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The Art of Grieving

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning is a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
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.
[S]he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Rumi (trans. Coleman Barks)

I am very familiar with the landscape of grief. My mother died almost three years ago after five days in the ICU with pneumonia, a huge loss for me as we were very close and I am an only child. At 61 she definitely died too soon.

Over ten years ago, my father died quite suddenly of a heart attack brought on by years of drinking and smoking. His death was in many ways a relief to me, but still brought its own kind of grieving along with it: the loss of a father I never really had.

I am aware this week as I deal with another significant loss in my life how the layers of grief are interwoven. Losing Duke so suddenly, feeling like he was literally torn from me, is heartbreaking. And it magnifies the history I have with sudden losses in my life. Not that loss after a long illness is any easier, I am just aware of this feeling that loved ones somehow vanish before me in a flash.

I could respond to this loss in a multitude of ways. Our society would want me to pretend that everything is still alright. That I can just get another dog to fill the hole that Duke has left. Mothers and fathers are supposed to die eventually and my mother had had years of dealing with serious chronic illness. I had many people tell me she was in a “better place.” I could drink or eat or take drugs or shop to numb myself, or any number of other possible ways of avoiding the feelings that swirl within me including letting work, or email, or television keep me from being fully present to my grief. Despite my familiarity with this terrain, it is never a place I get used to or comfortable with. Grief tears at us, exposing hidden wounds and raw places.

I love the poem above by Rumi. Each day it does indeed feel as though a “crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house” has arrived. What happens when I stop resisting the pain, the anger, the rage within me at the fact that we have to lose anything at all? What happens when I surrender to the tide of feelings rising and falling within me? What if I am to consider my body a guesthouse, and the emotions that visit guides from beyond? Teaching me what it means to be fully human. Teaching me to know the range of what it is possible to feel. Teaching me deep compassion for all those who suffer around me. Teaching me of the preciousness of life and the delicate vulnerability of bodies. I also discover that in the midst of my sorrow, there also dwells gratitude, delight, pleasure in small things, abiding love for those closest to me. Rumi’s poem teaches me to make a place for all of this, to hold it together in all its ambiguity and messiness. Life does not unfold in neat packages or with clear step-by-step instructions. We are often flooded with a range of emotion, feeling confused or frightened.

I said last week that there is no way around this landscape of grief except for through it. Certainly I could pretend that I am fine and pretend all that really matters are the good feelings that are there alongside the raw ones. A year after my mother’s death I attended a grief retreat. One of the facilitators said that the degree of our grief is a measure of the love we had for the person we lost. I loved that phrase. It brought me such comfort. I loved my mother so much, certainly the vastness of my grief reflected that love. I am reminded of the phrase again as my love for my sweet dog was large and deep and wide and my grief will be as well. Grief tells us that we are alive. That something really and deeply mattered to us in a world awash with superficialities.

I believe that our grief is never fully resolved. We may come to a new relationship with it, but the process is more spiral than linear. Instead of “getting over it” we move to a new perspective with our losses. If we are able to grieve intentionally, that work of healing is facilitated. Perhaps some blessings even arise from the process.

So many of us carry grief that has gone unnamed, unclaimed, resisted, or pushed under. I often look for this orphan grief when I sit with people in spiritual direction. What are the losses that still linger for you and shape who you are? Perhaps it is a death, or maybe it is the loss of a job, a home, a relationship, an ability, an identity. When you breathe deeply and go inward, making space for whatever wants to come to your guesthouse today, what do you notice rising up in you? What has your grief taught you?

Our culture and even our churches do not give us many tools for healthy grieving. I will write more this week about some rituals and practices for the art of grieving.

-Christine Valters Paintner

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9 Responses

  1. Thank you Wendy, I think so much of our culture is designed to get us to resist feeling anything. If I can be a witness to a different way of being, then I am greatly blessed.

    Welcome Lorna, and thanks for your sympathies.

  2. “What happens when I surrender to the tide of feelings rising and falling within me? What if I am to consider my body a guesthouse, and the emotions that visit guides from beyond? Teaching me what it means to be fully human.”

    This moved me so much Christine, even when I checked in later and read it a second time. Our depth of emotion is truly part of what makes us human. It is precious, a gift, a teacher, a healer, and so it is very healing and moving when people such as yourself truly do them honor.

  3. Thank you Bette. Your words are wise. I do think learning to live gracefully with the pain of the world is a lifelong challenge. Certainly there is much joy and beauty to temper the sadness. Blessings to you, Christine

  4. I don’t think we ever come to an understanding of grief. We just continue to learn along the way. Sometimes I feel that grief itself is life – sin. Joy and sadness continually spiral around us just as other opposites exist – light/dark, male/female, left/right… These are just my uneducated thoughts :) Learning to accept and to react to grief and to life is always a challenge for me :)

    You have a good grasp on life, Christine. and I’ve learned from your writings and thoughts.
    Bless you.

  5. Thank you Trish, I do love this poem and it is so appropriate for the journey through the layers of grief. I love this line especially: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” I may have to reflect on that image some more, the feast of losses. I also love the closing, always in process, always unfolding. Blessings, Christine

  6. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for not pretending! I wonder what sort of world it would be if even 10% of us lived in the layers. Speaking of layers, do you know this poem by Stanley Kunitz?

    The Layers
    I have walked through many lives,
    some of them my own,
    and I am not who I was,
    though some principle of being
    abides, from which I struggle
    not to stray.
    When I look behind,
    as I am compelled to look
    before I can gather strength
    to proceed on my journey,
    I see the milestones dwindling
    toward the horizon
    and the slow fires trailing
    from the abandoned camp-sites,
    over which scavenger angels
    wheel on heavy wings.
    Oh, I have made myself a tribe
    out of my true affections,
    and my tribe is scattered!
    How shall the heart be reconciled
    to its feast of losses?
    In a rising wind
    the manic dust of my friends,
    those who fell along the way,
    bitterly stings my face.
    Yet I turn, I turn,
    exulting somewhat,
    with my will intact to go
    wherever I need to go,
    and every stone on the road
    precious to me.
    In my darkest night,
    when the moon was covered
    and I roamed through wreckage,
    a nimbus-clouded voice
    directed me:
    “Live in the layers,
    not on the litter.”
    Though I lack the art
    to decipher it,
    no doubt the next chapter
    in my book of transformations
    is already written.
    I am not done with my changes.

    Seems very fitting for grief. I offer my deepest gratitude to you for having the courage to live this so fully, Christine. It is exquisite beauty.
    Deep bows to you.