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 2012, 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 clear markers may grow from a positive impetus: to release us from following the straightjacket of a model or a proscribed timeline. Then we are free then to grieve as we need. But freedom is not our essential need at the beginning. Here the limits to—even dangers of—the individualistic approach to life are revealed. 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 is more about Isis as a grief support in Isis as a Guide to Creative Mourning.]
You may need a different story to find the right guide for the grief that echoes in your soul. There are many from across time and spanning the globe. One of the very oldest is the Epic of Gilgamesh, written down on clay tablets over 4,000 years ago.
At the heart of this complex tale is the relationship between the semi-divine king Gilgamesh and the warrior Enkidu. When Enkidu is killed, Gilgamesh denies his death, refuses to bury him, cries out:“What is this sleep that holds you now? You are lost in the dark and cannot hear me” (SV, tablet 8, column 2). Gilgamesh rages, tears at his clothes, weeps. He goes on a journey to seek immortality and over and over again he tells those he encounters along the way that “grief has entered my innermost being”.
Gligamesh might be the guide you need when people want you to move on, hide your grief, return to your old self. Gilgamesh makes a long journey and in the end returns to his kingdom changed. Your journey may be long, too.
Stories are dynamic. Their wisdom figures complex. 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.
A Report from Nine Years Out
I wrote the words above in March 2015, two and a half years after John’s death. Today more than nine years have passed since his death. My essential offering on grief remains the invitation to change. To let the grief change, to let your beloved change, to let yourself change. And as the change flows remember that it is not progressive or linear, but rather circular, sometimes chaotic, often surprising.
Over these nine years I have perceived John as changing. At first, found notes and synchronistic occurrences kept me surprisingly connected to John as the personality I knew in life. Then there was a shift I can only describe with metaphor: John became water. He was more mysterious, harder to touch, but the poems I wrote at that time are filled with images of boats. John remained, but now as the water under the boat of my life.
Silence followed. My heart sank fearing an ending until I decided to listen into the silence. I had to listen beyond just my physical senses and when I did I perceived a subtle, subtle presence. The busy world doesn’t support connection to this presence and my doubting mind challenges the connection, but when I pause and rest in a strange little nudge entering my mind or felt in my body that I can’t explain, I feel joy. Maybe John is joy now and when I surrender my skepticism to receive him that joy rises in me.
And me, how have I changed? I am relieved to no longer be utterly broken. After the first anniversary of John’s death, I felt less pain in my body. Around the second anniversary, I noted so much more ease that I marveled that I counted how I felt on the first as feeling better. My fractured mind has knit itself together. I got a glimpse into the mess a grieving mind can make when I cleaned out an office space in 2019. The piles that had built up over the years after John’s death were a chaotic mix of old cards sent to me, cards I’d neglected to send to others, bills, unpaid bills, stray Tarot cards, poems finished and unfinished, To Do lists with few items crossed off, project files from past jobs, tax documents, and an odd assortment of office supplies that included twelve boxes of unopened staples. My current filing system is not perfect, but there is a useful, functional order.
While I function better in this world, the profoundest change that I have welcomed is a connection with … well, let’s call it the Beyond. And not only with John, but with my grandparents, the ancestors, my friends and guides in this life who passed into Death. I spend time with them all in prayer and meditation. I have a new project that is part of my work: to support others, too, to tend a loving flow between the living and the dead.
Love. It has taken me all this time to set down the word love, but love is the constant in this piece about change. Love is an essential and animating part of the Whole.
We grieve because we love. Our tears, our fractured minds, and broken bodies erupt out of a love suddenly snapped from its usual flow, torn from the possibility that we can continue, repair, shelter in, get another chance with the person who is now dead. These painful signs of grief are expressions of love.
We can benefit from the signs changing while we remember that love remains. Love is constantly finding new ways to flow.
Are the signs always there? Are they always painful? I can only share my story, describe my grief. You can take my story to compare to your story and the stories of grievers across time.
I would name my grief now as long loss threaded through with longing. This nine-year old grief is an ocean at rest with waves lapping at the shore line. True there are gray days, but in sunshine the water’s blue stretches me out into the infinite horizon. Under a full moon, its silvered black holds a river of light running out of the vast dome of the sky. This longing is a faithful companion reminding me of the beauty of this constantly renewing love.
A Final Story & Closing Poem
Each November around the time of John’s death, I take a retreat. Sometimes it’s only one day, but in 2021 I had a whole week in Acadia National Park. On my last day, I popped into a bookstore to buy a board game I’d noticed during an earlier visit for my sister’s family. I wanted to linger for a few moments longer in this retreat’s time out of time so I wandered back to the poetry section. A title lept from the shelf: No, Love Is Not Dead. How had I not noticed it earlier in the week?
The book came home with me and Federico García Lorca’s poem ¡Ay voz secreta del amor oscuro! had me opening my notebook one dark late November morning to draft a poem out of the longing of long loss.
I love the sounds of Spanish and speak it conversationally. Still my vocabulary is limited and often hearing or reading Spanish my comprehension is clouded. This cloud cover had benefits for me as a poet when I discovered that Ay voz secreta del amor oscuro! was one of 11 poems written by García Lorca called the Dark Love Sonnets. I began to work with these poems, opening myself to the feeling, the sound, the atmosphere —you could say to the power that García Lorca called duende, which is beyond the rational— of his poems to let poems arise from me in response. Sometimes I’d grasp and use an image or word he used more or less directly. Often looking through the clouds something different came into view from my own store of images and the themes I was grappling with. Each morning through the darkest days before the Winter Solstice I’d read and write in the half light of night becoming day.
The poems I’ve written in this way are absolutely not translations, but they are also not separate from their source. I’d like to think of them as collaborations not created with a rational process but through a flow of duende that crosses boundaries between worlds.
Sightseeing in the Enchanted City
¿Te gustó la ciudad que gota a gota
Labró el agua en el centro de los pinos?
— Federico García Lorca
Do you like the enchanted city
that falls drop by drop out of black night?
Have you seen dreams
of the beloveds sketched upon walls,
murals of lions and lambs together, blood become
full lips circled in song?
Could you hear the silence slide like a snake
on the road ahead of the rising sun?
Did you think of me when you touched
the silvered wheel a jaguar walks?
Are there moments when my image
floats before you and you know
my heart has split like the petals
of a Bird of Paradise opening
when I think of you there?
If you have experienced the death of a loved one and need support, I am trained as a spiritual mentor offering individual sessions and small group circles. I choose the word mentor because it implies not an expert, but one who is out a little bit ahead of you on a particular path. I’ve been on this path since November 2012. You are welcome to contact me with your questions about sessions. My next small group offering is Listening for our Beloved Dead coming up in April. I am also facilitating a Greek Mysteries Tour and year-long exploration inspired by the themes of Life and Death experienced through the Eleusinian Mysteries.