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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Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Silence of the Body in Grief



When someone we love dies, we talk a great deal about our thoughts, emotions, and the physical impact of grief — light is too bright, we feel numb, and we can’t shake the lethargy that trails our steps like a weary dog. We do not often speak about the impact of the absence of their physical body.

I’m talking about more than missing their physical presence in the house.



Last week I came home from the memorial service for Paul, the husband of Kimberly. Besides everything else, she spoke of missing his physical presence, his touch, the familiarity and comfort of his body.

When a spouse dies, the mind scrambles trying to make sense of what does not make sense. The heart feels crushed. Emotions fly against the walls, and in the early weeks we lose touch with our bodies. We feel cold all the time and have no appetite. Our senses of smell, sight, and taste are blunted. Even after our senses gradually return in one to six months, when we walk around the house in silence, the one we loved is still physically gone, and the absence of our love’s body is an unrelenting longing that aches.

Yet it’s not just their physical absence we are mourning, it’s also what their physical presence opened up in us.

May Sarton said it was only in silence that lovers know what lives in each other’s heart. This is not the casual silence of two people in the same room reading books. Although it could be. It is not the happenstance silence when it’s simply that no one is speaking. Although it might be. And this is not the absence of sounds that grief’s silence brings.

This is the intentional silence when two people stand before each other and communicate without using words. They already know many facts about each other, their hobbies and habits, like the way one reads the newspaper at breakfast and points out stories they think the other will like, and how the other one forgets to put the cap back on the toothpaste. As they stand and look at each other, they draw on this knowledge and these insights to see into the inner, solitary life of each other.

At Kimberly and Paul’s wedding, two passages were read, one by Rainer Maria Rilke and the other by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Rilke says that this is a solitude that cannot be shared between people. But Lindbergh disagrees and says that this is where our inner lives touch, like two people learning a new dance together.

We’re often not aware of all that is going on inside us. Our inner space is like the molten rock deep inside the earth’s core. We know it’s there but we don’t know all it contains or how it moves, although we get glimpses of this subterranean landscape in our dreams and nightmares. We live much of our life on the surface of our consciousness, on the thin rocky mantle of our crust.

Two people standing silently before each other begin to see beneath this crust when they look into each other’s eyes. For a moment they are amused that no one is speaking, because it feels odd to stand close enough to feel the warmth of the other’s body and not say anything. They look at each other’s face, see the lines around the mouth, the darkness under the eyes, they see the dimples and the scars, how life has battered, taught, and delighted them.

Their hands reach across the space between and their fingers touch. They explore the palms of each other’s hands, hands they may not have looked at so closely since they first met. They hold each other close, not to convey their need for intimacy, but to learn of the other’s need today, how close they would like the other to be in this moment. And in this physical interaction, they learn about themselves from each other.

When death takes one of us away, this door of Sarton’s closes.

Now a different space exists between the Kimberly and Paul, and a new silence, one without the physical possibilities of words, or eyes, a face to kiss, or hands to caress. The one who is grieving shares her thoughts and feelings, and sometimes she feels a nudging or hears a whisper of his reply. But these moments are like the touch of the wind and soon are gone. They are not something, or someone, she can hold.

In this new silence, her heart, unseen and unspoken, grieves a second loss.


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