Grieving from the Inside Out

“Grief is universal, but every person’s grief is unique,”  says grief counselor David Kessler.

This duality is potent, especially in recent days. The collective grief that surrounds us now is overwhelming—the weight of mounting COVID casualties, the ongoing horror of senseless police violence, and the alarming escalation of gun massacres in this country. Along with the enormity of these disturbing realities, so many of us also carry the achingly personal losses that seem to cling to us like cobwebs in a dank, gloomy basement.

Grief is an ambient constant.

Having lost my oldest son, Elliot, and many family members over the past decade, my experience of grief is always changing, deepening, expanding, and contracting, but it is always there. It morphs and shifts into different flavors of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and despair, but gradually, I am becoming more aware of my most salient triggers. Slowly but surely, I am integrating effective self-management techniques—like grounding, breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and counseling. Still, grief is inextricably attached to my being—insistent, obnoxious and endlessly dogmatic. There is no escape, no place to hide, no satisfying its demands. Not even in sleep. There is no pill nor spirit.

Grief is relentless and narcissistic.

Grief both shrouds and accentuates the stubborn presence of loss. Grief is everywhere and in everything, like the trauma bond of an abusive relationship. You can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it. Grief changes all of your relationships—at times isolating you from your friends, family, and the community you need to heal. You are a different person in a toxic relationship and in the dance of grief. You often find yourself reassuring others you are OK—when you are not. You may even try to run away or distract yourself, but grief is persistent and undaunted. Wherever you go, there you are. And the dark truth is that part of you does not want to let go, because at least, the pain is connection.

Grief is not just something inside that you have to work through.

Grief is also on the outside, always next to you. It’s beside you, behind you, in front of you, over you, under you—hovering like a long shadow, even in the dark. Some say losing a child is like losing a limb. You can survive it, but you must relearn how to do everything. However, I think it’s also like gaining a limb you don’t want—an extra arm or leg you must constantly contend with, manage, or even hide. And it’s always in your way, awkward, and obstructive. You must relearn everything, but you still cannot escape it.

Do you acknowledge it immediately when meeting someone? Or do you pretend it’s not there, which can draw even more unspoken attention to it? How do you live with such an abnormality? There are no easy answers, and it’s a confusing question in a culture that minimizes and compartmentalizes grief to avoid its discomfort. So, how do you find meaning in life? Do mundane tasks even matter at all when the worst has already happened? But that’s where compassion is essential—individually and collectively. Things like meeting a deadline at work of separating out the recycling may not seem to matter much in a universe tainted by unbearable loss, but we must keep going.

And more important, we must be intentional about caring for each other, showing up, and creating a space for mattering. For me, regardless of how I conceptualize it, the gravity of grief informs every interaction, every experience, every conversation. Hopefully, over time, I will become more accustomed to its presence. I know I must find a way to accommodate grief if I am going to function in the world.

Yes, I am different now, and I work every day to accept this journey.

Grief will always be part of me, just as my love for my son Elliot will be. And grief will always be a layer between me and everything else. Whether a thin, hyaline veil or an imposing brick wall, at times it’s murky black and at others, sparklingly light. The light is the precious part, the awful glimmer of grief. That’s what illuminates the gold, the gleaming memories of a lifetime that will never die.

Together we can do our best to soften the fear, the anxiety, the alienation, and the pain—inside and out.

Meditations on Grief: Telltale Tears

Tears of grief. Tears of joy. Chemically, they are identical. And yet, there are essentially three different types of tears — basal, reflex and psychic. Basal tears lubricate, protect and hydrate the cornea. The reflex variety responds to dust, irritants and allergens. And psychic tears are triggered by our strongest emotions, designed to help us release profound sorrow, as well as overwhelming joy. I think this mysterious dual chemistry of emotional tears is a metaphor for the journey of grief.

Just as I was sitting down to write a journal entry, Linda, one of my oldest and dearest friends (in length of time, not chronology), texted me a fascinating article about tears in the Smithsonian Magazine — and a wish for me more tears of joy today. Turns out, they are the exact same thing. Since I embrace synchronicity, I clicked.

The microscopic images of all three types of tears peppered the article — depicting an entire lifetime, a complex universe in a single droplet of liquid. Oh, the stories they tell. As the article suggests, all the images look like “aerial views of emotional terrain.” Distant, elegant and provocative. That is so Elliot. Immediately, a rush of memory saturates my heart and then trickles down my cheeks. He adored World War I aircraft from day one — mastering the Red Baron computer game as a toddler and scrutinizing ceiling fans as if they were propellers as an infant.

I suspect Elliot was always meant to fly.

These maps are so dense, intricate and difficult to decipher. They all are a tangle of jagged paths, circuitous routes, and sharp corners . . . ins and outs, dead ends and drop-offs. Ah, this is the true journey of grief, and perhaps, maybe, of joy? That is why everything — even the so-called “happy” memories are as cloyingly bitter as they are sharply sweet — piercing my heart as they sometimes bring fleeting wisps of comfort to my weary soul. They are inextricably intertwined, like a strand of DNA. Is that the new definition of moving through grief — moving with grief? Finding a way to experience both love and excruciating pain at the very same time — as one? Still not so sure about the joy part.

No matter what, this is a brave new world, uncharted terrain and an unknown land. How can I possibly know what it would take to feel safe to live with this pain – when I barely know what I want for lunch? And then I question that decision. I think it’s about being fully present and mindful. It requires relentless self-compassion and intentional awareness — moment to moment, second to second . . . and heartbeat to heartbeat.

It’s the only way.

For my dear son and my heart — Elliot Everett Wright (5/17/1992 – 8/5/2018)

Remembering Ann Cushing Gantz

Ann Cushing GantzIt’s difficult to believe my mom left this earth one year ago today–after a long struggle with the aftermath of devastating stroke. No matter how difficult the journey, life is never really the same after your mother has left your world. Remembering you today, Mom. Once again, here is the poem you asked that we read at your funeral . . . and another from me.  Love, e.

When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted
By Rudyard Kipling

When Earth’s last picture is painted
And the tubes are twisted and dried
When the oldest colors have faded
And the youngest critic has died
We shall rest, and faith, we shall need it
Lie down for an aeon or two
‘Till the Master of all good workmen
Shall put us to work anew
And those that were good shall be happy
They’ll sit in a golden chair
They’ll splash at a ten league canvas
With brushes of comet’s hair
They’ll find real saints to draw from
Magdalene, Peter, and Paul
They’ll work for an age at a sitting
And never be tired at all.
And only the Master shall praise us.
And only the Master shall blame.
And no one will work for the money.
No one will work for the fame.
But each for the joy of the working,
And each, in his separate star,
Will draw the thing as he sees it.
For the God of things as they are!

Glitter Light ShineSpinning Rhythms of Delight Fantastic
By Elaine

 

Transition comes always in motion.
Summer and fall down again.
The cycle repeating so certain,
Who am I less the chagrin?

Fractured yet still—unbroken.
So this is together as one,
For it is all not forgotten.
I go forward in faith alone.

The newness of year’s end beckons
To lead my discoveries of soul.
Joy finally—that  place so vulnerable
Peace on purpose—so whole.

I’m not sure how to rest anymore.
In this place of where I prepare
What I see is now just a wisp
Of a memory on gossamer air.

I will follow the lead of my truest heart
Unfold what is next without fear.
Not a nod to the doubts of others.
Only for what is genuine and clear.

He was a mirror to my deepest ache.
Unconscious, I acquiesced.
Releasing all that, myself I cherish.
Through salted tears, I am blessed.

Remembering . . . there is time to heal.
Now, here I am—flawed and free.
Truth – such the journey uncommon.
Facing lesson’s ubiquity.

Steer no more. Press, push or pull.
In heart-fragile release Divine.
Spinning rhythms of delight fantastic.
Let  that glitter starlight shine.