There is a tone sounding inside me, and its song repeats: Let's let grief out of the closet! Stop grieving alone, circle up, look together at what grief is and how it carves spaces inside us, ruthlessly, artfully.
Just before Thanksgiving, under the guidance of a small flock of wise friends, some of whom are pastors and psychologists, I formed guidelines for a group that invites and empowers everyday people to sit together and be present with grief, explore grief.
A web page was made, a press release sent to three local newspapers, fliers made and posted in cafes and libraries.
Last night was the third meeting. Two brave souls showed up. The first quality I noticed was an immediate intimacy between us. I don’t know you, I don’t know the kind of grief you hold, but without any story-telling, our hearts walked into the water together and began to speak from there, from the essence of inquiry.
That will be the power of the group, I believe: a story might or might not be told, but the universal experience of grief is our common, unspoken language, and your courageous questioning of your own experience is food for my soul. There are no answers, only the willingness to hold still for the questions and let them live within us.
Although I shepherd the group, it is only to protect the shape of the circle, to keep the form, to keep the focus on curiosity. If we weep, so be it--tears are medicine--but the intention of this circling is to show up with all that is in us, to be authentically present in a circle that is not afraid of grief. As Martin Prechtel writes in Grief and Praise, "Grief doesn't care if he's badly misunderstood, underestimated, or forgotten: he's not hurt because people run away when they see him coming, because grief has one real good friend. Grief is the best friend of Praise, because Praise is a grandiose griever."
A Mourner’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities
© 2015 Sheridan Hill
Artwork above: "Dragonfly Dream" from Richard Rudd's first Gene Keys book.
I have been selfish in my grief these past two years, two months, and twenty-one days. It is true that I have not been able to hold space for the grief of others, and I have known it was true while it was happening. The loss pulled me ever inward, and all I could do was search for the strength to bear it. My eyes have been blind to the pain that Corey's loss has caused those closest to me. And for that I am deeply sorry. I want to show up unfailingly for my loved ones, who are also Corey's beloveds; I want to be an unwavering column of strength and light for them.
But the waves of grief move with a force of their own choosing; they do not obey the directives of my will. If it had been emotionally and spiritually possible for me to hold still for others during these past two years, I would have done it with a humble heart. Just as I would have given my life a thousand times to keep Corey on the planet, so would I give everything I have to nurture my two children who remain here in the physical; I would give my life a thousand times to take away their grief.
My apologies are in order not only because I have lacked the stamina to nurture others in their grief; I also have said things that caused them pain or discomfort, and there is no taking that back. I meant well--I thought I was doing what was best for them, thought I was proactively helping them with their grieving process, and, crazy as this sounds, I was convinced that I was acting under a directive from Corey--but my day of atonement has arrived along with my slowly clearing vision.
Since Corey catapulted from the planet on June 6, 2013, I have had several particularly intense and confusing avalanches of emotion--all happened when I was either physically ill or awake in the night grappling with the demons of death--when I emailed or texted something that caused the recipient pain. Essentially, I added to the grief. Those moments came over me like a drug, like a possession, to the point that within days or hours, I looked at what I had done and asked myself: What?!!! Did I really say that? Was that me? Where did that COME FROM?
Whatever it was, it came through me and I am responsible. I walk an emotional beam every moment, wielding the long balance bar to counter the unsteadiness of the ground beneath me, and those were moments in which I fell off the beam and knocked a few innocent people in the head with the wooden bar as I plummeted down.
All I can think to say to people is: Have you wept enough?
In our culture, everyone asks: Are you over it yet? Have you finished your grieving? Have you been able to resume work and your normal life?
But I want to speak to the necessity of grieving. Many African cultures know that the dead must be properly grieved for their own sake, that some kind of spiritual progress takes place only to the extent that the grieving has not been avoided.
I have had several experiences of an African woman speaking to me or appearing before me in dreamtime since June, 2013. She asks: Have you cried enough? Have you wept in front of others so they can see how it is done? That it must be done? That it cannot be put off?
While the "to-do" list spans endlessly before us, the grieving waits, and the so-called dead wait for us to acknowledge their presence, to meet them in prayer, to release them as many times as it takes so they can move on, move on, move on, and yet they will always be with us.
In a dream last week, I heard these words: Rebuild the mall! Raise the dead!
And it had to do with getting into the foundation work, the grunt work, the dirty work of doing our grief work so that the way will be cleared for communion with the so-called dead. Corey's presence with me is amidst every breath. It is the force that allows me to grieve. I am doing it as hard and as loudly as I can so that I can let it go, let her go, and do at last what I came here for. Her birthday is tomorrow. Let us release who she was, while treasuring who she was, and embrace what she has to teach us now, in spiritual form. She is a bright, shining presence among us.
I am twenty days past the two-year date of Corey's flight from the physical. I still don't use the "d" word. This year, the actual day in June didn't knock me flat like so many other days have done.
It is because I have reached the tipping point and have become a master griever.
If you do the math of the last two years alone, I figure I am awake about 15 hours of each day; 750 days have now past since June 6, 2013. During that time, I have worked with the grief, fought with the grief, burned through the grief, sung my grief, written my grief, painted my grief, Nia danced with the grief, wept and wailed away the grief at least five times an hour.
That's about 56,000 authentic encounters with grief over Corey since two summers ago. But my journey with grief began when I was fifteen and was left on my own to deal with the shooting death of my stepfather. By the time 2003 rolled around and my mother died, I had already experienced the death of many loved ones and gained a number of realizations about the internal forces of grief. Building upon that experience, I volunteered for hospice for three years, including singing and playing the harp for the imminently dying.
The phrase "master griever" is all I can come up with to describe the path given to me. When that much death, much of it sudden and tragic, insists on slicing through your heart, you learn that there is only one defense: to feel it.
Grief wants one thing: to be expressed.
The grief is cycling through this week, amidst the most sensuously slow spring that we have seen in many years. Hour by hour it comes on, the white crosses of the dogwoods unfolding luxuriously, rhododendron blossoms the color of a baby’s tongue, tribes of yellow finch fluttering at the feeder. The robin who spent a solid week tapping and eyeballing me at the kitchen window has shifted her attention to my back door, found a husband and is building a nest with him there.
Even with this fertility, this abundance of color and light, and bird wings all around me, yet does the grief blow through me like a winter wind. You can wish winter weren't here but wishing will not make it go away. And no matter how intensely I wish the grief would be gone for good, it ignores my begging. Its natural rhythm is different from the one I had planned to follow. It has seasons that move in upon me. I am the helpless planet enduring the weather systems of grief.
Here I am weeping in the mornings again. The sparrow at dawn religiously offers the most jubilant melody and it does not stop the hot tears from streaming off my cheeks. There is no relief. There is no point in calling anyone because who wants to hear it? Everyone wants me to be better and no one wants to hear about the weeping. I talk about it to no one.
A lady very innocently asked me about my children a few weeks ago—“And you have children, don’t you, Sheridan?”— and I surprised both of us by answering, “The subject of my children involves grief and I can’t really talk about it right now.” When she apologized profusely I said, “Really, it's fine, I understand. You couldn't have known. Someday I will share the story with you.”
But the shift that had happened was that I could no longer only talk about Julia and Sean and not mention my third child. I have gotten through this far, almost two years, by simply very brightly talking about my two children who are walking the earth and never mentioning the third. But the other day before the sun brightened the window I woke up saying, Julia, Sean and Corey; Julia, Sean and Corey, just like it always was, and I felt the three of them in the same way as when they were all three alive and walking the earth, and from that moment on I knew I could no longer leave Corey out when someone asks me about my children. And yet I cannot talk about it without weeping and so I still don't have the proper social response. I suppose for now I will simply have to say what I said to my new acquaintance: there is this grief, and I cannot yet speak of it.
On these mornings as I weep, the grief is accompanied by many logical pick-me-ups, things I hear myself saying, such as: Corey would not want us to cry, Corey would not want us sad, but the problem is grief doesn't give a damn about logic and pep-talks. Logic is a language that grief never learned, and cheery slogans are an affront to the soul in grief. Grief wants to be felt, plain and simple. When the grief is there it is the only language the soul can hear, it is the only book the soul is reading. There is no comfort for the soul that longs for its beloved, and the soul does not know how to stop its longing.
Grief is a searing spiritual path. C.S. Lewis writes of the difference between a photograph of the beloved and the presence of the beloved, between our image of God and who God really is: living essence. “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that his shattering is one of the marks of His presence?”
We think we have it all figured out, and then comes the breaking open. We think we have certain people pegged, we understand how life is supposed to work, and then it all shifts and we realize we know nothing. That nothing matters except love. Finding a way to invite love into your molecules even as the body feels dark with mourning.
The grief shatters me on a daily basis. It is disorienting, it is like living two parallel existences at the same time. There are times when certain qualities of my grief are evidence of Corey’s presence, I feel her presence in my sobbing, and yet I also feel her in the waving of the green leaf in the woods.
Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.
May you continue to inspire us
To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind
And where we will never lose you again.
John O’Donohue, On the Death of the Beloved
In the woods, the stream tables herself over a granite disk that dares to interrupt her rush down the mountain. Silvery fingers are formed at the dropoff point, clutching the rock's edges, slipping, reforming each moment amidst the tumble and flow. Can anyone tell me this is pure physics when I can hear the stream's song with my outer and inner ears? My knees want to bend, I want to trouble the water with my fleshy fingers and clasp the silver ones of the stream, clutch her hands, mercurial and wild. In these moments, I feel you most of all. In these moments I feel I must have pierced the veil between the living and the so-called dead, my face now halfway through the other side, your face pressed close and your lips kissing mine. Nevermind that tears are shimmering down my cheeks; no need to explain the crucifixion of love against loss, the burning in the body, the way that pain makes love with joy, no way to help anyone else. Grief is an involuntary act of ensoulment that benefits the heart of the world. I see my feet moving along this path, sometimes flying, sometimes stopping for a picnic by the river on my way to die and be reborn, and die again and come alive anew. I follow the roadsigns put before me, whether anyone else sees them or not.
by Kayla McClurg, "Waiting For The Light: Advent Day By Day", InwardOutward.org
"We fall for it again and again, the lie: 'If only I could stay in control of whatever gives me a sense of safety, I would have peace.' But true peace more often comes on the other side of loss, all those small deaths that knock us down, sometimes knock us out. Broken relationships, false accusations, despair and grief can be gateways to peace.
Peace lies on the far side of what feels like failure. We prefer the peace of warm feelings, but true peace travels a rockier road. When we have been demoralized by something we did (or did not do), when we have lost respect for ourselves and are unsure of who we are becoming, peace waits on the other side.
True peace comes as we discover that we are prone to falling--and that falling gives wonderful practice in the art of getting back up. Trusting the process, believing peace is possible, brings us along into the land of peace."
--Kayla McClurg, "Waiting for the Light," Inward Outward publications, Church of the Savior
The days of late November into the end of December hold a quiet unlike other seasons. Much later in life I realized that spending the end of the year waiting for Santa Clause is an odd rip-off of the spiritual expectancy that is actually right here waiting. Already here in the present moment. There should be a ritual performed when a family decides to no longer do the Santa Clause thing, and in that ritual we would tell the child: it’s a terrible disappointment at first, to realize that all of the presents will eventually break and the year will come when your aunts and uncles and parents stop loading you up with presents. But the good news is, there is something eternal you can cling to and it doesn’t matter what name anybody gives it because it’s always there anyway. It doesn’t change because someone calls it Allah or God or Buddha or The Source. They’re all the same thing.
Kayla McClurg gives us a way in when she writes: “Listening longer than we might prefer, noticing the unexpected, giving up control and the need to know, leaning into the uncertainty and stepping up anyway—these are practices of hope. These are how we wait for the Light." (“Waiting For The Light,” Church of the Savior, www.InwardOutward.org. )
This past weekend I was Buddhafied. I hadn’t sat zazen in more than fifteen years but when I saw this retreat posted on the Cloud Cottage webpage, I felt inwardly called. Ticht Naht Hahn has been in a coma with a brain embolism since Nov. 8, and the weekend of chanting, silence, and meditation was devoted to him. I needed it for me but I trusted that whatever he needed from me he would get through the ethers.
Friday: six PM to nine PM. Saturday: from the pre-dawn dark of six AM all the way through to nine PM when my left knee cap was whining loudly. Sitting. Meditating. Chanting. Nothingness. Emptiness. Fullness. Forcing the body to be still makes the mind come to rest. Certain people began arising in my mind’s eye, particularly my ex-family, my exhusband’s seven siblings, whom I still love but have no contact with. And then certain moments about Corey's passing came up. I won’t describe them here (saving that for the book that this blog is a part of). Apparently, they were scenes that I needed to review but couldn’t look at alone because of the pain involved. But in the dark stillness of my mind after a dozen hours of meditating, meditative walking, and chanting, there they came: the most painful moments of my entire life. The strange thing was, I found myself looking at them with gentleness, as if viewing the scenes through a beautiful window. It was spontaneous healing. The grief is still abides…but the portion of it that felt almost sinister has been extracted from the center of my gut and now lives in the distance, in some field of compassion that I didn’t know existed before.
Thank you Judith Toy for holding this retreat. It was a great honor for me to be the one person who accompanied you through the entire weekend as others came and went. The immersion was much needed and I hope that in giving up some of my suffering, I did a good thing for your beloved Thai.
Learning to Grieve
Let us learn to grieve.