In her book American Pie, Michael Lee West writes, “Some people don’t know grief from garlic grits.” This puts me in a dilemma. I know what she means, but I like grits.
She means that people who have never experienced grief don’t know how it looks, feels, or tastes. A lot of people don’t know this about grits, either. You do not mistake grief, or grits, for anything else.
Grief is like grits with garlic. Every day it has its own zing. There’s enough grief pummeling people around us that everyone should be familiar enough with grief’s landscape to be able to talk intelligently about the experience. We should be able to share what is punching our ticket today. But we don’t. It’s like we’re ashamed that we’ve been broken because we loved someone this much.
To make grits, you take corn and treat it with alkali. Native Americans used the alkali of wood ash to do this. Some people soak the corn in lye. This is what grief does with our lives, especially the part about the lye. And the part about being submerged. And the part about being covered in ashes.
The alkali of grief removes our protective hulls, our hubris in thinking that we’re still in control and can overcome anything on our own, and it challenges our belief that goodness is the foundation of life. But death has left us vulnerable, and we need other people to help us get through grief.
Surprisingly, the treatment of alkali makes the corn more nutritious because corn by itself lacks a few important amino acids. The treatment adds calcium and helps with the absorption of niacin.
In similar fashion, grief makes people more whole, because it teaches us about one of the core experiences of human existence. Knowing we’re going to die injects new meaning into living. Our lives grow deeper and expand wider, and our eyes open to how important it is to treat others with kindness, because we don’t know what struggles they are dealing with that threaten to pull them down.
Those who walk the path of grief are the black-robed seekers in paintings by Alec DeJesus (“The Grand Mother”). We should honor them because they have the courage to stare into the dark night and ask the questions we’re afraid to ask. Death takes us into the sacred space where we stand face to face with the Other.
Too often, trying to share your grief with the clueless is like trying to brown grits. It’s almost impossible. After an hour, I gave up. You may be able to make your grief more palatable to the uninitiated by including butter and salt, but to access grief’s transformation, you have to add the hot sauce.