A few months back, I was asked to help a friend create a ceremony to bring her grief ‘home.’ (For those of you who know her, I received permission to share her story.) Her mother had passed in the last few weeks, but in a different part of the country. Her life was here now, in Rhode Island, and she needed a way to bring that grief home, she told me.
I have performed very few memorial services. Usually when someone dies, we seek the familiar, so the old church, whatever it may be, is where we turn. But this was not a memorial service, per se. It was not a way to remember a person, or commune in shared grief, or to connect as a tool to banish grief, but a way to bring grief home, to live with it- to bring it to those who love my friend, so that they could know her better and support her. And that is such a different perspective than most of us take on grief.
Grief is a tricky thing. We have those models, the Stages of Grief, but very few things work as the model suggests, most definitely grief (and if you’ve ever had an amazing design idea at IKEA and tried to make it work at home, you know of what I speak). Grief is a lonely walk, so often, because we see the person, the life, the choices, so differently from anyone else. And this doesn’t only apply to the death of people- it is equally true for the death of relationships, jobs, the ways we see ourselves. Grief, in a counterintuitive way, sprouts anew each time, different flowers from the same root.
For me, grief has been best described by symbols.
There is the initial grief that is like an Egyptian pyramid. A sacred, dark place, vast. It is beautiful- full of gold, memories, resources, things we can actually touch and see and smell. Even when it is cold, the darkness of the passageways of grief has a weight that I welcome. I have walked in the tunnels, admiring all of it, touching the walls, running the fabric of memory through my fingers, even as I knew that it was dead. The warmth of the gold was only because I stood near it, only because my fire gave it light. All of it was dead, even if it was so beautiful that I would be happy to live there forever on some days.
When I think of grief I am reminded that it is not just for dead things that we grieve. It is for what is lost- even if that job, that person, that idea lives on. The connection is lost or radically changed and we grieve for that. Sometimes we cannot let go, even though we know we must. The spiritual practice of grief is opening our grip, by tiny degrees, until our hand is free to move again. We cry and rage and gnash, but eventually, we must let go, or we will die, too. (But also, take your time. That’s the only way to do it.)
As I have accepted the death of things, the way they would never return to ‘normal,’ grief has been a garden of the dead, dead flowers and trellis’ and sculpted hedgerows. Some days the wind blows cold, and others the sun shines. But everything is obviously dead here. And I walk along, letting my hand touch the fragile leaves, watching the memories waft away in the wind, pieces crumbling simply with my walking by them. Here are all my delights and aliveness and growth, returning to the Earth. It is falling apart, and I can do nothing about it, because should I plant again, it will never grow the same. I surrender and accept.
All along the path, grief has been a whack-a-mole. So often I would jump up and try to whack it back into something (whack it ‘away,’ whack it into a particular shape, whack it just to whack it). But then, I slump beside the machine and refuse to play. Let grief do what it will, I will wait for the time to run out, and then decide what do to next.
I have wondered if The Stages of Grief are something that happens inside each of these places. Inside the beautiful pyramid of memory and desire, we bounce between denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Inside the dead garden, we do the same. Perhaps the whack-a-mole is simply these five things repeating themselves until our lessons are learned.
There is no answer, of course, because grief is a similar::unique path for each person, each time they encounter it.
Grief is one of the most difficult human emotions, I think. It is so painful. It involves so much of us- not just body, mind, spirit as we are now, but all of those things and the depths of our history to the present moment as well. Grief cleans us out.
Perhaps that is the best metaphor, grief cleans us out. There are several rooms in the house of my heart that have been invaded by grief (and sometimes I have welcomed it, but not usually). And it is only through the process of grief that I have had to clean out those rooms. But by cleaning them out, leaving what’s most important (memories, lessons, boundaries), have I been able to move on, to leave the space and energy for new things to come along- sometimes new things in the same room, sometimes new rooms all together.
Grief changes us. That is really all I can say. And that to engage with it is an act of bravery. To bring our grief home is one of the deepest forms of courage of the heart.