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, September 3, 2015

Spiritual Journey Through Grief

Book: Leaning Into Love, Elaine Mansfield

This book is honest about Elaine and Vic’s life together, honest about the cancer that took his life and their struggles with chemotherapy and medical interventions, and it's honest about grief. That’s what we want from a memoir when matters of life and death are involved. We don’t want sugar. Sugar doesn’t give us real hope. Sugar melts away when tears begin to fall. We want truth because we know that one day we will face what they have gone through, and we want to know what to expect and how to respond.

Even with people who have as strong a faith and are as determined as Elaine and Vic, death still wins the physical battle. Elaine writes of her struggle to hold on and the longing to let go because it is so hard, until there was no choice: “his gentle passage opens my heart and stills my mind,” she writes after Vic dies. She bends but does not break: “The downward pull of grief persists, but I often touch the slippery edge and rise above instead of being sucked under.”

The book is divided into Before and After, with death as the turning point. There are no magic words here that will erase death’s sorrow, but she offers insights — stay attentive to grief, do not give up when grief goes on for longer than you expect, and screw up your courage and do what needs to be done, even if it scares you.

In the years after Vic’s death, Elaine begins writing as a way for understanding her grief, guided by friends and teachers. She writes about how lost she felt in the first months, the slow movement out of constant sorrow, and the grief that still periodically returns three years later, brought back by a stray memory or seeing one of Vic’s possessions. “Grief doesn’t end for me, or anyone,” Elaine writes, “If we dare to love, then we will grieve. Mortality is the shadow that falls when the sun shines.”

Sprinkled through the narrative are the words of Elaine and Vic’s spiritual mentors — Anthony Damiani, Marion Woodman, and the Dalai Lama, as well as words from the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke and Naomi Shihab Nye, including Nye’s astounding “Kindness” poem that I love.

There is much that I admire and treasure about Elaine's book. I underlined over 150 passages that surprised, challenged, or delighted me. What I did not realize, until I closed the book and reflected on its words, was its balance.

Elaine often returns to the land as a nurturing place, and writes of her desire to continue with exercise and nutrition, even though, on some days, theres are the last things she wants to do. This is the Physical dimension of being. She writes of her ongoing practice of meditation, worship, and of spending time alone. This is the Spiritual dimension. And she speaks of her volunteering to help with a hospice group, and the support of her community of friends, both through Vic’s illness and their presence after his death. This is the dimension of the Heart. All three are needed.

Death changes our lives, but not for better or worse. It simply sends us off in a different direction. Six weeks after Vic died, Marion wrote to Elaine: “Something is emerging that could not have happened in your old life.”

Everyone’s experience of grief will differ, but this book is a testament to holding on when a life is taken away. Elaine writes, “Vic’s death taught me that only kindness and love matter in the end. When we fall, and we all will fall, we can rise up if we lean into each other and the sacred gift of life.”

Elaine’s words move with the flow of a powerful river that picks us up and carries us into a deeper understanding of life.


  1. Thank you, Mark. What a delicious surprise this is. I just read some quotes from 'Leaning into Love' for NPR's Author's Corner. The producer chose one of the same quotes you chose: “The downward pull of grief persists, but I often touch the slippery edge and rise above instead of being sucked under.” Looking back, I can say my whole experience of handling grief has been one of seeking balance in myself in the way you suggest and balance between dark and light, grief and love, hanging on and new beginnings. I wanted to grieve completely and still have periods when that's what's needed. I also wanted to live well. That's been the harder task, but also has brought the most surprise and joy.