Eyes Wide Open

Many of my wonderings about grief lately have been bound up with the idea of full experience and its effects. It’s a very different concept from “moving on” or “moving past” that we generally hear in one form or another after someone’s death. What does it mean to become a grief practitioner? Sounds a bit frightening at first. Will I be sad all the time? My observations of grievers vary widely and for some it’s not possible or even advisable to go all in, especially at first. Yet for those who do endeavor and have the capacity to enter the experience with eyes open, to grieve like there’s nothing “wrong” with it and breath it in like the air, is there some kind of transformation that gradually takes place?

Not success. Not growth. Not happiness. The cradle of your love of life…is death.

I was introduced to the countercultural notion that being a “practitioner of grief” is the pathway to the love of life. My somewhat obscure instructor, Stephen Jenkinson, is the author of Die Wise (a book I reviewed for the Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support) and the former director of palliative care counseling at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. His distilled and revolutionary proclamation about a grief practice is this: ‘Not success. Not growth. Not happiness. The cradle of your love of life…is death.’  He not only believes it’s possible to have an inner life whose joy is rooted in “knowing well” that it will end, but that it may be the antidote to much of the fear and anxiety the dying have about what will become of them and what we will do with them after they die. Will we be able to live as if they never lived? He posits that grief in action is the ‘willingness to remember great sorrow, unsuspected loss, blank pages in the story of who we are.’

Nothing since Kissie’s death has been more real, more equal to the prospect of the rest of my life with her physical absence, than this lived and felt attitude about my grief — that death has always been the cord of connection to my love of life. And that my practice of grief is my continuing cord of connection with her. 

“Grief is a way of loving. Love is a way of grieving.” – Stephen Jenkinson

 

The Thing Is

A wise friend who understands that grief is cyclical—that it dives down deep and appears to disappear, then comes up gulping—shared this poem with me.

That’s what its been like for me these past months. Going beneath, sifting through the shipwreck of my sorrow. A trove is there, lying quietly, waiting for me.

The Thing Is | Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

For the anniversary of my death

I didn’t know this poem by W. S. Merwin until recently. On first read it felt so somber, and tonight on New Year’s eve, not the usual fare for ringing in the coming year. Yet, somehow it seems appropriate now, and I hear the gratitude in it. The bowing to the unanticipated and commonplace gifts of the passing year.

The anniversary of your death approaches, Kissie. I think of all the years before when we passed “the day” without knowing it. And when finally, by grace, we saw that unbidden day approaching (an experience I will ever try to somehow articulate) it was indeed a strange garment and still surprising, and the morning birds, somehow, sang.

For the Anniversary of My Death | W.S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Each grief a reflection of relationship

My elderly mother-in-law died seven weeks ago. It was a long decline spanning the last 18 months and punctuated by numerous and increasing health issues, notably dementia and cancer. The end of her life brought a level of care-giving and involvement for which neither my husband nor I were adequately prepared. For me, taking on such huge, additional responsibilities, though shared, was overwhelming, especially while grieving my sister.

What has stuck me most in these intervening weeks since her death, is the nature of my husband’s grief and how intrinsically their distinct relationship has determined the character and nuance of it. This has, in turn, brought my own grief into sharper relief. Each grief for someone is so very personal. It is marked by all that we were and meant to each other, how we interacted, what was shared and withheld, and how — over time — we grew emotionally closer, or apart, and how we therefore arrived at the time of parting. It all comes to bear at last on how and why we grieve, and how we will face our own deaths.

We also bring these very personal experiences to our expressions of condolence and sympathy. So much is framed by our unique relationships and circumstances, that drawing too much on assumed similarities can, at the very least, render the expression less meaningful. I’ve noticed how my condolences to others reflect my own grief and relationships. Though there are many parallels to be drawn and unities to be embraced as I contemplate death and mourning, my awareness of others’ discrete relationships gives me a richer understanding of my own grief, and hopefully, a more mindful appreciation of theirs.

Channeling Anger

I’ve been asked if I’m angry about your death. I am. I suppose the question came up because the friend who asked hasn’t seen me express it, at least not openly, in it’s unrestrained, torrential state.  I’m glad she asked, though. Since then, I’ve been paying more attention to my occasional outbursts, or the slow-building broody weeks that seem to catch me by surprise, with no seemingly outward catalyst.

Yes, there among the myriad emotions and memories and reflections about your illness and death, and my life in the wake, anger exists. And, like most emotions, it doesn’t hold up well to rationale when I’m feeling it full-force. With a little distance, I’ve been able to get some perspective, and have some empathy toward myself. I love this quote by Harriet Lerner: “Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.”

I’ve noticed that anger is not a predominant aspect of my grief for you (I don’t feel mad at you for dying, for instance), but I definitely get good and angry when I recall some of the circumstances surrounding your death, and the attendant interpersonal and cultural dynamics then, and since. I’m angry with myself for some of my decisions. I’m angry that you suffered so much. I’m angry that our culture shuns and minimizes grief and grievers, and that we consider death itself so unconscionable that we inadvertently harm those we love who are dying. To name but a few.

I sometimes don’t know what to “do” with my grief-anger. It does, occasionally, come out sideways – a sure sign I have some acknowledging to do. Part of the channeling of my anger is this blog – a place to expend the energy, examine the disappointments and expectations that fuel it, and simply to offer it, in honor and love, for you.

 

 

Future Shock

2016 is kicking my emotional ass – and that’s a massive understatement. A realistic summation of it simply fails me.

It’s nearly 29 months since you died, Kissie. January 5th was two years. It has been unlike any two years of my previous 53, and I have by turns crawled, trudged, sleep-walked, and literally slept, my way through it. I’ve also wept, laughed, raged, hugged, and tried to love my way through it, but my experience of time has irrevocably changed. From the outside it must seem I’m just aimlessly adrift. Acquaintances and friends inquire about my interests and pursuits, which appear to be abandoned. I am not what I once was.

One of the ongoing difficulties is trying to find (or create) the right language to convey what’s happened, and how I’m adjusting (or not). I’m really not adjusting, though I must be adapting to some extent. I keep going – that’s what I do. When I open my eyes, I try to remember to give thanks for another day, and for the ability itself to weep for you.

I sometimes call this time and space I now occupy “future shock,” which is to say it feels neither here, nor there. It’s an in-between, disorienting, ambiguous-feeling time. And something I don’t recall experiencing before, though maybe I was not as conscious of it as I am now. Is it because I’m grieving deliberately? It’s future shock because I’m here two plus years later in a future I never imagined or wanted. It’s a liminal place because it feels transitory and unmoored, but not aimless, to me. It feels necessary.

We just celebrated your birthday for the third time since your death, Kissie.  It’s the happiest day of my life, especially the ones we shared in person. Looking at every single birthday card I ever gave you, each a tiny paper monument to our love, that liminal sweet-sadness wells up, and an old, bones deep longing I’ve always felt whenever we’ve been apart.

Unwelcome Guests

Missing you hurts like hell, Kissie. It’s a fact of my life now. How could it be otherwise? I’m socially conditioned to judge my pain, so I struggle not to. I don’t think it’s productive, it doesn’t change anything, and it feels harmful. I’m convinced that judging my emotional pain also perpetuates the grief phobia I observe and experience regularly. It’s really difficult to stay out of that judgement, needless to say.

Culturally, we’re definitely not of the mind Rumi was when he wrote The Guest House, encouraging hospitality for our darkest emotions: “Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.” How to entertain my darkest emotions? For starters, I’m offering regular, open acknowledgement of my grief, even when it’s uncomfortable for others, as it often is. Grief, disappointment, longing, anger, sorrow, and pain are communally viewed as “unwelcome guests,” and trying to entertain them, as Rumi suggests, is like swimming against a powerful, though often subtle, current. Persisting takes energy, and I’m not high on energy right now. But, I am committed.

When I spend time with others actively embracing their unwelcome guests, or attempting to integrate their “shadow aspects,” as Carl Jung called them, it’s such a relief to my body, mind, and spirit. Maybe more importantly, I feel a sense of burgeoning community. This unorganized, under-the-radar companionship, and the humanity I feel privileged to encounter there, are giving me the strength to resist self-judgement, and to keep “treat[ing] each guest honorably.”

Book Review -Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul

Last spring I was delighted to be asked to review a book by author and teacher Stephen Jenkinson, whose work has had a tremendous impact on me. Though Jenkinson has yet to visit the Twin Cities to discuss his book, I hope my review – recently published by the Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support and shared here – will pique the attention of those interested in challenging our prevailing understanding, and addressing the great misunderstandings that have informed the death and grief phobia so prevalent in north American culture today.


Who would expect that a death would alter their way of life forever? Or that a book would show up on the heels of such a harrowing crossroads to offer the only thing close to solace — the idea that perhaps we must finally “make room for dying in [our] way of living?” Certainly not me at 54, and certainly not so soon after my sister Christine’s death at 51 in early 2014.  That first raw and surreal spring, as I was grasping for a language for my grief, a friend shared a link to the 2008 documentary Griefwalker, and in the midst of the most penetrating sorrow I’ve ever known, I clicked that link.

In Griefwalker, I was introduced to Stephen Jenkinson, former director of palliative care counseling at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital (with masters degrees in social work and theology), activist, storyteller, author, and teacher. In conversations with dying people, families, care providers, and the film’s narrater and director, Jenkinson gives voice to the scope and prevalence of death-phobia in our culture, and the unintended and unacknowledged effects on the dying and those who love them. Remarkably, he puts forth the monumental idea of grieving and dying as skills to be cultivated — even held as “prized possessions” — and laments the misunderstanding and isolation that presently underscore dying (and grieving) in our part of the world. With Griefwalker came the profound realization that dying could be done, and done well (or as Jenkinson puts it, extravagantly), expressly for those who would live to see it, and that this was what my sister had desired and — against the odds — achieved with her death.

My grieving heart wanted more. I ordered Jenkinson’s newest book, Die Wise, published this past March, and dove in. I’ve read it twice, and continue to revisit sections of it often, as a workbook of sorts, a way to continue processing the hard-earned wisdom that Jenkinson elaborates on, and that resonates so accurately with all I’ve experienced as absent from my personal, and our collective, experience of death and grief today.

This is a book to turn to for the forthright asking of the weighty and difficult questions — the ones that hang in the air unspoken and lingering when someone is dying, or that wake you up in the middle of the night while you’re in the throes of mourning. He has called this book “a manifesto for sanity and soul,” and that it is — a ponderous opus for those of us who have felt crestfallen and abandoned by the status quo during one of life’s cardinal and perennial passages. It is, in Jenkinson’s words, “for those of you working in the death trade with all kinds of good intent about helping people,” and  “most especially for those of you who have the news of your dying in hand, or who are waiting for the news that seems certain to come in, and for those who love you.” Chapters with titles such as “The Ordeal of a Managed Death,” “Stealing Meaning From Dying,” “The Tyrant Hope,” and “What Dying Asks of Us All” go straight to the heart of what families and dying persons themselves are caught up in, and in them, I learned about Jenkinson himself, personally and professionally, and the experiences that have shaped his philosophy and teaching.

His writing style, much like his speaking, is a provocative mix of reasoned discourse punctuated by the soul-stirring accounts of a master story-teller. My understanding of the text benefitted from having listened to a number of his interviews, videos of talks (many of which can be found at orphanwisdom.com), and from viewing the film, Griefwalker.

Early on he cautions readers to abandon hope for a master plan to fix what’s broken, yet as somber as some realities may be, there is possibility in these pages — a manifesto is both testament and plea. I read the book looking for my cognitive schemas and hard-wired biases to be challenged, and I was not disappointed. More importantly I found humane sustenance and the beginnings of a language for what seemed to be an innate, but unschooled, knowledge around grief. Ultimately, Stephen Jenkinson pleads eloquently with us to bring death (and our own forgotten ancestry) — fully acknowledged — into our daily lives, to our benefit now, and as the last and lasting gift to all we love.

Grief Positive Environments

Sounds rather contradictory, eh? How could grief possibly be positive? Its very mention seems to evoke diminishment and uncertainty. And what would a constructive environment for grief be like? I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about this, especially moving through the holidays, and approaching the second anniversary of Kissie’s death.

A “grief positive” environment (or atmosphere) is where, and with whom, we feel the expression of our grief (mourning) is allowed, welcomed, and valued. Outside of an organized “grief group,” I would venture this is hard to come by for most, and especially in a prevailing cultural and social climate so accustomed to the pursuit of personal mastery, and the silver lining. Very fortunately, I have a grief positive spouse, and home life. I’m also lucky to have in my midst, a number of family members and friends who allow, acknowledge, and even embrace their own grief, and who in turn have the capacity to extend a developing understanding to me and others without constraint or prescription.

To be able to openly express my sorrow, and talk about whatever comes to mind without reproach, is crucial. I can’t imagine how I would fare without these touchstone relationships, and the islands of sanity and mutual understanding they provide in this strenuous time of grieving. Yet, they are not everywhere, and they are certainly not commonplace. My fellow grief practitioners are my ports in a storm of misapprehension about what grief has to teach us, and what will become of us if we learn.