The universe gives you a picture of a village and asks, “What do you see?” And even though all you see are grass huts, skimpy trees, and a few birds overhead, you keep staring at the picture because you know there’s something more. After all, that’s how these optical illusions work. You know the ones! If you stare at the frog long enough, it becomes a horse, and the young damsel with a feather in her cap becomes an old crone.
So you stare at this village until it starts to change. The trees begin to curve and morph. The huts disappear. Your eyes and brain work in concert to pull an alternate reality into focus. Finally, you see it. The village has vanished, and a beautiful elephant has taken it’s place.
You like this alternate reality – this big, beautiful elephant – but you discover that if you look away, even for a second, the elephant disappears, and the village returns. You’re clever, though. You know how to find the elephant again very quickly. Soon you become so good at holding the elephant in your focus that you do it without much effort. You can look away for a week, a year, a decade, and when you look back, the elephant is right where you left it. The elephant has become your new reality. You name it and put a bow on its tail. You glue a bright, yellow sun in the sky that you’ve painted blue. Then you build your life around your elephant. You eat your food around it. You make love around it. You make war around it. Every meaningful thing you do, you do around your elephant.
Occasionally, you’ll catch a glimpse of an old, leaning hut and know the village is trying to break through, but you’re a master at this, and you quickly regain focus. But sometimes, without warning, you wake up, and the elephant has trotted away during the night. Overcast and wind-torn, the village is all you see now. The thatched huts have caved in on themselves, and the birds have flown away. The glued and painted pieces have come undone. The beast is gone as if it never existed.
And this is what grief is like. One day the elephant is here; the next day it’s gone. One day the sun is shining; the next day it’s lying face down in the dirt. For a week, a year, or a decade, your world has made sense, and then one day you wake up, and your blue sky has been balled up and tossed in the corner. But you’re a master at this. You’ve learned to grab the sun and use it for a pillow, to smooth out the sky and use it for a blanket. You’ve learned to lie down in the dirt and wait. And then one day, you wake up, and your elephant has returned. Your beautiful beast is back! The sun and the sky have been put back together, and your world makes sense again. This is grief. But you’re a master at this. You know that the elephant never forgets its way home.