Ben Usher writes about the grief associated with the loss of animal companions. I have never been embarrassed to show my grief over their deaths. It is only those who have not shared an intense bond with animals that cannot understand the sense of loss and the associated devastation.
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)
Years ago, a hospice volunteer mentioned each patient and caregiver she spent time with was like a pearl in a necklace—over time, the necklace grew and grew. I decided to use that idea as a theme for the Annual All Day Volunteer Retreat I facilitated for my hospice volunteers this year. I had also come across Heather’s Soul Food Site “Descansos” which familiarized me with the term. I then thought about how this theme could apply to hospice and to our Retreat. Combining the two ideas, I planned a “Day of Remembering,” with the creation of a pearl necklace becoming the descansos made by each attendee.
Starting with a visualization to activate each participant’s memory about their loved ones, whether personal or hospice patients, we all thought of eight people we wanted to remember, and a few words about each that reminded them about what they received as a legacy from the person. The legacy might manifest as an idea, a trait, or an actual item; such as, a recipe, a love of cooking, or a well-used rolling pin.
I previously drew eight circles of varying sizes, on a piece of paper, with each circle touching the next, forming a completed chain. This would become our necklace. The largest circle in the necklace was generally reserved for a personal loved one, with the others filling in for hospice patients.
The grief of hospice workers, and other nurses, doctors, and aides, etc., is considered disenfranchised grief—not acknowledged as real grief since the health care worker only knew the patient for a relatively short time compared to if the person was a beloved parent, spouse, child, grandparent. However, one can become quite close to someone and still need to deal with their loss when it occurs. When the losses are ongoing, as with health care workers, and one is then on to the next patient, those losses aren’t acknowledged and dealt with, and so accumulate, leading to eventual burnout. So I try to allow the volunteers an avenue to know it is all right to grieve for patients, to provide an avenue in which to grieve and express that grief in a different way each year. We’ve done “Legacy Writing,” “Ethical Wills,” “Rekindling,” “Inner Child” and many others in the six years of having Volunteer Retreats.
We each wrote the name of the remembered person in one of the circles. Then we perused magazines to find pictures or words describing the person and their legacy to us, or used colored pencils or crayons to draw pictures or words. There is something so therapeutic in using scissors and colored pencils, in smelling glue and crayons that takes us back to childhood. The volunteers know by now every creation made at our Retreats is considered a work of art, and so have resolved any lingering critical voices in their heads from childhood. Even the men get involved with creating and sharing.
Snip, snip, snip go all the scissors. Sniff, inhale deeply beloved smells of childhood. Oh! Look at this! Wow! intersperse the proceedings as people move about seeking the perfect picture or accessory like ribbons or beads, small flowers or feathers, yarn or thread, crayon or colored markers. Anyone see a lilac bush in bloom? How about a man fishing? Here’s a woman baking. Who was looking for that? Looking for oneself as well as looking to help others. Sharing as part of the process of creating, usually considered a solitary activity. And sometimes it got quiet as each was busy getting it “just right.”
Finally finished, or as finished as it can be in the allotted hours. I asked each to bring in a fairly recent picture of themselves. Now those pictures were glued into the middle of the picture, and we each truly had a pearl necklace going around our necks: a descansos of our legacy from losses of loved ones.
Then the verbal sharing started. Each, in describing their necklace, gave a eulogy for the pearl-people (in their necklace), telling of the legacies they received from each, telling stories and activities, sharing the love they felt with others in a setting where they were really listened to. And what stories! Fortunately, I brought many boxes of kleenex, which were needed during the three hours of sharing. Powerful legacies from patients one was with only a short time but where a real connection was built, showing we might never realize the influence we can have on others. Three hours later, we all felt as if each of us had honored our loved ones in a eulogy sometimes more pertinent to the person than that done by the “professionals”—ministers and funeral directors. Our hearts filled with inspiration and the goodness of so many people, including the volunteers telling their stories. Truly “A Day of Remembering”, by making a pearl necklace, a descansos of our loved ones.
This was so therapeutic I went on and made a pearl necklace honoring my personal loved ones and using their pictures as part of each pearl, as well as individual collage cards honoring my memories of each person and their legacy.
From The Wintered Womb
Underneath the thrice ploughed, fertile, fallow field
Impregnated within a wintered, woven, womb
Of richly composted humus
I lay seeking sustenance, nourishment from
The oxygen filled wintered mist that
Drizzles, seeping, replenishing the amniotic fluids
That trickle through the membranous umbilical cord
Ensuring a bountiful spring harvest.
For a Friend and a Daughter Lost
In place of a special love
When once they were together
A special pain
In place of a special wholeness
When once they were together
A special emptiness
Time will not be the same
The special pain, emptiness
Will not go away
Time forever changed
By love leaving
Never the same
You are resting in a quiet place in your home, breathing slowly and letting yourself relax. Feeling the need to stretch, you decide to go for a walk around the neighborhood.
You walk out of your house and notice a stone path veering off your sidewalk. Curious, you follow the narrow path into a wooded area. You are walking in dusk and know that soon night will descend. You come to a clearing – the Magic Garden. It is a lovely place to rest awhile. A grassy mound in the center is encircled by a tiered garden of flowers. There are tiny lights on the edges of the flower bed which switch on when dusk turns to night. Fragrant flowers – lilies, orchids, daisies, lavender – nod and bloom profusely in a waving sea of color. In the dim light, the flowers seem to be leaning to the west, as if you are to follow their direction.
You look closely at the edges of the clearing and see dirt lane leading deeper into the woods. In the dark, you can make out squares of lights that appear to be windows. As you draw closer, you see a stone cabin tucked into a thick copse of trees. It is very small, one story only, perhaps with one room serving as kitchen, bedroom and sitting room.
You approach and there is a rumble of words, like rolling thunder, pouring forth through the two open windows. When you walk through the gate to the cabin, the voices become clear; conversation and laughter and song emanate from the house.
You tip-toe to the window and peek in. Gathered together are all of your relatives and friends who have died. Everyone you hoped to see again. You hesitate in uncertainty and then speak to the gathering of folks through the window.
“Hello,” you say and, in turn, each person says hello to you. Then the ones you love most deeply ask if there are questions you want them to answer. “Nothing,” they say “is too difficult a question. Ask anything. Then we will ask questions fand know your answers.”
You speak to all of them through the window and then you speak privately to your closest loved ones. There are smiles and tears on everyone’s face.
This is what you say to each person in …
This is what each person says to you…
When you finish these conversations you have an remarkable feeling of well-being. It is time for you to return to the magic garden and to your welcoming home. You walk away, but then realize you did not say good-bye.
When you turn back , you see only a deserted cabin standing in silence and darkness. You were not able to say good-bye, but there was truly no need. You know in your mind and heart that there will be further your conversations in the stone cabin. Through conversations in your mind. And you can return whenever you so desire to visit again.
You return to the magic garden, which has been truly magical on this night, and sit on the grass, thinking about what just happened. You feel great joy as you sit among the flowers, inhaling their scent and watching the full moon light the heavens high above.
This is what you think…
Then walking in peacefulness, you follow the stony path, returning to your home. You sit down in your favorite chair with a warm cup of cocoa. You want to think about tonight, but soon you are nodding in your chair. It is time to go to bed, where you fall into a restorative slumber.
You dream of the magic garden. You see another path along the east side of the clearing. Your curiosity is piqued. You plan on returning tomorrow, just to see what you can see.