Book Review: Incognito

I heartily recommend the book Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain. The author David Eagleman is a neuroscientist who tells engaging stories that illustrate the workings of the brain.  The central thesis is that “most of what we do … Continue reading

Grief

Either your heart has been torn open by a grievous loss, or it has not.  Perhaps you have lost a child, or watched a parent disappear into the haze of dementia.  Maybe a beloved sibling has cut you off.  Someone you loved, perhaps still love, dropped you and walked away.  You may have been let go from a job that you dearly loved, or desperately needed.  Our hearts can be pierced in countless ways.

Every one of us has suffered losses.  Yet there are people who have been spared grievous loss, whether as a result of their innocent youth, or extraordinary fortune, or because of a thick enough wall of denial.  But most of us, including you, probably, have felt the agony of a heart torn open by the loss of someone or something about which we cared deeply.

So the real question becomes, how do I live with loss?  How is it possible to keep breathing when my chest hurts so much?

Answers abide at many levels: how we hold the loss in our thoughts, how we hold the grief in our hearts, how we might fix our attention on that which is greater than us, and how we resolve to live at conscious choice and execute on those decisions.  Each of these topics could fill a book, in fact, have filled many.  Each could be, and are, the topics for a weekend workshop or a long term course of study.  Entire religions have been founded upon these insights and responses.

If you seek to live effectively despite the pain of loss, then I encourage you to pursue any or all of these venues.  You can pick yourself up and carry on…I promise you.

However, let us take a moment now to go in the other direction, how to actually be with that pain.  That feels as counter-intuitive as to not withdraw your finger from being poked by a needle, or to not pull your had away from a hot stove.  My initial instinct to this approach is to recoil even further, horrified at the prospect.

But the universe has been generous with me in this regard, in that I have been given a lot to grieve.  I’m getting lots of opportunities to face another loss, and then another.  It’s an issue that is up for me.

Part of it is that the older I get, the more losses I accumulate.  The entire generation ahead of me nudges ever closer to and then, individual by individual, over that last edge.  The obituaries in the daily paper now seem to include as many people younger than I am as older.  My life circumstances have changed and then changed and then changed again.  A truly humbling quantity of my losses result from my personal ignorance and blindness reaping their self-destructive rewards.

So the first thing I want to tell you about how to be with the pain of grief is that no one can tell you how to be with your grief.  What can be more personal, more vulnerable, more raw, more powerless, more despairing than the very bleeding of a wounded heart?  The truest thing that I can say is that your pain is yours alone.

Taking nothing away from that aloneness is the additional truth that everyone that lives has lost, everyone that loves has lost, and the only absolute certainty is that, in the end, you will lose your very life as well.  So while your pain is yours alone, you are not alone in feeling pain.

Most people fear pain, and the relentless struggle to avoid pain underlies most of the choices over the course of most people’s lives.  Although this strategy is ultimately futile, and operates at largely unconscious layers of our decision making process, avoiding pain is one of the major life strategies around which people organize their lives.

So this, then, is the primary reason to make acquaintance with grief.  Even if we never actually befriend this ache, we can at least embrace it with our awareness.  To that extent, we lift it out of the murk of our unconscious processing.  When we are able to accept the very presence of grief, recognize that it is intrinsic to human being, and hold it gently in the bowl of our cupped palms as we continue to step into our lives, then we are no longer victims to that part of our unconscious mind that futilely seeks to avoid the inevitable.

This morning, after my alarm roused me from a dream about leaving the house in which I am living and the logistics and feelings of losing this home, I sat in meditation at my altar.  I put my meditation cushion in front of a statue of Michaelangelo’s La Pietá.  This is the sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus after he has been brought down from the cross.  In Italian, Pietá means “lamentation,” which is defined a passionate expression of grief.  I sit and behold this statue when I am feeling possessed by grief, and it helps me to be with rather than to resist my grief.

Let me be clear: I have a deep hatred for my grief, and mourn my losses.  I do not want to be in pain, and resist it in ways I see and in many more ways that I know I don’t know.  But in addition to those reactions, I also find an aliveness in my grief, a feeling of passionate vitality.  It hurts so much that I know I am unmistakably still here, still breathing, still feeling.

I have had the privilege of sitting with several excellent deaths.  Some friends and relations have crossed over, out of this life, with grace and beauty and acceptance of their fate.  Being with someone who is dying in this open-hearted way is one of the most life-affirming experiences I have ever had.  There is nothing in this world that brings the very experience of life itself into bold relief like the immediate presence of death.  Whether it is the loss of an individual, or a natural catastrophe affecting millions, the presence of loss brings life alive.  You can only miss something when it is gone, or going.

The truth is, we are all going.  With this very breath, you are now one breath closer to your own death.  But that truth is so pervasive, so all encompassing, that it is one of the easiest truths to ignore.

When my first child was born, I would visit with him before I went to sleep at night.  He looked so fragile, so vulnerable.  A part of me could not comprehend that his system could remember to breathe and circulate blood and perform all of the other functions required for human life.  Each night I felt a poignant sense that this night, this very night, might be the last time I witnessed him still breathing.  Every single night, I felt my heart break at what felt to me like the very real possibility that I would lose him.  I would become engulfed by a tsunami of grief at the prospect, and when that wave receded, my devastated heart was raw and overcome with the pain of how deeply I loved this little boy.  Then, and only then, could I fall asleep myself, with the strange solace that if this were to be my last day together with him, I truly and deeply felt the very depth of my love for him.

It became a ritual.  A part of me was utterly convinced that one day I would go to his crib and find him finally cold and lifeless.  I came to reluctantly accept that possibility.  But never was I ever able to accept the possibility that that morning would end the one night in which I had neglected my ritual, and had not felt toward the bottom of my love for him.  I came to believe I could eventually survive his death, but I doubted my ability to live with the regret of not having loved him as much as I possibly could.  So even if I were too tired to think straight, or hated the idea of diving into my grief yet again, another force greater than that resistance delivered me to his bedside, to nuzzle his soft hair and inhale his baby scent, and listen to the quiet breath that still entered and left his tiny nose, and feel the tears of love and loss run down my cheeks.

Then my second son was born.  I still had not developed the ability to trust that either of the babies would survive the night.  Each night I would place my hand on their sleeping forms, feel the breath rising and falling from their tiny chests, and cry outward or inward tears at the potential loss.  After that the twins were born, and now I went through the exercise four times every night, scratching the backs of those still awake the same way that my mother scratched my back nearly every night. My grief was not just theoretical.  The loss I felt is not just a potential loss.  I knew then, I know now, that one day I will certainly lose one or all of these children.  If not from the intervention of their personal deaths, then through mine.  We will be separated in this life, and I grieve it.

Then, at some point after the last child had reached puberty, I noticed that I no longer went to their sleeping forms every night to grieve this certain loss.  It still comes to me in waves, at odd times, often at night but not necessarily.  Yet I don’t resist this grief of losing them.  This is one grief that I have learned to embrace.  As much as it hurts, I have finally learned the lesson that I will survive that pain, and in its wake my heart will be raw and open and tender and exquisitely, agonizingly laid bare to the burning love that I feel for my children.

That grief makes me feel more alive.  So does the grief I felt looking at La Pietá this morning.  So does my impulse to share this pain with you right now.

I can’t tell you how to be with your grief.  But I do pray that you find your own way of being with it.

Many blessings on your journey.