The experience of grief is deeply personal. It is so all consuming, that the world shrinks to a very self-centered size. But the experience of grief is also universal.
No consciousness nor culture is untouched by it. Pet owners know that not only do they grieve for lost pets, but pets – like apparently all mammals (if not all animals) – grieve too.
The experience of loss is a learning experience.
After my husband passed in January, I enrolled in a Grief Class offered by my (traditional Christian) church. I was quite shocked that the first class gave us homework to compile a “grief inventory”. This seemed at first impression to be a mere gateway to self-pity. Staring darkness in the face. Wallowing in not just my current very real pain, but welcoming a whole lineage of grief into my awareness.
With these misgivings, I nevertheless started the entries. Big losses were easy to mark down. Mother’s death. Father’s death. Brother’s death. Divorce. But then I thought of friends who had passed. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbours, colleagues. As I apprehended, the list started to become legion. Breathing became constricted. The space around my heart ached. I put my pen down.
I looked away from this crowd of significant relationships for some days. Then someone or something reminded me to consider losses of my homes, jobs, bosses, organizations, businesses, associations, playgrounds, parks, forests, streams, beaches. Even losses of neighborhoods and cities that had been vacated or merged into other entities. I found myself gagging. I put my pen down.
A few more days passed. Then the news media reminded me of many wider territories of grief and deeper zones of trouble. This touched off an avalanche losses remembered from destruction, war, terrorism, disease, epidemics, disasters (both from Nature and Man), robbery, theft, assault. I choked. I stopped writing.
I wanted to close the door to the overwhelm I felt from fear and just withdraw into my cave. I sorrowed for lost dreams, aspirations, dashed expectations, thwarted attempts to grow, missed opportunities.
I longed to cease recall from this flood of losses and stop this inventory of pain, dark emotions and surges of guilt. I wanted to flee and just stop this whole exercise of self-centred indulgence.
But then I started to consider another part of the exercise. When had these losses occurred? Where was I when they happened? Who else was with me? What had these losses meant to me? What had they taught me? Where had I experienced them in my body? How had I resolved them? Who or what had helped me bring closure?
When I looked over the litany of losses, did I notice patterns of response? Had all the scars healed? Was my stack of losses an unending tower of grief that would progressively overwhelm me? Or were some losses finished? Put to bed? Closed? Even re-storied?
This line of inquiry made me curious. I began not just to see that grief and loss are inevitable in life but to feel that reality deeply. My life cannot escape loss because it “comes with the territory” of living. It is how I survive loss that enables me to emerge from the dark back into the light.
In this dim awakening, I recognize the shapes of grief and loss as dissonances. Each loss changes the world as I know it. Some strength, opportunity, asset or resource (or combination thereof) has been changed, threatened, damaged or killed. Where I have experienced a similar loss before and resolved the dissonance then I have added to my store of resilience. If the loss is new or more severe, I may not have the resilience to easily resolve it. I may not even know I don’t know: what to do, how to understand, who to ask or where to re-organize? How to survive in these new life conditions may be completely unknown to me.
A support group like a Grief or Loss Class might be a good place to start. It might help me find that my patterns for responding to loss and grief have become embedded in my character. Some patterns are healing and wholing. Some scars still pain when new losses arise.
So, what a blessing, that I remember that I do not have a monopoly on the experience of grief and loss – or how compassionately to respond to it. The universal response to loss and grief, seems quite embedded in human nature. This capacity just seems naturally to arise out of the Circles of Compassion that embrace me.
They remind me, that even with the loss of my husband, I am still here to record this inventory. That bit of evidence reflects some capacities remain to buoy me up. And now that I notice the loss and grief are old friends in my patterns of resolving dissonance, I recognize them as conspirators in my journey of learning. How I resolve this deepest of griefs – especially through the Circles of Compassion – will make me as strong as my capacity to match this life condition – with its own blessings of darkness and light – that can hopefully restore and re-story me back into the larger domains of the world.
To Know the Dark
by Wendell Berry
(1934 – )
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.