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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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Finding Our Compass Points

The world ceases to exist when someone we love dies. The center no longer holds. The future is scrambled, and we no longer know what direction to head.

I’ve carried a quote by Thomas Merton with me since high school. I was riding my bike from Minnesota across Wisconsin, wanted something to read, and found Merton’s slim book Thoughts In Solitude in a convenience store:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

Before I married Evelyn, I seriously debated whether I wanted to be a monk or a husband, which was a curious dilemma because I’m not Catholic. She wondered about this, too. I made my choice and married her on the day in December that Merton made his vows to be a monk.

Eighteen years later, and fourteen months after Ev died, I arrived at Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky and stood where Merton wrote these words. I went because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my life without Evelyn.

Every couple of hours for a week, I went to worship services that began at 3 a.m. I walked through the fields and woods that Merton walked, and considered again the idea of becoming a monk. Being at the monastery centered me.

Every evening, as the black and white-robed monks sang Compline, the last service of the day, they wrapped my heart in hope and presence: “Before the ending of the day / creator of the world we pray / that with thy gracious favour thou / wouldst be our guard and keeper now.”

I didn’t find any answers, or even a direction for my future, but I realized that I felt more alive in the woods than inside the monastery looking at icons and singing Gregorian chant, as beautiful and as moving as they were. I was more John Muir than Thomas Merton.

I returned home to California and my beloved Yosemite. As I hiked alone through the monastery of the mountains, I worked my way through grief and rejoined the living. Fifteen years later, I still don’t have a vision for the future, and I may never have one. But I learned one thing.

It’s not what I do in life that matters. It’s how I live each day.

I do not need to know where I will end up. I only need to know how I want to go through this day. I only need to be faithful to a guiding principle, whether this is compassion, social justice, creativity, or challenging the boundaries that hold people back from caring for each other. I don’t even need to know how I will accomplish this. Every morning I just need to get up and ask, “How can I be part of this journey today?” Then say yes to what shows up.
If grief is part of your journey, then you will live in a desert for a time and face its mind-numbing despair and chaos. Do not give in to the alluring melancholy of death. We are more than our sorrow. We are more than our loneliness and bitterness and anger. There is a community of support around us, even if that community is scattered around the country.

If we can cry when people are hurting, laugh when they are happy, and if we aren’t too proud to ask for help when we are faltering, then we will be okay.

Do not close yourself inside a hard, protective shell. Stay open to wonder and to the surprise that lives in others. Head in the direction  brings you life. Death can take care of itself.


  1. I'm inspired anew by your words that you do not need to know where you will end up or even the exact route to each day's goal. I haven't been in a very hopeful state and needed that reminder. Hope, after all, is simply knowing you will have the best day possible...and what that means and all the details...that's the journey...not hope.

  2. I used to plan everything out, Anne, and this included the future into retirement. Then Evelyn died. That future disappeared, as well as all the work I put into making that happen. Now I have a general direction, general goals for the coming season, and I try to let surprises reroute my plans for each day. Undefined hope each day.

  3. It's four months since my son died and while I have read a lot of posts, particularly on the wonderful Refuge in Grief, this post gave me some peace. Thank you.

    1. Having a son die is one of those things that is not supposed to happen. I am thankful that you have found some peace with this. You may feel that you are sitting by yourself on the side of a hill wondering what you are to do now. As you are learning, there are others on the same hill who feel like you do. We are not alone, and we help each other as best we can.

  4. My 25yr old son died 4 months ago and while I have read many blogs and posts, particularly those of the wonderful Refuge in Grief, this helped. I never comment and I'm finding it hard to choose words to express how I feel. I don't consider myself a writer as I've rarely used writing to express myself other than texts and emails to friends and family which of late are problematic. Perhaps Megan's Writing your Grief course would be helpful.
    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. Sharing my experiences is my way of not letting Evelyn's death be in vain. As I share my grief with others, I learn from them. Megan's course helped me find my words. If you have found her website helpful, I would encourage you to think about signing up for the 30-day course. I believe it begins later this month.

    2. Thank you Mark I think I will enrol in Megan's course. I'm new to commenting, I usually just read and so hadn't realised I had commented twice. I thought I had previewed and then edited and added.
      Thank you for your responses, it's my first taste of online interaction since Dan's death, rather than being a passive reader of others experience. I believe this is another benefit from joining the course, connecting with others who understand. I have yet to find such online spaces here in Australia.

    3. One of the nice aspects of the course, Linda, is that you can share the thoughts you have written or not, and comment on what others are sharing or just read. But what you get either way is a feeling of being in a community that welcomes you.