What we want from a memoir when matters of life and death are involved is honesty. 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 how to survive.
Elaine Mansfield’s book, Leaning Into Love, is honest about her husband’s struggles with cancer and chemotherapy, and honest about her struggle with grief and beginning a new life alone.
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, screw up your courage and do what needs to be done, even if it scares you.
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 how grief 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.
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 for daily exercise and cooking healthy food, even though, on some days, these 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 in solitude. This is the Spiritual dimension. And she speaks of her volunteering to help with a hospice group, and of the support she received from her community of friends, both during Vic’s illness and their presence after his death. This is the Heart dimension. All three are needed.
Death changes our lives, not for better or worse. It simply sends us off in a different direction. Six weeks after Vic died, Marion Woodman wrote to Elaine: “Something is emerging that could not have happened in your old life.” Each year Elaine raises Monarch butterflies, and watches their transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. She felt her own life undergoing a similar transformation.
Everyone’s experience of grief will differ, but this book is a testament to holding on when a large part of your 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.