The essential insight I have to offer is this: Grief changes.
You change and the grief changes, and it all flows, yes, like a river with its white water and frozen edges, its quiet stretches and unfamiliar banks (though some surprise you with their beauty). Then the river reaches the ocean, and what you thought you knew dissolves again.
Is it too dramatic to say that I beg you to remember that grief changes? Still, I make this plea. Remember this when your emotions rise, when someone gives you advice, when you learn about the models and phases and essential truths of grief, even when you read my words that follow.
Because when you loose the one you love, you will hear things; they might terrify, they might comfort, but either way try not to be too attached to the feelings that rise. Because change will have its way with you, and you will move again out into the water – with all its turbulence, with all its nurture.
When my partner John died In November 20121, I found myself immediately in white water; out of control, banging my head on hidden rocks. Desperate to right myself, I started reading down the shelf on grief at the library. Over and over again I read, “You will grieve forever.” This strikes me as a dangerous statement to make to the newly bereaved because when my loss was fresh I was utterly broken inside. I stood as my least resourceful self pulling these books from the shelf.
In those days, “you will grieve forever” pinned my life to a board of pain and I didn’t have the imagination to see anything other than that board bobbing and sinking in dark waters.
I struggled against this statement offered as truth. Wanted to say, “No, I will heal.” I looked and found the root of the word heal connects back to the idea of whole. I wanted to be whole again. But I wasn’t sure how. I needed something steady to stand on to start the search for this wholeness.
Because, yes, you do need – you can have – something to support you in the waters of grief so almost as much as I want you to remember that your grief will change, I want you to forget that there are no maps to grief, that no one grieves like you, that each grief is unique.
Grief, after all, is well-known terrain. Its pangs come only after birth, sex, and death on the list of human adventures we undertake or into which we are thrust. Surely, there is a story that resonates with yours and shines some light into the darkness that holds you. Maybe you would feel less alone if you heard that story.
The current in grief literature that emphasizes individual healing without timeline or clear markers grows from a positive impetus: to release us from following the straightjacket of a model or a proscribed timeline. We are free then to grieve as we need. But freedom is not our essential need at the beginning. We are too free, released from the known life and tumbling. The need is for places to rest. Yes, we still tumble, but we can find resting places to gather our strength in the stories of grievers from across the ages and across the street.
When John died I heard all these stories from people that I knew but hadn’t met. They told me about death in their life. Only then did I meet them. These stories helped me. A woman whose teenaged son had died told me about the strange and unavoidable pain of the grocery store, that this was the place where her heart cracked as she passed by the peanut butter jars. So when I tried to take the tea from the shelf and couldn’t, I understood, I knew, I felt less alone.
The Gods and Goddesses, too, might tell you their stories. You don’t need to believe. Belief is flimsy before death’s stirring of oceanic emotions untamable by the mind where belief lives.
I had beliefs. At John’s memorial circle, I read, “there is no birth, there is no death.” This resonated with my belief in the indestructibility of energy and the continuation of spirit. But then the days of absence followed, unexpected and utterly undeniable. Experience slapped my face: there was Death.
But then there was Isis. When her husband-brother Osiris is murdered, she is wild with grief and seeks his body. Twice she works to bring him back to life. The second time she reassembles his mutilated corpse into a whole with a spark of being and conceives a child. Death overtakes her, but she makes something new from its reality. As I spent time with her story and her energy, she worked her magic on me. I, too, had taken a journey to claim John’s body, and then had to reassemble -that is to re-member – who he had been and who we were together. Out of this, I wrote. Just words at first, but then they took the form of poetry, Tarot rituals, musings on nature. I, too, took something from Death.
The Isis tale is often told as one of her conquering Death, but this is not what I see in the story now. In the end, Osiris does not return to the land of the living. He becomes the God of the Underworld, welcomes the dead to their new dwelling. Although ruler of the Underworld, he is a green God who is also remembered in spring’s rebirth that comes out of the rest of Death.
Isis releases Osiris to his new calling. Though she sometimes visits him in the Underworld, she remains in the land of the living. She raises her son, seeks justice, offers compassion, becomes the Goddess of 10,000 Names. They continue their journeys but now in different places and with different tasks. There is no denying Death in her story. There is no denying Life in her story. There is both Life and Death and they are twined together into a knot of the everlasting.
There are so many stories; perhaps you’ll need a different one to support you. You might need to see yourself in the mirror of the Greek Goddess Demeter who sits unmoving and brings the natural world to a halt when her daughter Persephone is taken to the Underworld. Later you might be inspired by the Norse giantess Skadi who when the Gods kill her father, storms their hall demanding that since they have taken him from her, they must give something in return: laughter and a husband.
Stories are dynamic. You don’t understand them as much as come into relationship with them and their invitations. They change when you change so they are as fluid as grief. They are a boat to ride in over the waves.
So that one day, you rise above to look into the water – calm or still raging – and see the fullness of your personal story. You’ll see its uniqueness – because it is true that the story of you and your loved one in this encounter with Death is utterly unique – and you’ll see its outline is the same as so many stories. And then you will be whole, not because you are fixed, but because you are part of a larger story, eternal rhythms, a cycle of Life-Death-Life. You are part of the Whole.
At this time, I believe this to be an early piece of a longer narrative that will include my story but connect it to others stories and examples of how to move through and with what I was calling grief for short-hand, but what I now call Love-Death-Awakening cycle. I’ll be sharing that narrative as part of my Dark Moon Circle monthly series, which will also include prompts for readers own movement to wholeness. Sign up for that before March 16th to get the first installment.
[Image credits: Waterfall photo by John. Isis and Osiris is from the Dark Goddess Tarot by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince.]