I’m driving at 110kms along the Auckland motorway. I’m punching the empty passenger seat beside me, hitting the steering wheel. This is probably not a great thing to be doing. Tears run down my face and I’m growling, sometimes wailing. I feel as angry as hell. Thankfully my exit is dead ahead and I’m actually going to need to slow down.
And, what’s so wonderful is that I haven’t felt this close to my sister in years.
The motorway trip I just described took place on the 19th of October 2012. Twenty nine years ago, back in ’83, my sister Meredith died in Cairns at the age of 26. I never got to attend her funeral, and I think there has always been some issues around closure for me. This particular 19th of October was the first time I recall having cried about her for a very long time.
I last saw her just one week before she died. I was 14 years old. She was going to return to Australia to package up her stuff and return here to live. I was overjoyed; being around her made me feel loved. Saying goodbye to her that day at the airport was the last time I ever saw her. Sometimes I try to recall that last time; squeezing every last drop out of the memory. The sound of her voice, her laugh, the feel of her last embrace. It’s so distant now.
But do you know what? That day on the motorway, that searing torrent of grief felt like a mainline to love. It put me so in touch with my connection to her. Sometimes she has felt like some dream I had; experiences like this serve to remind me that she was very real.
I sometimes remind my children of the real reason that they miss someone or something. They can tend to focus on the pain of missing or loss, to look at ‘whats not there’ (me too). I try and remind them that the only reason they feel the pain, is simply love.
This is the joy of grief. Hidden away in what can sometimes feel like a lake of fire, a crown of thorns, a knife to the heart; what lies beyond it all is pure love.
Could You Welcome Grief?
If grief were to knock on the door of your soul one night, could you, would you, willingly open it?
Grief is not something that most people would naturally welcome, being mostly associated with pain, suffering and disappointment. Indeed, sometimes it brings unbearable loss and sadness. All we want is to push grief away, we never want it to visit our house.
In struggling with the various losses I’ve experienced in life, like you, I’ve also wrestled with how to deal with grief. “What the hell use are you?” “All you do is hurt!” I would yell at grief. It can feel piercing, like the cold steel of a stiletto knife; shocking and quick. It can feel like an old ache, weighing me down like a wet woolen blanket. And, as I described above, sometimes my grief has become infused with the sweetness of love.
A Grief-Boat Afloat on an Ocean of Love
Now I’m going to wind the clock back 12 years from today. It’s March 2001 and I’m sitting alone in a local wine bar, quietly crying into a glass of Shiraz. My father is two weeks dead and I find myself also dreaming of my lost sister. Grief has entered my house, and today along with the usual serving of pain it also brings to me a blessing in the form of an image.
Father-and-sister-loss entwines and the picture that forms is of a spikey little porcupine-like boat, afloat on an ocean of love. This image helped me to see that it was the ocean that defined the grief-boat. The boat would make no ‘sense’ without it, indeed it would not even exist.
I knew then that grief was the place I could (and would) return to again, and again. A place where we can meet and float together on an ocean that can hold the pain. I have used this image in talks with my kids (like when our cat died) and it helped.
Carving Our Souls
Death and loss are about more than losing people we love. There are many things to lose and many ways to lose them. Sometimes we are simply grieving for unwanted change.
Change always brings the death of something, it is both creator and destroyer, and an essential part of renewal. Change brings loss, which brings grief. Learning to be with change (and loss) builds resilience.
Gibran wrote about this in “The Prophet”. He said that when we increase our capacity for sorrow that we are also able to feel more joy – it’s like our souls are carved out to feel more of everything. One thing that always surprised me about the grief I had about Meredith has been that it has gotten bigger, not smaller. I didn’t expect that. As I have let myself feel into the depth of the sadness, I notice that I feel the love more too.
When we push grief away, perhaps we miss out on the opportunity to be in more relationship with whatever or whoever we are grieving for? In pushing away the pain, I think we also push away the love. The pain makes it all so difficult, and feeling the fullness of our grief takes so much compassion and kindness. And time.
Feeling my grief can be like some kind of ‘pilgrimage of love’ for the object of my grief; and I remember that pilgrimages do tend to incorporate some degree of suffering. Similarly, births are painful, and in my grief there lies the opportunity to birth a new way of being in relationship with who or what I am grieving for.
The Gifts of Grief
During the writing of this piece, I asked some friends what they felt were the gifts of grief. They came back to me with things like: a deep appreciation for ones own life, more humility, radical acceptance, empathy, authenticity, greater compassion, resilience. An appreciation for how deep the kind heart can be.
One reflected that grief can be “an opening of the doors of your emotions, where sometimes love surfaces in the shape of tears”.
Yet another said “though it may sound contradictory, I feel happy to be grieving. The darkness of grief allows me to recall and cherish her unique light”.
Some of these I know, and others I am still waiting for.
Grief as an Angel of Connection
Think about funerals you have attended. Of being around families with a terminally ill loved one. Or sitting with a friend in deep sadness. One thing that has stood out to me the most is this:
Grief brings connection.
We connect to each other as we reach out for solace. We connect to ourselves as we re-appreciate the life we have. We connect deeply to the one we love who lies dying or has perhaps already passed on. We connect to our love of the thing, place, situation or circumstance that has changed. Grief is a portal to connect us deeply into our love for all these things; and this can help us walk the broken pathway that can lead us towards acceptance.
I do not seek to glorify grief, simply to shine a light on a place thats often filled with so much darkness. Most of the time, Grief will firmly handcuff us to our anger and to our rejection of ‘what is’. As deeply as these handcuffs will cut into our soft & sorrowful flesh, these raw and difficult emotions are all part of the process.
Embracing the gifts of grief: this will always take its own time and manifest in it’s own way. Hold your own process with great compassion and kindness. All grief journeys are unique and mine will look very different to yours; yet all can lead us to this same field, and there we may find a bittersweet beauty.
© Hilary Jackson