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.

21 thoughts on “Grief Observed

  1. >>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 place for expression.

    I thought I was the only person in the entire universe who felt this way. I really appreciate your sharing the 5 gateways of grief — thank you for making me feel less alone.


  2. I’m sorry for the sorrow you are bearing. I am suffering many of these myself. In sharing your experience, you helped me find the words. My deepest prayer is, “You know Lord. You know.” He truly does. Thank you for sharing your heart and wisdom.


  3. Dear Paula,

    Please accept my condolences. I also recently lost my dad in February. Now with covid life has really turned into a kind of twilight zone. I guess after a life long gender dysphoria, I should be used to being in a twilight zone. Just the same, sorry for your loss.

    PS. Thank you for your lovely blog, I’ve been enjoying your shared thoughts for many months (years?) now.



  4. Oh, Paula, I am sorry for your loss. Its challenging under any circumstances, and particularly difficult now, with the pandemic adding many layers of complexity. I am on a similar journey, as my 90 year old father passed 4 weeks ago today. My siblings and I were able to care for him in his independent living community, although it was not easy, to say the least. (should you be so inclined to read) Peace and healing to you along this leg of your life’s journey.


  5. I was widowed suddenly at the age of 30 with 2 children under 5. You don’t need all the years detailing my journey through grief. You do need to know that for many the journey has trigger points at each of the things you sighted in your blog. It has been 50 years for me since that loss and each thing you mentioned and life events have compounded that initial grief. It does become our strength an our vulnerability if we stay on the journey.


  6. thank you Paula. much of what you expressed is what I’ve been trying to put into words, but could not seem to find them.

    it’s funny how our dreams often reveal to us issues we are either ignoring or hiding from while awake. I too have had dreams of mom and dad since their deaths and in those there is the loss of what what we have never known so clearly to me. I now recognize what I’ve never known will never be, but I’m now understanding the grief of that.


  7. Paula,
    I was /am so sorry to know about your father’s passing. Yes those ” boundary situations” challenge us. We must nurture hope as we grieve and hold a weight of suffering… knowing that when we are knocked off balance, it is an entry point for Grace. Simply said, I know. Please extend our sympathy to Cathy, Jonathan, Jael and Jana.


    • Oh Florence, how I love the language you use. Your words are so carefully crafted. Being knocked off balance is the entry point for Grace. I’ve thought often about what John Dunne (and Jim) had to say about the boundary situations. I definitely feel like I am in the midst of more than one of them. I so wish we were still processing all of this together in our Long Island reading group. I miss it (and you and Stan) so much.


  8. I have grieved for my fathers death this year and you are right, it is empowering. Hurtful and difficult, but empowering. Memory love is beautiful.


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