Posts Tagged ‘grief’

Going to Sun WaterfallThe 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.

DGT IsisBut 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.]


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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.]






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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

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