There are three kinds of autumn days I find most poignant: those chilled blowy days when leaves are swirling and I feel tossed around as those wisps of color; cloudy days when grey sky offsets jewel colored leaves all the more brilliantly as if from darkness the brightness is most evident; and the glorious robin’s egg blue sky days with orange, golden and crimson leaves dancing about and festooning the hills in nearly polka-dotted splendor.

As the season’s bounty presents itself—the gorgeous colors, the crisp air, the bright sun, the sturdy vegetables, the juicy apples—there is, omnipresent, a sense of loss. Warmth will go, leaves will fall, and trees will be stripped to skeletons. Light, waning now, will visit the days after nearly constant summertime companionship. Don’t get me wrong: after my early years of loving autumn and the last decade or so resenting it, I’ve made peace. Even with that melancholy, even with the foreshadowing of winter, I again embrace its glory.

For one thing, I think I’ve come to a place where I feel okay, glad even, that some days invite melancholy. You don’t have to feel it then, no obligation. But I am comfortable being reminded to relish bounty and beauty and hold loss all at once. The word that arises for me is bittersweet. I think of it often, and especially these days, with the winds churning and the leaves delicate and bright and the carrots so sturdy and delicious. For another thing, more practical, I’ve changed my attitude and approach toward winter. I walk every day right through it, wearing my warm puffy down jacket with its truly toasty hood and good boots and thick mittens and I don’t make myself drive if the roads are slippery. By going outside, I notice the light and the white snow and ice, all that grey and brown, and the way breath meets air.

Each person finds his or her way to greet the seasons. Each person learns to live with loss. And yet certain things, despite their universality, are hard to talk about. Loss is one of those things. There’s no right thing to say or do. The hurt that is, simply is.

My first memory of someone else’s inconsolability came when I was eight. It was the day after my mother informed us that she and our father were separating. She’d taken us to her parents’ to break the news, and the following day, when we were headed back home, she cried on the airplane. I had never seen her cry before. I was a good, scared eight year-old. I was terrified. I was powerless to make things better. It’s really taken me a long time to learn that certain pain cannot be avoided—and that it’s okay not to be able to remove everyone else’s pain. I remain guilty of being a fixer, though; I yearn to make things right.

Funny then, that I would choose—champion the idea into reality—to adopt a child. Adoption is many things, and one of them is that it’s inherently painful (not only, not always, don’t misconstrue). A woman gives birth and cannot—for whatever reason—raise her child. Her child, always we hope, can find the most loving home, the most loving family and become someone else’s child in the happiest, best, most secure way. None of that erases the fact that a woman ceded a child and a child, ceded by that mother, moves on. As they say, it’s complicated. I do not believe Saskia has to be sad about this or that Caroline does. Except, I know that Caroline sometimes feels sad. And I expect that Saskia may experience sadness about this, in her way. My task is this: I have to hold those feelings alongside my own. That’s what parents do. Becoming parent to this child includes the responsibility to hold all those feelings (including Caroline’s), and to honor their existence. My love for Saskia encompasses a belief that more love is more love, but more love does not make a complicated reality suddenly perfectly comfortable at all times. It’s our attempt to let her experience her truth and find the graciousness that she may be buoyed by all that love, however complex.

Being inconsolable or wishing to help someone who is inconsolably sad can feel dinghy in the sea lonely. The more I think about it, the thing I come up with that makes this kind of sadness so hard is that it does not have to do with a paucity of love. Love, you have to believe, is what makes things right. And in a way, over time, love does contribute its share. But love can’t change every particular.


The winter my beloved aunt, May, was dying, I would have given anything to become a lifeboat. Sad as I was, I wasn’t losing my mother, wife, sister or daughter. My cousins, uncle, mother and grandparents were. That same winter, my father-in-law was diagnosed with myeloma. We were scared. We were overwhelmed. He didn’t feel well and he was understandably cranky. In retrospect, that initial period seemed like the illness’s honeymoon, compared to the fourteen-month dialysis marathon that followed. When you look back on experiences like this one—the fear, the unending caretaking, the loneliness of grief—every person tried as best she or he could, and on some level, people come through and disappoint all at once, because no one can stop the loss from occurring. It’s such a jumble as it happens and such a jumble to remember.

My most vivid memory of those weeks comes at the heels of an illness that felled everyone in the household except me: husband, housemate (and even babysitter eventually succumbed), three year-old and infant all endured a virus that seemed to creep up toward—but not quite become—pneumonia. This housebound period was accompanied by a snow-stormy, frigid stretch of winter. By the time signs of recovery appeared—tiny shoots of green from the snow miraculous— I felt completely wrung out, like one of those washcloths I’d been placing upon scalding foreheads for days. On the Saturday, a February thaw arrived. I ventured outdoors for the first time in seemingly forever. I splashed through slippery puddles and felt the sun—just warm enough to touch my face—and the sky was so blue and tension just dripped as melting ice slid from the branches, song of drip-drip-drip and the birds singing and I was grateful for the moment of happiness and guilty for that sense of relief, as if I’d let all those inconsolable people down by experiencing joy.

What I think I know now is that everyone finds his or her thaw. Surrounded by craggy snow and wet trees, even the saddest person is bound to feel the sun beaming down.


Knowing that should, but never entirely does help you when the hardest engulfs. For all we experience, we cannot get inside another person’s loss, cannot offer a road map. Inherently clumsy and inadequate in the face others’ losses, we try by doing things that help and don’t help at once, from gathering around, bringing food, sending notes, by offering to help, by chattering about nothing important to fill time, by showing up, and by not forgetting. This week, as I walk through the all this brightness—leaves, sun, jeweled landscape against grey skies—I’ve found myself thinking about all these things. I’ve found myself letting the swirling winds knock my melancholy about with the leaves. I’ve let myself just feel sad and care and wish for different and hold the wild, roiling colors and wind that I experience as bittersweet. We would not be so sad for losing a mother, sister, father, child, sibling, or friend if loving wasn’t so very, very sweet. Again and again, I have to return to the things I see and feel and know: that the colors are so bright, the children so uniquely themselves, the friends so warming, the spouse so dear, and on. We love. Loving is not simply, easily beautiful—and it is. Life serves up complicated gifts, thus the bittersweet. We have to accept all of it, and as we embrace all of it, we love it all the more.