Grief Observed

I have not written a blogpost for five weeks, which is about four weeks longer than usual.  The truth is that I am grieving.  I am grieving the loss of my father, which though expected, was more difficult because I could not be with him for the last days of his life, or have a funeral service, or be there for his burial.  It is difficult to grieve from a distance.

Last night I dreamed I could not find my father’s grave in the cemetery where he and my mother are buried, a cemetery I have visited since childhood, when my grandparents lived nearby.  In the dream I kept walking from grave to grave, growing more and more desperate as gravestone after gravestone did not reveal his name.  He died five weeks ago yesterday, and the last flowers are wilting from the many beautiful bouquets I received.  I want to keep them alive just a bit longer, a visual reminder of my grief observed.

In 2013 our town was devastated by a flood that permanently changed the landscape.  There are still areas waiting to be repaired.  In the first months after the flood, whenever I became weary of seeing the damage, all I had to do was leave the Lyons Valley and drive a few miles in the direction of normalcy.  Today there is no normalcy to which any of us can drive.

We know the major gateway through which grief comes into our lives.  It is through the death of a loved one.  The truth is that eventually we will lose everything and everyone that is dear to us.  A decision to love is a decision to grieve the eventual loss of that love.  It is inevitable.

But there are other gateways into grief, many that we are collectively experiencing now.  In his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow – Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, Francis Weller describes five gateways into grief.  In addition to the loss of a loved one, there is the gateway of what we expected but did not receive.  We all arrive on this earth with gifts to offer the world to lessen its suffering, but as we journey through life, we are surprised at how often our gifts are not welcomed.  We begin life excited about the offering we might bring, but end up grieving that what we had to offer never found its full expression.

The third gateway into grief is the sorrows of the world, long ago acknowledged by the first noble truth of the Buddha – suffering exists.  The suffering we see around us now is for many of us, the worst we have ever known.  From the streets of Minneapolis to the ICUs of Elmhurst, Queens, our senses are overwhelmed with troubling news that ushers in great grief.  For millennia, we only received news that was local and filtered by our community.  Today, much of the world’s grief is a touchscreen away, confronting us over our morning tea.  As it makes us aware of injustice in the world, this is good.  But the human brain was not designed for the kind of neural bombardment we receive today.  We cannot bear all the sorrows of the world.

The fourth gateway to grief is grieving the love we have not known.  As we grow through adulthood, there are awful aha moments that arrive unexpectedly.  We did not receive the love we needed from those who had been entrusted with our care.  Unfortunately, all of us who live into adulthood discover we are still wounded children in adult bodies.  Our children also eventually come to understand that painful truth as we bring those wounds to another generation.  In family systems theory it is called Multi-Generation Transmission Process.  That is a fancy way of saying people who have been hurt, hurt others.  Hurt people hurt people.

The fifth gateway to grief is ancestral grief.  That is what we are experiencing now across America.  From Washington to Minneapolis to Hazard, Kentucky to Seattle, we are collectively grieving our systemic racism. Every white person in this nation has benefitted from 400 years of racism, and we carry that ancestral grief with us.  It is time to be more than allies. It is time to be accomplices, asking people of color, “What do you ask of me?”  Their ancestral grief is monumental.

It is difficult to find the strength to do that work when all the pathways of grief converge and overwhelm.  But we are stronger than we think.  We are more capable of change than we realize, and grieving done well is empowering.  Consider these lines from Naomi Nye:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing

You must wake up with sorrow

You must speak it till your voice

Catches the thread of all sorrows

And you see the size of the cloth.