Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Never Goes Away (What Grief Brings)

We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.  Proust

Our spouses vowed they would never go away. Then they died and disappeared. They did not intend to go, and we did not want them to leave, but they did, and here we are.

In my early days of grief, as I searched through books looking for answers into what had taken my life apart, I noticed that Rainer Maria Rilke and Washington Irving had different opinions about grief, and jotted down their thoughts:

Journal entry 34

Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, writes that we carry sadness around for too long instead of letting it pass. He says that sadness brings something new into our lives so we should let go of the sadness and pay attention to what is in the shadows waiting to be explored: “A stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.”

Irving takes a different stance, feeling that we already try to put every sorrow behind us as quickly as we can. Except one—the sorrow that we rightly have over the death of someone we love:  “this affliction we cherish and brood over in solitude.”

Then there’s Proust and his talk of healing. Who’s right?

All of them are partially right and partially wrong. I love Rilke for the mystery and the challenge of his words, and I appreciate his focus on living in the present, which I neglected to do quite often before grief hit, but he is too utilitarian by saying that what is past is past, so let it go and focus only on today, as if memories and grief had no value. I also don’t like the brooding of Irving because this suggests that we should stew in our emotions.

What we need to do is to let ourselves feel what we’re feeling and to feel them for as long as they last, then let them go when we’re ready. We don’t need to incubate them, nor should we push them away.

As for Proust, if what he said is applied to grief, then it’s wrong. Grief is not a wound that needs to be healed. Grief is also not a problem to be solved, which surprised me when I was in the early onslaught of it, because that’s how I approached every challenge. And grief is not an illness like the cold or flu that we have to put up with until it goes away on its own, because it won't. We need to deal with our grief if we are going to move on with our lives.

The sad, yet amazingly wonderful thing about grief is that it is never going to go away. Bear with me on this for a moment. I can hear you mumbling.

Grief is tied to love for our spouses. We don’t ever want to forget how their love rescued, nurtured, challenged, frustrated, and invigorated us, and we don’t want to forget how deeply we loved them. The only way that grief will disappear is for us to forget them, and we don’t want to do this. Grief helps us remember the people we loved.

Grief is not something to fear. Grief is the journey we take from a life that has blown up to a place where we construct a new life. Grief is also a companion on this journey as we hike over the mountains, or through the desert, or along the empty and rain-swept shore of the ocean.

The image of hiking appeals to me because I went to Yosemite to deal with my grief, and I know how weary it gets on a long hike that doesn’t seem like it's going to end. And I know how hard it was to gather my courage and confront my fears, one of which was hiking alone through the wilderness that bears and mountain lions called home.

There, in the quiet forest away from people, away from the noise and rush of city life, I was finally able to hear what was going on under my surface. As I listened to the breeze brushing through the trees, I dealt with the feelings and thoughts stirred up that I had shoved away.

I listened to rivers surging through the meadows and felt longing beginning to move through me.

Sitting high on the mountain, I listened to the quietness of the forest and opened myself to nature. Slowly I began to discern the way that I needed to travel.

People come when we are grieving, who, amazingly, are willing to listen to our jumble of thoughts. They help us clarify our feelings and watch over us. They hike alongside us for a time, as Cheryl Strayed discovered when she dealt with her grief and loss of self after her mother died. Her journey of recovery is detailed in her book, Wild. For months she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail that goes through Yosemite. I like to think that we might have seen each other in the backcountry as she hiked through and we nodded at each other. Anyone who is hiking alone is on a personal journey.

I am grateful for you, dear friends, whom I am coming to know better, because we share our hearts as we travel this path together. We help each other find the way.

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