Grief and Gratitude
I have a bowl of fresh water that sits on a table in the living room. Next to the bowl is a small pottery dish of smooth stones I’ve collected and petite vase of fresh flowers that I change up each week. It is a sacred space in my home for honoring grief and gratitude. I offer stones as symbols of loss, allowing the "river of grief" to carry those losses into the flow of life. I offer a flower bud or petal in gratitude for the learning, the memories, the way in which a given sorrow reflects the things I cherish about this life. It is a ritual that I learned during a community grief gathering earlier this year. It is a ritual that has become a daily invitation to stay in relationship with life and death, grief and gratitude. It is a relationship that feels as fresh and cleansing as the bowl of water.
My introduction to death and the meaning of life came in the form of religious dogma. I was raised in a religion that focused on the afterlife. From birth to baptism to marriage, the rights and rituals revolved around a series of steps I must take to reap the rewards when I die. I had my doubts from a young age. I didn't understand why so much attention was placed on a mythology of heaven. I struggled to have faith in something so distant from my reality. I needed and wanted to feel grounded in the life I was living. Instead, I spent the majority of my younger life entangled in fears about death and dying.
I remember when my Gram died. I was 37 and living in the upstairs room of a friend's home as I transitioned from an unhappy coupling into single life. Heavy in the weight of my personal pain, I couldn't process the death of my favorite grandmother. All I could manage at the time was to write, "Gram died today" at the top of a journal page. I didn't know how to grieve any of the losses in my life, let alone the death of a beloved. All I had was a religious mythology that didn't resonate and the suggestion that my grandmother had lived a long life and was now in a better place. I didn't attend her funeral. I didn't process her life or death with anyone in my family. As with all the losses in my life, I tucked her death away and moved on.
My relationship with death took a turn in my early forties when I began to spend more time in nature. Attending to the cycles of seasons, I couldn't ignore the presence of impermanence. Every autumn became an opportunity to witness the release of life and to find beauty in the slow decay of winter. When spring returned, I marveled at new life emerging from the same soil that had taken life back, turning death into life-sustaining nutrients. This daily and seasonal witnessing got me reflecting on the evolution of large and small losses in my own life. The parts of myself that had been forgotten, neglected, rejected, violated, and misunderstood. The pets and people close to me that had died. The global losses due to irreverence for human life and the natural world. I felt flooded by the emotional weight of unacknowledged and unexpressed grief. I needed a way to process the layers of trauma and loss with the quality of attention they deserved. But I didn't know how.
Two years ago, a dear friend gave me the book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller. I began reading and within the first pages, I openly wept. He not only spoke into the heart of my sorrow but offered a way to tend to my grief as an act of love. His work addressed the numerous losses we experience in our lives and the importance of feeling and expressing those losses. He encouraged community support as an essential part of having our grief witnessed and held with compassion. Up until this point, I had unlocked layers of my past with the support of a therapist and that work had been profound. But, I was still deeply entwined with fear about death and dying. With the guidance of new tools and resources, I decided to look into those dark corners of my life with more spacious intention.
I reached out to some trusted kindreds, asking for their support as I dove into the depths of my grief story. Within the safe container of their generous listening and emotional warmth, I began the process of un-layering old wounds. I wrote into each story, attending to the tender wounds and scars with threads of loving kindness. As I wrote, I imagined each layer as a patch of cloth embroidered with the story of that particular loss. I imagined piecing each patch into a beautiful coat of scars that I could wear with confidence, gratitude and grace. I imagined wearing that coat as a symbol of my strength and courage, a work of art symbolizing the layers of healing. For the first time, I shared these untold stories aloud with trusted family and friends. In return, I felt held in their collective love.
From that process, I not only reclaimed lost parts of myself but I realized the beauty and light that grew from those darker recesses of my life. Shining a lamp on them allowed me to untangle old trauma and fear and to offer tenderness to the parts of my life I had ignored. Having this process witnessed by a community of support allowed me to release layers of shame embedded in the old stories. Only then could I reclaim intimacy with my life. It felt like someone took a velvet-covered sledgehammer to the remaining shell around my heart and I could finally see my wholeness.
In the time since that deep dive into grief, I began to acknowledge the sorrows of life with reverent attention. I could finally mourn my grandmother's death, feel the implications of her absence and honor the way her life has touched mine. I began to embrace impermanence without fear. Now I welcome the daily reminders that everything alive will die and aim to be fully present with each sacred moment I'm alive. I want to be mindfully aware of the interconnection of gratitude and grief, how my sense of gratitude grows from being fully immersed in the gifts of this life. I am learning to tend to the river of grief as a daily invitation to be in relationship with sorrow, remembering that it is an essential part of living joyfully and fully.
As I continue to navigate the landscape of life and death, I wish to keep my heart fluid and soft so I can greet life and loss with courageous compassion. I wish to stay in daily conversation with grief. I want to allow the large and small losses of this life to expand my sense of heartfelt connection instead of becoming complacent, fearful or numb. I want to weep openly about the lives taken by violence and to feel the heartache when a beloved pet dies. I want to stay in relationship with the parts of myself that I shut off and to grieve the parts of my youth that have given way to aging. I want to mourn the daily destruction of our natural world and be rooted in gratitude for the gift of its life-sustaining beauty. I want to help dismantle the fear that so often accompanies grieving and to be an open-hearted warrior in the work of restoring and repairing our world. One stone, one sorrow, one grateful flower at a time.
I am fortunate to be surrounded by wise, generous teachers and cohorts offering restorative work. I believe in sharing good resources for the enrichment of our collective wellbeing. Here are a few people that have nurtured my process and contributed to my healing. They have live and online offerings in case you are curious and interested: