The Privilege of Grief

It was easier for me to travel across the whole country and claim my partner John’s body than it was for Michael Brown’s mother to cross a few feet of pavement in Ferguson, Missouri.  

John was killed in a car crash in Montana while I was home in Massachusetts.  We are not sure when it happened.  Was it late at night or early in the foggy morning?  The car went off the road and into an irrigation ditch.  It came to a halt upside down in the water, partially obscured by a tree.  Much later in the day, someone noticed something odd and called the police.

A local police officer and a State Highway patrol officer responded.  They saw John’s body suspended in the water.  You don’t survive long in the water so they must have suspected he was dead, but still they jumped into the ditch, into the muddy November water filled with broken glass and twisted metal to free him from the car. 

They brought his body to the bank, called an ambulance, and began trying to identify who he was.  Identification was hard because John’s wallet must have fallen out into the water.  The crash force must also have knocked off the silver bracelets that he wore. The police officer who finally called me was doing a delicate dance between fully confirming John’s identity and figuring out my relationship to him.  I started sobbing when he said, “He didn’t make it.”  I apologized asking him to repeat what he has said a number of times.  He said, “It’s OK.  You’re doing fine.” 

He was reassuring as he kept asking questions to confirm John’s identity.  I asked about the bracelets and he didn’t remember seeing them.  He must have said something about comparing a picture taken of John at the crash site to the license picture on file at the Montana DMV.  I said, “I want to see the pictures you took.”  “Oh, no,” he replied in a quiet tone. He let the O out slowly.  He was protecting me.  I’d see John soon enough.

As soon as the police realized that John and I were partners , all the people and institutions with which I interacted acted compassionately and helpfully to bring me to him – possibly even bending the rules to make it happen (explained more fully here). I remember the director of the funeral home to which his body was transferred talking about “receiving John’s body” and waiting for me to arrive.

That was what I needed because I can not tell where this urge, this longing, this desperation comes from – it must be deep in the human psyche – but I wanted his body.  I knew he was dead but I had to be with his body: to see him; to pray over him; to touch him, no matter how cold; to press my forehead on his chest and let tears and snot and pain come out of me.

Lesley McSpadden is Michael Brown’s mother.  Our experiences of the death of our loved ones are worlds apart. I imagine that you have heard about Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager killed by a police officer on August 9th in Ferguson, MO. If you don’t already know it: yes, I am white.

Lesley McSpadden and other members of his family were nearby when Michael was shot six times in the middle of the afternoon. In fact, there were many people near by and some of them immediately began recording what happened on cell phone cameras.  This is what they saw and shared:

  • The police officer did not try to resuscitate Michael Brown.  He seems not to have even checked to see if there was a pulse or possibility that the teenager was alive.
  • The body lay in the street uncovered.  Michael Brown’s blood spread out over the street.  This is such a disturbing image that mainstream media warns watchers about the graphic nature of what they will see or even blurs out the image.  This is the scene that Michael’s family came upon.
  • Michael Brown’s uncle seems to be the first family member to arrive.  In a video, he is a large man in blue who comes toward the body and is about to bend down to touch his nephew.  A police officer runs toward him and pushes him away and back behind police tape.  The police offer seems to be yelling at him, seems agitated.
  • I don’t know when Lesley McSpadden arrived. Did she her child’s body fallen in the street, face pressed to the pavement, blood in a long streak?  Or was she there after they finally put a white sheet over the body?  Even with the sheet, her child’s feet and blood were visible.  A neighbor describes her interaction with the police.  She said, “Why y’all got my son out in the street?”  A police officer responded, “You can’t see your son. You need to calm yourself down.”
  • About four hours after he died, Michael Brown’s body was loaded into a dark vehicle covered in a blue tarp.

I so sadly see my experience and Lesley McSpadden’s experience as parallel opposites.  In each instance where I was offered comfort and protection, she was shown coldness and distain.  I so sadly see the treatment of John’s body and Michael’s body as parallel opposites.  John’s body was offered respect.  Michael’s body was not.

How we treat the bodies of our dead is important.  Our oldest wisdom tales teach us to respect the body even when the breath of life has left it.  The Egyptian Goddess Isis searched for the body of her beloved Osiris, not once but twice.  The second time, when Osiris’ body is chopped into 14 pieces, Isis invents mummification and rituals for dead that are important for soul of the deceased and for the healing of those left behind.  Antigone from Greek myth defies the laws of the king to bury her brother with proper ritual rather than leave him to the elements because she must answer to a divine law higher than the king’s.  Christianity stresses the importance of preserving the body so that it can be resurrected when Christ returns.

What happened to Michael Brown’s body was a profound failure:  of institutions and systems meant to serve, of the human heart’s ability to feel compassion and see itself in the suffering of others. Yes, I am talking about racism and classism and compassion all together.  There is so much data on how race creates inequality in the United States and how white people benefit from it that I know we aren’t stuck here because we need more information.  We don’t need more information; we need to admit how that information plays outs in our lives and be with the uncomfortable feelings that arise.

So feel what you feel as hear about how Lesley McSpadden was treated. If you can, go look for some of the unedited video of Michael Brown’s body in the street and feel what comes up as you look at it. If it’s your way, pray, perhaps for the soul of Michael Brown, for the comfort of his family, for forgiveness of us all, for the strength to be part of making things right. We will need action as well as prayer.  But first let your heart crack open.

The community of Ferguson has let its heart crack open.  Immediately people were saying, ‘This isn’t right.”  They gathered.  They were in shock.  They were angry.  They have been called protestors, at best, peaceful protestors.  I think of them grieving.  They have had to push through so much to do this grieving. They’ve had to walk through tear gas and face loaded assault rifles.  I thank them for this that they have done at such cost, for the honoring of Michael Brown and his family; for the ancient work of mourning the dead they are doing, for the service they are performing for the whole nation to open the door for us to move toward wholeness.

My grief is a private grief, but our grief for Michael Brown is a collective grief.  He belongs to all of us.  The people of Ferguson are our neighbors.  When someone dies in your neighborhood, you offer support.  It can be so here.

None of us wants the terrible things that cause grief to have happened, but I’ve been surprised to find that grief is a privilege that opens us up to that which is greater than ourselves.  After the roller coaster of emotion when we are crazed or numb, being supported to go through grief can actually enlarge us. Beliefs fall apart and something new takes their place.  Today we may believe that we don’t know what to do or that things can never change, but going through grief rather than ignoring it can unravel that.  The impossible can be possible.

8/25 Note:  This morning I learned that Lesley McSpadden had not seen her son’s body until yesterday.  It took me less than 2 days, less than 40 hours to reach John’s body all the way across the coutnry, and it both tore me apart and helped me find peace.  It took Lesley McSpadden more that 14 days, nearly 360 hours to go be with her son.  This cracks my heart open. I hope it cracks other hearts open.

[Two places for further resources for reflection and action:  I appreciate the work and spiritual-activist perspective of Thorne Coyle who reminds us that where ever we are there is work to do in our communities – and that love and anger are connected.  And, as I think of the people in Ferguson and Missouri as my neighbors in this country that we share, I’ve been glad that I know of the long and deep work of Jamala Rogers and the Organization for Black Struggle; they are on the ground in Ferguson today and doing long-term justice work that helps us all.]







I am delighted to have my poem Emergence appear in the summer issue of Rose Red Review.  It is always delightful to have my poems appear in print and what a great name for a journal.  Yes, there is a connection between Rose Red and Snow White; here is the relationship as described on the site:

Rose Red is the outdoorsy, curious sister of Snow White, a shy, delicate wallflower. Rose Red represents warmth, passion, and the thirst for knowledge; it is she who invites the cursed bear-prince into the home she shares with her sister. Rose Red is enamored with life, and she possesses a sense of adventure. If she were a real girl, Rose Red would seek out the magic in the every day: a sandy riverbank, a new song, strange happenings in an airport. In difficult times, she would recognize the nature of hardship: a hurdle to overcome.

They have also taken a poem for their spring issue so I’ll let you know when that comes out.

After all, but still

To arrive by quiet finally

at the doorway into dark

nothing, force

that renovates the now,

puts daily plans

to eternity’s test

so that just these three remain:

To love, the heart cracked, spilling now its unstoppable fire.

To die, the body at rest while the hawk rises.

To live, the hand pulls silken seeds from a pod,

lifts them to wind,

lets go.

Dark Milkweed for Post Illustration


This poem was published in Freshwater 2014, I am proud to report.

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. Martin Buber

Yes, I thought my journey today was a short circuit around the Smith College campus, lovely and well groomed.  This was what I knew.

But there were wild eruptions beneath the tended beauty.

Dark-dot tadpoles with their manic tails swarmed the pond’s edge. Above them, surely mountainous in their small view, a full grown frog. Hind legs mucky grey to match the mud from which it rose but from the back starts a new-leaf green that smooths the whole of this frog’s head.  An unblinking eye; the stillness in which it wants to hide.

So much life in this small spot. I could encircle the whole of it in my two arms.  But, of course, if I tried water, tadpoles, frog would all flow out.  They are beyond my grasp and move on in tune to spring’s quick beat.

Buber also invites me to look at my journey through grief.  The start in tidal waves that overcame my boat of self: swamped and treading new-strange waters.

I was not the first to go on this journey, though it seemed I was because I hadn’t heard about this pain.  How could anyone else have felt this way and not have spoken of it?  Of course, this journey had been spoken but I didn’t know to listen below the words; this first grief can be described but it cannot be captured.  You know it when you know it.

And once I met grief, I thought I was on one kind of journey: all full of pain with the instructions to be brave.

But the secret destination of grief is not pain.

The waters do calm, become like the edge of the pond. I can be like the frog then; rising from the muck but new green and listening. I am listening for my dear departed one.  The messages can dart in from any direction.

I no longer listen for words.  We don’t have words together anymore – and even in life words failed us, probably more often than not.

But I feel the rise and fall of my chest when I remember breakfasts followed by walk down the street and how he cheered me and all my projects on.

I feel my feet sturdy when I stand in the room where he painted the window’s key stones purple.

I feel energy enter my left hand and move up my body when I dare – yes, I dare – to receive what I can only call love flowing from my beloved in his new place.

And that’s it then:  the secret journey of grief is not pain.  The secret journey of grief is love.

There is plenty of contemporary writing about grief and mourning, but I’ve found it to be very clinical and its focus on the individual isolating. As a society, we have forgotten that the Goddess and Her Stories are guides for our grief and mourning, but She hasn’t forgotten us. She remains as She Who Watches and comes to us when we are in need, even when we don’t turn to Her.

She Who Watches showed me Her face as the Egyptian Goddess Isis, and Her story has been as a guide for me to creative mourning. Yes, even in the deepest loss, Isis shows us how that the new is being born.

DGT Isis

Isis from The Dark Goddess Tarot

There are many version of her story.  I will share with you a version of that story that has 5 parts; you might call them tasks that Isis assists us to complete:

  • Wild grief, weeping, and seeking.
  • Finding the Beloved Dead in Unexpected Places.
  • Re-membering.
  • Conception of new life.
  • Shapeshifting for the Living and the Dead.

Continue reading on my Art of Change Tarot blog

Wild Wisdom Series

I have started a series of poetic nature meditations inspired by the many wonderful photos I have.  I’ve been posting them to my Tarot blog, but they certainly fit the themes of this blog as well.  Periodically, I’ll let you know about the offerings over there so you can decide if you want to make a cyber trip.  Unlike today’s New England weather, travel is easy and there is no snow in cyberspace!

Gate of Water

John at Water Edge








Dream of Water

Trail of Cedars Close







Gate of Fire

Burn and growth 2 of Wands







Dream of Fire


The Field Where I Laid Him

With the help of friends, I scattered John’s ashes in a field destined for flowers in a place that he loved.  I thought mostly about how his ashes would mix with and feed the blooming flowers, but the field is ever changing.  It buds and blooms and decays and disappears.  In September all of these life-death processes exist side by side.

Two weeks ago they plowed over the field.  I knew it would happen and, yet, seeing the empty field hurt, brought John’s absence into sharp focus.  OK, the field will be my teacher of loss, I thought. But this week when I returned, the field was green again!  Winter rye, that potent soil fixer, was already growing and greening the plowed rows again. Life and death are in a dance together and we do well to learn its power.

What follows is a glimpse into that changing field interspersed with quotes from Normandi Ellis’s Awakening Osiris:  The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Phanes Press, 1988).  It’s a book of John’s that when I pulled it off the shelf this past winter brought me great comfort.

The Field

“I am like that old [Egyptian God] Osiris waking in the night. Drunk on the cool wine of darkness, I eat the bread of life and die. I know. I am blessed by mortality. I am a field enduring, growing wheat one year, barley the next, tangled flowing papyrus, a hill of sand. I am ever after changing, while the eye of the watcher shines and takes me in” (p.52).

Just scattered with ash

New field slant

“Even nothing can not last. The seed laid into the void must grow.  The candle’s only purpose is to shine in the darkness. Bread is meant to be ground for pulp in the teeth. The function of life is to have something to offer death. Ah, but the spirit lies always between, coming and going in and out of heaven, filling and leaving the houses of earth” (p. 58)

First flower

First Flower

“I come forth from the edge of heaven. … A half moon, I sail on the edge of heaven.  The wheat in my field has sprung up in straight rows.  I am guardian against forgetfulness, keeping watch, moving on” (p. 134).

Full flower

Full Bee in Sunflower


Full Yellow Flowers

Full Sunflowers against purples

“If you stood on a summer’s morning on the banks under a brilliant sky, you would see the thousand petals and say that together they make the lotus. But if you lived in its heart, invisible from without, you might see how the ecstasy at its fragrant core gives rise to its thousand petals. What is beautiful is always that which is itself essence, a certainty of being. I marvel at myself and the things of the earth” (p.167).

Descent begins


“The snake observed with amber eyes. He motioned toward a door that opened from air into air. ‘If that is so, can your heart name the name of this gate?’

‘Being,’ I said.

‘And the lands on either side?’

‘Creation and destruction.’

‘Pass then, [Eternal One],’ he said.

The snake withdrew and the multicolored birds gathered, circling in the dark, gathering me, lifting me up. I stepped through and nothing changed, yet I had entered heaven” (p. 192-3).

The fall

Fall with shadow

“The truth of what we all our knowing is both light and dark. Men are always dying and waking. The rhythm between we call life. In the night I turn and face myself, the many howling, laughing, pausing in the body of one. Some miracle is about to happen. Some new man unseen wishes to rise and speak. I walk in darkness feeling darkness on my skin. Dawn always begins in the bones. … Death maters, as does life. As it ends it begins again. Knowing that is both my comfort and my fear” (p. 218).

The empty field, the sun set, the moon

Empty Plowed field

Empty Sunset

Empty Moon

“In the land of the sun, in the season of the end, I climb the highest hill. The moon is a sliver caught in the trees. Entering night I carry the lamp. Though no man sees it, I shine my light into darkness. See who even a single beam cuts through so the path lies clear. The wolves run frightened.  Still no great harm comes to [one] who walks unafraid to die” (p. 167).

The field greening again

Winter Rye

“I wait to come forth by day again. My body turns to greening. I wait to give birth into dream, to give form to the peace in my heart. I shall be a man of the earth shaping the things of the god. I am light entering fire, coming forth and shining through darkness. May I walk beneath blue heaven singing, my heart telling the story of light. I am a man blessed by becoming millions and millions of time” (p. 105)