I recently scrolled through The New York Times “2020, The Year in Pictures” photo recap, suspecting it would be a poignant, if not depressing, journey down memory lane. I was not prepared for the impact one particular moment photographer Al Bello froze in time. Even recalling it now, days later, the tightening in my stomach and warm tingling in my nostrils signal tears again beginning to flood my eyes.
Maybe you discovered this photo yourself: Two women hugging each other through a plastic curtain. According to the caption, Olivia was the woman closer to the lens; the woman on the other side of the curtain was her grandmother, Mary Grace.
That plastic barrier was actually a makeshift drop cloth hung on a clothesline in a Long Island, New York backyard on May 24th of this year. Both Olivia’s grandparents had become very sad because they could no longer hug their grandchildren in the midst of the COVID pandemic then surging across the U.S. during its first round of devastation. In response, their family devised the elaborate backyard system so everyone could hug safely. Photographer Bello described the scene as “extremely emotional, as there was hugging all the kids and holding their faces—grabbing their faces and not letting go…”
Without knowing their backstory, the love captured in that photo, especially considering seniors’ vulnerabilities to COVID, struck me as both tragic and inspiring. Their audacious gesture of devotion seemed to defy the barrier erected for their protection. Their determination demonstrates the hunger for and healing power of physical touch. It also suggests the wisdom of addressing unfinished business while life and loved ones are still with us.
In the grief recovery work I do, addressing unresolved emotional business is key to moving through grief toward true healing. Nothing motivates us more forcefully than pain, and most dramatically, death. When burdened by significant loss, we’re more prone to jettison our typical avoidance and denial of suffering and complete unfinished business of the heart. In this sense, the impermanence of life can claim the role of most profound teacher.
The English word, “education” was derived from four Latin words, one of which is “educere:” to lead out, draw out or bring forth what is within.” When the master teacher, death, presents itself in any form of impermanence, it can lead us out of unconsciousness to embrace renewed awareness of life; to acknowledge all shapes, sizes, shades and degrees of death through our entire lifespan, starting with losing the safety of womb and culminating in the last breath in our physical body. It draws out increased gratitude for the boundless blessings we enjoy while here; and it brings forth what we also already know and experience: that love and connection, kindness, compassion and forgiveness represent the most important business before us.
This New Year’s Eve, we teeter on the precipice of the past with all its lessons, both devastating and inspiring alike, and the future, with all its possibilities. May we not move so quickly from 2020 to 2021 before asking ourselves what we’ve learned during this incredible year now almost behind us. What has 2020 taught us—about ourselves, those we call family, friends, colleagues, leaders and fellow planetary sisters and brothers? And then, the other most profound and potentially transformative question, “What unfinished business do we have before laying 2020 to rest?”
If COVID has taught us anything, hasn’t its lesson been that life and security are impermanent? That we never know how long we have on this physical plain? That, given all these realities, we’d be wise to use our precious, finite time here to ensure nothing truly important within our control or influence remains unsaid or undone? Words and gestures from the heart offering love, affirmation and forgiveness… reopening doors previously shut with the intention of contributing to peaceful resolution and reconnection… These kinds of courageous acts can address unfinished emotional business and enable genuine healing as we step from 2020 into 2021.
How about fully embracing the final day of 2020 and finishing whatever needs or deserves completion before toasting the new year with champagne and Auld Lang Syne. With that resolve, we can cross the threshold and begin 2021 less encumbered by outdated baggage and better equipped to maximize the blessings, challenges and mysteries ahead.
May I, we & all beings summon the courage to complete unfinished matters of the heart while we have the opportunity.
Deb Langhans has worked in the wellness field as a coach/counselor, writer & speaker for over 25 years. She currently owns & operates Journeys to Healing on San Juan Island where she offers "wholistic" life coaching, mindfulness & grief recovery coaching, reflexology, Inner Journey Collage© & a developing line of products designed to encourage healthy habits.
Most services are available in Deb's studio or via phone or Zoom. For more information or scheduling, please go to www.journeystohealing.com (website). firstname.lastname@example.org (email), or 360.317.4526 (texts preferred).