My uncle Jeff passed away on April 9. Yet, I’ve only told some people, maybe because sharing this news means facing the reality that our earthly conversations have ended. Or maybe because talking about his death means I’ll need to fully face all the difficult emotions of grief.

When my mom called me early Tuesday with the news, I cried. I shared my sympathies together with her. Then I wiped away my tears and got the kids off to school. I visited a meeting that I couldn’t reschedule. , I sat with my mother and listened. Later, my spouse and i ate dinner with the kids, and laughed, danced, sang songs, and browse books before bedtime. Then I visited the laundry room and sobbed.

Now, I’m located on a quiet patio in California, watching the fig trees sway within the breeze, and to my left, a squirrel jumps around on the branches, intruding on my solitude. All I'm able to think is, Man, Jeff would’ve loved these trees. He also probably would’ve gone next squirrel for being a nuisance — because Jeff could be both peaceful and rebellious, grateful for nature but also ready to tame it.

His complexity fostered a barrier for me personally for most of my life, and it was only in these past few years that people connected. It was hard for me to know the nuances of his personality becoming an adult — Is he tough or loving? Is he fierce or tender? — and partly, that comes with youth: We flourish when there are clear definitions and expectations. My kids thrive on schedules and need rules for what kind of behavior is OK or not, and they see the world when it comes to good and bad. It’s only when we’re older that people see the lines blurred and realize life includes good and bad — and that people waver between both negative and positive depending on the circumstances.

Jeff despised abuse of power, and he resisted authority and convention; like my grandmother, he championed the underdog. In senior high school in the early ’70s, he wore sandals and long hair and jeans to school, going against the dress code, but, being an adult, he kept employment at a hospital for 31 years and wore a uniform. He was honest and authentic and sussed out phonies. He would be a captivating storyteller, a truth-seeker and truth-teller, even if you were ill-prepared for his realness. He was a boxer and won a welterweight championship in high school; he got in fights with strangers and his former roommate and best friend, once breaking his buddy’s jaw — but also cherished his friends and family, and, in the early 40s, fell deeply in love with his wife, who cared for him as his health failed and was by his side as he passed at 63.

He once told me a story — and he had so many great ones that seem too unbelievable to print — about hitchhiking and hopping train cars like a kid to make his way to avoid it West. It’s unclear if there is a plan other than a great adventure, but he eventually found his way to Washington to pick apples in an orchard. As the train made its way through the mountains, Jeff said he looked at the range, the first time he had seen this kind of majesty, and felt such awe. “It had been just beautiful, Cork. Really, just beautiful.” Even in telling it, I could see him recall that wonder. It moved me.

Surely, like a kid venturing into the unknown, he must have felt some fear, some hesitation, but he also embraced it because it included life’s grace. Life and all its milestones, including birth and death, I’ve come to see, is so very complicated in its emotional presence.

It’s the lessons in grief that bring both negative and positive: That person is no longer in pain, yet we're. That person is free, yet we are bound to the earth. We feel loss and heartache, yet we rejoice in remembering the greater days.

Grief comes in stages for such a reason, I believe: We learn how to carry on, even though we bear this sadness. We go through the Kübler-Ross grief model of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in no time and days and years, instead of allowing the thread in the future loose all at once. In the 40th anniversary edition of Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, it’s explained the grief model should be viewed more as phases versus linear stages, and now we may go through some phases but not all — and they may overlap and become repeated over time. We compartmentalize grief therefore we can still be happy parents and workers and partners. It’d be nice when we could just stop everything and retreat to a place where we could process all of the stages, but I’m unsure if that would eliminate grief. Maybe for some, like I learned in processing my birth trauma, it would re-categorize loss into something that simply has happened.

Or maybe we just always carry the good and also the bad with us, and we start to see the intricacies as something to behold rather than control.

That, to me, is Jeff’s great gift and legacy.

Imagine how free you could feel to surrender to the unknown, and to marvel in the mystery in life. To enjoy the glory of the mountain range, and also the gentle breezes in the trees. Could you embrace your inner fighter and outer lover because the same person? Could you take pride in all your wonderful and terrible attributes without casting judgement? What can happen if you took your life’s plan and treated it just like a rough sketch? What if we go ahead and take figurative train out West, without any idea where we’ll end up?

So here I sit, on the West Coast, reading certainly one of Jeff’s favorite books, ready for the next adventure:

“What is that feeling when you’re driving from people and they recede around the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean toward the next crazy venture underneath the skies.” — On the Road, by Jack Kerouac