heart. But the other night, I pressed the heels of my palms to my eyes to dam the tears, because I missed my home in the United States. I missed my orange thirty-year-old couch where I would sink with my friends to eat cookie dough. I missed the never-ending cereal aisles in the grocery store, and Taco Bell, and the pioneering culture that says anything is possible. I missed being only a few miles from family members - now there's an ocean between us.

The change of moving to Europe was good, and it was right, but change means loss and loss means grief and grief means tears. This time I remembered that loss is inherent in choice, and my feelings were normal and acceptable. I let the tears roll and I sat in melancholy, experiencing the depths of my sadness, letting the feeling do its transformative work on me.

When I begin the slow process of making French onion soup, I peel the onions. First the dry parchment, then the green pinstripes, then the white flesh. I slice through both ends, and that's when the prickle starts in my nose and creeps up to my eyes. I blink-blink-blink to rinse them but it's not enough, and the tears obscure my sight, which is dangerous because I'm heaving a huge chef's knife down toward my fingertips. I cut the onion in half lengthwise, lay both sides face down on the board and cut half circles. Then I separate the layers, eyes pouring furiously, fingers quickly breaking the thin skin that holds the layers together. I sprinkle the torn pieces over the surface of the warm pan. If I hurry the cooking along, I am liable to burn the onions instead of caramelizing them, and nothing ruins soup faster than burned onion. Time and heat soften the onions and they melt into each other, making them something special.

Tears are part of the process.


Becky Castle Miller works at an international church in the Netherlands. She is an American expat, conveying her five kids around town on bikes.

Grief | Living Abroad | Homesickness | Decisions