Why You Should Never Underestimate the Importance of Just Showing Up
I suddenly felt afraid. What if something went wrong? My sister is my person, the one I can't live without. And her children are her life. I don't pray often, not in words at least. But that morning I did. I whispered, "Dear God, please let my sister be okay. Please let her baby be healthy. And also, if possible, can you be sure she has a girl?"
As I packed, the phone rang again. This time it was my mother. "Honey," she said, "Grandma's not doing well. I think you need to come as soon as you can."
I froze. My grandmother Alice was so fiery that when my grandfather first approached her at a bar and asked, "Excuse me, are you a nurse?" she looked down at her crisp white uniform, then up at him, and answered, "No, Sherlock. I'm a firefighter." It was love at first fight. They had seven children and 15 grandchildren and had been married for 42 years when he died. She was so full of faith that for the decade and a half I was lost to addiction, she said a rosary for me every single night. She told me she didn't miss one. My only explanation for how I got better is that Grandma prayed my troubles gone.
My sister was having a baby. My grandmother was dying. These were quite literally life and death situations, which I've never been very good with. I felt myself slipping into quicksand mode, which is what tends to happen when I look around at the people I love and contemplate the inevitable: I panic. Oh my God! We are all going to die! But this time, as I stood paralyzed over my suitcase, I made a decision. I wouldn't let fear swallow me whole. I wouldn't let myself free fall. If I could talk myself into freaking out, then surely I could talk my way out of it. I breathed. I coached myself: "This is life. You don't have to handle it. Life and death aren't meant to be managed. They are to be witnessed. You will be brave, Glennon. You will show up for your people and be their witness."
Illustration: Keith Negley
Immediately I felt calmer. I made a plan and set it in motion. First I flew to Ohio to say goodbye to my grandma. My mom and her sisters had been living there for months, nursing their mother around the clock, bathing her and sleeping beside her, just as she'd done for them when they were small. When I arrived, I walked into her room and saw her—fiery, faithful Alice Flaherty—lying there, so weak. I stood by her bed and clasped her hands. Mine were sweaty and cold, but hers were soft and powdery. My mother stayed back behind us. I tried to imagine what she was feeling, watching her mama and her daughter, and I felt the quicksand pulling me under. Stay present, I prodded myself. Be here, Glennon. Be strong enough to witness this. For them. For you.
I sat there in the quiet and continued holding her hands, keeping her close. Eventually, I simply said, "Goodbye, Grandma." We pretended, with our smiles, that we meant goodbye for now.
I looked at my mother. I'd expected her to be stoic for me, but her face was crumpled in agony. I took her in my arms. I did not tell her it was okay—I knew it wasn't. As devastating as it was for me to let my grandmother go, I knew it was finally time for me to be stoic, to be there for my mother, just as she'd always been there for me. "Mama," I soothed, "I'm here."
In a while we drove back to the airport, and I boarded a plane for Virginia to greet a baby.
Several hours later, there I was at the hospital where my beautiful sister held her first and only daughter up to me. She said, "Sister, meet Alice Flaherty."
She put my niece in my arms. I stroked her little hand, soft and powdery.
And I said, "Hello, baby Alice. Hello, angel."
As I held her, I let the quicksand take me. I was too tired to fight it. I let it take me under, and I cried and cried until I couldn't shed another tear. And then I stopped. Which is when I realized: There is no quicksand.
I was still standing. Because love is solid ground. Saying goodbye to my grandmother was brutal, as if the pain might kill me. But it hadn't. And now here I was welcoming another Alice. I felt like I was getting the inside scoop from life itself, and it was saying, "Yes, Glennon, it's as hard as you fear. That won't change. You will lose people. It will hurt badly, and yet...we go on. Tomorrow will be beautiful again—more beautiful than you can imagine."
The secret of life is not about knowing what to say or do. It's not about doing love or loss right. Life cannot be handled. The secret is simply to show up. It's about witnessing it all, even the pain, and letting it touch you and make you not harder, but more tender. Showing up, feeling it all—this is my new kind of prayer. I call it praying attention, and it's how, for me, everything turns holy.
Glennon Doyle is the author of Love Warrior, a 2016 Oprah's Book Club pick; the founder of the online community Momastery; and the founder of the nonprofit Together Rising.