Time has done little to ease the sense of loss that I have felt since the death of my husband Darryl. Two years after his death I am facing another major transition as I prepare to sell and leave the home we established over twenty six years. Carnforth is on the market and I am closing a book, shutting the pages of an era. At this time the words of John O’Donahue palliate. Knowing others know makes all the difference.
When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you becomes fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone.
There are days when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.
Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.
It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.
Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.
Grief: Longing for the lost one
…. The time of grief is awkward, edgy and lonesome. At first you feel that it is totally unreal. With the belonging severed, you feel numbed. When you love someone, you are no longer single. You are more than yourself. It is as if many of your nerve endings now extend outside your body towards the beloved and theirs reach towards you. You have made living bridges to each other and changed the normal distance that usually separates us. When you lose someone, you lose a part of yourself that you loved, because when you love it is the part of you that you love most that always loves the other. Grief is at its most acute at death. There is also a whole, unacknowledged grief that accompanies the breakup of a relationship. This indeed can often be worse than death, at least initially, because the person is still around and possibly with someone else. The other is cut off from you. Grief is the experience of finding yourself standing alone in the vacant space with all this torn emotional tissue protruding. In the rhythm of grieving, you learn to gather your given heart back to yourself again. This sore gathering takes time. You need great patience with your slow heart. It takes the heart a long time to unlearn and transfer its old affections. This is a time when you have to swim against the tide of your life. It seems for a while that you are advancing, then the desolation and confusion pull you down and, when you surface again, you seem to be even further from the shore. It is slow making your way back on your own. You feel so many conflicting things. You are angry one minute; the next moment you are just so sad. After a death there are people around you, yet you feel utterly isolated: no-one else has the foggiest notion of your loss. No-one had what you had, therefore, no-one else has lost it. Yet when friends try to gently accompany you, you find yourself pulling back from them too. In a remarkable collection of modern elegies to mourn the loss of his wife, the Scottish poet, Douglas Dunn, ends his poem ‘The Clear Day’ with this verse:
I shall sieve through our twenty years,
I almost reach the sob in the intellect,
The truth that waits for me with its loud grief,
Sensible, commonplace, beyond understanding.
Because your loss is so sore, something within you expects the world to understand. You were singled out. Now you are on your own. Yet life goes on. That makes you angry: sometimes, you look around at your family or the others who have been hit by this loss; it does not seem to have hurt them as much. But you remember that behind the facade they are heartbroken too. You have never experienced anything like this. During grief, the outer landscape of your life is in the grip of grey weather; every presence feels ghostly. You are out of reach. You have gone way into yourself. Your soul lingers around that inner temple which is empty now save for the sad echo of loss.
Grief is a journey that knows its way
Despite its severity the consolation at a time of grief is that it is a journey. Grief has a structure; it knows the direction and it will take you through. It is amazing how time and again, one of the most consoling factors in experience is that each experience has a sure structure; this is never obvious to us while we are going through something. But when we look back, we will be able to pick out the path that offered itself. Experience always knows its way. And we can afford to trust our souls much more than we realize. The soul is always wiser than the mind, even though we are dependent on the mind to read the soul for us. Though travel is slow on the grief journey, you will move through its grey valley and come out again onto the meadow where light, colour and promise await to embrace you. The loneliest moment in grief is when you suddenly realize you will never see that person again. This is an awful shock. It is as if all the weeks of sorrow suddenly crystallize in one black bolt of recognition. You really know how total your loss is when you understand that it is permanent. In this life there is no place that you will ever be able to go to meet again the one who has gone. On the journey of grief this is a milestone. You begin thereafter to make your peace with the shock.
We grieve for ourselves
Gradually, you begin to understand more deeply that you are grieving primarily over your own loss. The departed one has gone home and is gathered now in the tranquillity of the Divine Belonging. When you realize that it is for yourself that you are grieving, you begin to loosen your sorrowful hold on the departed one. Part of what has had you holding on so desperately is the fear that if you let go, you would lose them for ever. Now you begin to glimpse the possibilities of being with them in a new way. If you loosen the sad grip of grief, a new belonging becomes possible between you. This is one of the most touching forms of belonging in the world: the belonging between us and our loved ones in the unseen world. It is a subtle and invisible belonging for which the crass obviousness of modern culture has no eye. Yet this invisible belonging is one in which so many people participate. Though the silent weeping of your heart lessens, you get on, more or less, with your life, a place is kept within you for the one who is gone. No other will ever be given the key to that door. As years go on you may not remember the departed every day with your conscious mind. Yet below your surface mind, some part of you is always in their presence. From their side, our friends in the unseen world are always secretly embracing us in their new and bright belonging. Though we may forget them, they can never forget us. Their secret embrace unknowingly shelters and minds us.
The bright moment in grief is when the sore of absence gradually changes into a well of presence. You become aware of the subtle companionship of the departed one. You know that when you are in trouble, you can turn to this presence beside you and draw on it for encouragement and blessing. The departed one is now no longer restricted to any one place and can be with you any place you are. It is good to know the blessings of this presence. An old woman, whose husband had died thirty years earlier, told me once that the last thing she did each night before sleep was to remember him. In her memory she went over his face detail by detail until she could gather his countenance clearly in her mind’s eye. She had always done this since he died because she never wanted him to fade into the forgetfulness of loss.
While it is heartbreaking to watch someone in the throes of grief, there is still a beauty in grief. Your grief shows that you have risked opening up your life and giving your heart to someone. Your heart is broken with grief because you have loved. When you love, you always risk pain. The more deeply you love, the greater the risk that you will be hurt. Yet to live your life without loving is not to have lived at all. As deeply as you open to life, so deeply will life open up to you. So there is a lovely symmetry and proportion between grief and love. Connemara is a dark landscape full of lakes and framed with majestic mountains. If you ask a person here how deep a lake is, they say that they have often heard their ancestors say that the lake is always as deep as the mountain near it is high. The invisible breakage of grief has the same symmetry. Meister Eckhart said: ‘Depth is height’ and there is a haunting poem from the third century BC by Callimachus which imaginatively captures grief and the richness of absence as memory:
They told me, Heraclitus,
They told me you were dead.
They brought me bitter news
And bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered,
How often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking
And sent him down the sky.
But now that you are lying,
My dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes,
Long, long ago at rest.
Still are your gentle voices,
Your nightingales, awake –
For death he taketh all away
But these he cannot take.
(Translated by William Cory)