Their story is not my story, nor is your story of loss the same as ours, yet we all share this task of navigating our grief in a culture lacking language for the experience, and without meaningful ritual to guide our way. We are handed the academically time-tested and inadequate (in my opinion) oversimplified five stages of grief as roadmap for the enormity of what we will experience. We are given permission to take as much time as we need (as long as it doesn't take too long and make everyone around us uncomfortable) to process the loss and live out this journey to a destination we can't comprehend.
I beg for you to feel within this letter a hug with arms wrapped around tight and the fierce protection of a lioness heart carrying on her soul the bitter taste of loss; mine and yours and ours.
What I really want to offer you is quiet -- a knowing smile, a warm quilt and a safe and sacred space to just be. Time to reflect, remember, get loud and messy in your grief and fold inward to feel safe in the surreal and numbing comfort of being fully engulfed for a time by the heartbreak.
I wish to stop time that you may step outside the onslaught of life that swirls on all around you oblivious to your pain. A million people need you to make ten million decisions and a thousand more want simply to tell you they care. I wish to press "pause" on the loving and oh-so-overwhelming support asking "what can they do?" and "what do you need?" when you're not sure you even understand the questions nor can you fathom the answers. I wish to relieve you of the endless decisions to be made to allow the river of grief to wash over the jagged pit of your pain, smoothing and soothing the cracked-wide-open edges of your mourning soul. That's all I ever want on my darkest days: to be seen in an authentic way from deep within the protection and safety of solitude and space to just be. Peace and space to simply be is what I most long to offer you now.
This is a tiny piece of my process shared with the intention of transparency and being seen and truly seeing you within our same-and-different stories of loss, woven with the universal fibers of grief, immeasurably varying and vast and framed with the perspective of my own hindsight. In my earliest dance with grief, I found strangely comforting a common connection in loss for already I had begun to feel invisible within the label of widowhood and the social implications of what it meant to be grieving. People who loved me now treated me with great caution as though I had disappeared and been replaced by this widow who had contracted the fatal disease of mourning that might be contagious and was certainly fragile. It felt as though most people could no longer see me. To them, I had become my story of loss, equally fascinating and horrifying. A thing to be pitied.
From within the internet, several military widows reached out to me and somehow I felt bolstered by this connection that ushered me into the pages of these strangers' souls. What relief it was to see the story of loss written on their hearts and return their gaze and say without a word, "me too". It was during that first dark week of my journey into loss that the brave creator of One Fit Widow sang out to me the song of hope with her story; a melody I wasn't able yet to fully make out but one I tucked carefully away for a distant someday. ...
It feels impossible, I know; like it might swallow you up. It feels like too much, and it is.
And yet, Mother Earth sends without doubt most reliable dawn to whisper you from weary dreaming (if sleep has come at all) and for a fleeting moment as eyes blink open, you feel whole and wrapped tenderly in peace just before memory comes to fill the spaces of your soul once more with this grief. You wake to remember the reality of that which was yours and all over again it seems like too much as you begin this day anew.
They tell us grief is is enormous, it will swallow us whole and will last forever. As if the fear of finding out the one you love most will never again hold you close and the life you were creating together is no longer an option is not enough, now too you must fear the grief that will take away your identity, maybe even your sanity, with everything else that's been lost. I was petrified to feel any of it because feeling it meant losing control, meant losing myself, meant losing the last thing I could trust and taste as real. And yet...
Loss cannot stop the coming of morning's light into the dark of night nor can it command time to cease the swing of its pendulum no matter how much we beg. You inevitably will begin again, day after day to face this storm. We're told the tales of heroic battles ripe with handsome bravado and bottomless might and a frenzied blazing fight. And yet, within this vast and epic story of life, your one charge is to stay the course. Stay the weary, wandering, fog-filled course in the days and months and years ahead toward something called living, so foreign right now it seems impossible to be moving toward anything at all.
And yet, forward and onward you go because even as the sun rises, your story is being written no matter where or when or if, for that matter, you wake. You walk on into the grief and through it with a sacred shroud of emptiness your steadfast companion. Believe me when I say, "I know" -- this road feels too much to bear today with the weariness of grief that envelopes you. I want you to know that this task before you to stay the course means not what you think. I too once misunderstood my charge, commanding strength to captain my ship with a crew comprised of self-preservation and persistence and the radiant twin sisters named grace and pride at the helm, trailing along behind the mangled bits of what was left of me.
Guided by the deeply embedded, proper Puritan roots of western culture and painted the colors of Hollywood "reality", we have created the most impossible of dichotomies within the experience of grief between what is expected and what is true. For much too long, I was unable to just sit with and let come the vast emotional experience of my grief or trust the expressions of my soul. My emotional energy felt constantly bombarded by the perception of judgment at every turn and crippled by the fear of becoming the stereotype I had accepted as truth: a frayed remnant of a once vibrant life who was all but erased from existence by the enormity of her loss. I then believed grief was unstable, not to be trusted, wild and erratic and certainly inappropriate to be unleashed (much like I once years ago viewed my femininity). A dear and lifelong friend of mine jokingly implored of me with an earnest look of concern, "please, don't become a fat and sad widow". I became hell-bent on surviving and dedicated myself to thriving in the aftermath of my loss. In an act of solidarity with self-preservation, I pledged myself wholly to honoring my late husband with head held high, and surviving this lifetime sentence to grief with all the grace I could manufacture and with little regard for what would become of me. That was the extent of the life I was capable of envisioning for myself in those early months: to simply survive this, protecting the raw places of my soul from bearing the enormity of this experience at all. And I would become neither fat nor sad.
Unconsciously burying deep the part of me needing simply to weep and time to be weary and let the vital experience of grief do its soul-mending work, I not only stayed the course -- I charged it. I had been asked to relocate my newborn and her three young siblings internationally with bits of our life loaded into twelve suitcases and no home of our own on the other side of that trans-Pacific flight. I had been asked to attend three memorial services in three different cities and hug thousands of devastated people who plastered me with heartbreak and pity before planning a proper and honorable funeral for my beloved husband. I had been asked to do the weary-to-the-bone work of establishing a functional life for my family in this place I once called home and do this all without him.
And so I did.
Every forced step forward in those first months was a struggle and I was grateful for the selfless helping hands of friends and family every day and those holding me up from afar. There were endless documents to sign and tasks to accomplish in the process of burying my husband that had nothing to do with the work of my soul and I was led by the hand through it all. I was exhausted, depleted and numb and felt so incredibly grateful when emotion found bits of space in the onslaught to come at all. People told me they were so afraid of saying the "wrong" thing and making me cry. I told them if I cried, it was a most welcome release of something profound in the process of making sense of it all. I bought a house and watched my eldest play his first season of baseball and registered two kids for school, pouring myself into forging this new life as those watching from the outside applauded my strength. It felt good to be seen as strong but I so desperately needed space to be weak. I needed permission to to fall apart and I refused to give it to myself. Eight months after I buried my husband, I ran a marathon in his honor with close to thirty friends raising funding for TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors). While it was therapeutic to carve out dedicated hours of alone time for training runs which gave me a place to practice self-care and often hold dialogue with the man I was mourning, it was also my new identity. I preferred being seen as a marathoner over identifying a widow (even if the rest of the world still gave me that label) and found the empowerment I needed to continue moving forward in that accomplishment. I proved to myself that I still existed within this story of loss where I often felt invisible. I was busy. I was weary. I was lonely. I was finding my way forward. Without the space in my days to let the grief come, to the rest of the world and to even myself, I was doing ok.
I have spent much of the last seventeen months with internal dialogue on full blast, dissecting and examining closely what it was I felt at every turn and what did it mean with varying degrees of clarity and acceptance (or completely running away from it screaming) as my process unfolded. As the calendar rolled its pages beyond the year that my late husband died and the last of our firsts without him were new memories to us all, peace with the story and my place within it settled in. With the help of family, my beloved soul sisters, my serendipitously connected mentors, my therapist and more recently my life coach as well as a widows' retreat and nine months of introspective yoga teacher training, my relationship with my human experience of grief has shifted significantly to a space that finally feels safe to be. It is always a process between shifting and opening, living and remembering, integrating and dreaming, but I can now see the enormity of grief as it comes and goes as an opportunity to commune with my higher self, honor my experience and learn about my truths beyond society's demanding rose colored glasses. Grief has become an exploration of self and expression of gratitude for what has been.
What I have learned is this. There is no badge of honor for grief done "right" or loss done gracefully nor is there merit in clinging tightly to grief in the name of proving your devotion. This melee of emotion all around you is not happening TO you, it is from within the authentic center of all that IS you. The guttural ache of longing for what once was yours is here to usher you to a place of processing, perspective and ultimately transformation beyond the pain. You have lost someone you deeply loved, and with it you have lost your hopes and dreams and maybe the certainty of your future and perhaps even some or all of your identity within this wild season of life and loss. I long for you to know that within your swirling story of despair, you will find your way more fully to your truths through the clarity gained from perspective. Author Elizabeth Gilbert shared this thought during a recent workshop in Napa, "when you reach the end of yourself, you can either die into despair or surrender into divinity...When you ask the question 'Who am I?' or 'Who is God?' you will end up at the same place...At the bottom of every mystical journey, you find a small voice that says: do not be afraid."
Perhaps instead of running from it, we clutch desperately to grief with all our might. It feels so safe there wrapped in disconnect from living. Our grief feels honorable and true and for a necessary season it is, coming and going within the unpredictable life cycle of human experience and our ability to consciously process the pain. The marine layer of fear quickly drifts in to envelope the shore as our grief begins to recede with the tides of time, and any experience outside our loss brings to the landscape an unsettling sense of disconnect from our sadness, laced with shame and guilt and we decide it mustn't be trusted. We wrap ourselves in the tapestry of our loss believing to the core that our every tear breathes new life into what we have lost, keeping it alive if only to us for eternity. That in committing ourselves to the daily practice of mourning and wandering lost within the cloud of grief, we can ensure forever a connection remains. In painting grief onto our identity, we cry out to the heavens the moaning, anguished song of truth that the one now beyond our reach existed in our story at all. We cannot fathom life without the soul we have lost, our existence nonsensical now without them, and so a lifetime dedicated to grieving maintains a connection to what has been and who we were because of it. None of this is consciously chosen, yet it's happening within the landscape of our hearts. When we learn to sit with ourselves and let what's there come, we can soften to make space. We can release to let it come and let it go as it will. In the authentic space of our individual timeline, we can honor what has been and welcome what will be and find ourself there within that space, safe and whole, knowing the one we love is wrapped safe in loving memory.
The martyr's tale we are sold of a requisite lifetime dedicated to sorrow is a lie: there is life after loss and it's waiting for you. To wholly grieve is vital to our human experience of mourning and thus healing, but its crippling presence is not meant to be forever and it will do everything in its power to convince you otherwise. Yes, our grief will come and go and come again with myriad demands of expression, requesting only that we clear space to let it fully materialize to do its work: to acknowledge once again the loss, to heal with new consciousness part of our pain previously unattended and when the grief has been satisfied to once again release it until the next time. In Mayan culture, unexpressed or trapped grief is manifest as physical sickness, or at the very least depression. They regard tumors as solidified tears or crystalized grief -- cancer of the soul -- and this belief feels incredibly important to acknowledge within the landscape of modern culture, knowing there is a bit of science as well as personal experience to support how powerfully manifest in our physical body this trapped grief can become. Mayan Shaman Martin Prechtel speaks about grief as a form of praise and states those of us who cannot weep "properly" (not doing it right or wrong but doing it where "you look bad when you're done--when your hair is missing and your clothes are ripped and you're down in the street.") also do not understand praise. He discusses grief as an expression of praise because it means you miss what you have lost. His cultural view on grieving was one of few that truly resonates with me and began a shift in the way I allowed my grief to express.
My friend, it's not our job to do right by grief in the sense that it can even be done properly at all except to allow for the full and authentic truth of its expression to come and be and one day go again. There is no reward for "doing grief right" but there is undoubtedly relief in letting its enormity come when and how it will and slowly releasing her once again within the timeline of your soul; releasing too the power she holds over you.
Take as long as you need, they say - there is no timeline for grief, take it slow...which I internalized with great certainty that my grief should, in fact, be invited to linger long into the night of life. If my grief ran out too soon, it would surely be an expression of inadequate devotion to that which was lost. It's true, for each of us grief will have its own story and individual timeline and I beg you to honor your journey. I also want you to know that your authentic experience, if you can find your way beyond expectation and fear of judgment, won't look exactly like the movies or behave like you think it should, nor will it look and feel the same forever. I fear we have a world full of grieving souls who are limiting the potential of their lives because they have missed the healing experience of making space for grief to come. Perhaps we have been told to smother so completely the enormity of grief into a tidy expression of emotion, allowing just enough heartbreak to seep through and the rest of that raging storm within should pipe down for the ride.
I want you to know with gentle loving truth that every day without knowing it as you trudge through this nightmare, wander through the fog, tiptoe into the terror of loss and claw your way through the surreal mire of this thing, you are trudging and wandering and tiptoeing and clawing your way onward to whatever comes next. Stay the course and you'll find yourself there. Yes, grief will surely visit you again and again in the most unexpected ways throughout the story of your days, demanding to be acknowledged in the midst of your living. When she comes, simply sit with her and listen to what she needs; honor what was and when she has come with her wild truth and been fully heard, release her once more and begin again.
The experience of this thing called loss is too much and so damn heavy and endlessly vast and sometimes violent. And yet, here you are at the center of your storm as the dawn breaks through, weary and worn, but weathering the onslaught. Numb and cold, and finding your way toward that which you know not on the sea of life.
It feels as though you are watching with disbelief from outside your story, as though it is happening to someone else. From the corner of the room, can you see yourself way down there surrounded by the tempest, strong somehow even as you struggle to survive within it? Can you see too the parts of you that need not be strong and paint them lovingly into the picture of what's playing on life's screen? Will you let all the notes of grief's overture be played, even those so terrifying and too ugly to be heard?
Everyone around us is so lovingly insistent on pacifying the deepest of our wounds, desperate to make it go away. The world yearns to protect you from this part of the path, to explain why this had to happen in terms of religion or practicality, as though that surely will offer comfort in knowing.
Keep calm and carry on, they beg of us.
Perhaps I, most of all, was determined to be ok.
Please don't cry and I'm sorry and we're praying for you, they whisper.
I don't know what to say, they tell us...we just want you to be ok.
Because "this is life" and "God's will" and "everything has a reason" so there's no sense in falling to your knees. We are taught to be believe that everything will be ok, if only someday. That we must be ok and that anything that brings heartbreak and tears and sleepless nights is not, in fact, ok. That if we answer the trumpeting call to grief with quiet grace and smooth feathers, we will one day emerge from this story and be ok.
I say this to you in the midst of your darkest hour as your soul bears the burden of mourning that which you love; you ARE ok. My darling, even in the depths of longing, from the underbelly of emptiness and burdened by the weight of desperation and the confusion of loss, you are ok. The enormity of what you feel is ok, every bit of it. This ability to feel so deeply is our most profound human blessing disguised as curse for we are able to more fully appreciate that which is rich and joyous in life after having sipped perspective's hideous brew from the cup of loss.
What has flooded over you with the unyielding tidal wave of grief cannot wash you away. Find stillness. Demand it if you must, and let the weary tears come wet your cheeks and run down your neck and taste the sting of their salt. Let your guard down and let the grief come. Tell your stories. Laugh when it comes and cry when you must and roll around the details of that which you cannot fully accept like a speckled marble between finger and thumb; let it all come. Sit with it and know that this experience is vast -- is you. What you feel is of you and within you and from you and will not swallow you up because in letting it fully come you are also slowly, without knowing, letting it go. With each tear and thought and weeping weary dream, you are releasing the enormity of this thing that has come. Slowly, slowly, slowly.
The sands of time fall and without seeing the shift, as you scratch and claw your way forward with tear stained cheeks, you will come to know more wholly your truth as compass and reclaim parts of self unknown, stirred to your side in solidarity as you wander the burning wasteland of grief, offering new perspective on this voyage into the uncharted terrain of what will be.
When you're ready to invite the healing in, let yourself simply sit with what is there, even the pieces of pain you instinctively push away and no matter the labels you feel compelled to give what comes. Watch it come and go as it will, swirling into and all around you like northern lights in an arctic sky. Watch its enormity swirling there, outside of you and part of you too. Grief: sadness dancing with the delight of memory.
Longing. Regret. Emptiness. Sadness.
Broken. Hurt. Heavy. Lost.
Let it come. Invite it to tea and without saying a word just witness what comes to your table for two. Don't pick up your phone or reach for a book or create a calendar so full of "should dos" that there is obviously no space to keep the date. Simply sit with whatever comes and just let it be and learn to trust your safety in the experience.
Let it come and swell over you and through you and trust that it won't wash you away. Greet it eye to eye and call it by name and find your way through to what comes next. It took me so long to realize that something comes next; that "next" was allowed at all...that I hadn't been swallowed whole. It took me so long to see I hadn't been erased from existence in the overwhelm and brokenness and the expectations and "rules" of the comes-and-goes experience of grief. That what has been was a part of my story and what would be was waiting to be written.
You see, this grief and the loss that screamed it to life are companions, yet very separate entities. Loss truly is forever but the grief comes in shifting shapes with timelines that ebb and flow. In those first days and months, it feels you are never quite safe from grief's lurking shadow. Every smell and song and space and dream toting with it a memory of what is now beyond your reach. And yet, with the heartbreak it brings to your story and the passage of time, grief too drapes your heavy shoulders with a cloak of transformation. If only this cloak felt light and magic-filled as though touched by Neverland's pixie dust. No, it is heavy and asks much of us in an already weary season, but oh - it is such a gift! The day you are clothed with the gilded fibers of transformation, your heart begins to see through a new lens.
To be honest, the glint of transformation's light surprised me in the midst of grief's darkness, clinging there to the life raft of permission I thought I needed within my story to "do grief" as wholly as possible. Looking back, it's not that my grief wasn't genuine but my experience of living was not. Any part of my story in the months after my late husband's death that landed outside the spectrum of total devastation felt incredibly uncomfortable and I pushed much of it away in the name of preserving the protection of living within grief, beyond judgment for daring to dream or even live again. Somehow I had come to believe that choosing life after loss was dishonorable, bringing not only condemnation and shock but surely would incite social pandemonium into the pages of my story.
After a season spent dissecting these false patterns of living in the dialogue of my headspace, I came to realize that only I had the privilege of writing the story of what would be. I grew to understand that while my husband's story had ended, mine was only just beginning and that did not make me inherently flawed or evil. In that tender chapter of finding my way (where I still regularly reside), I cultivated a heart full of peace about what I had lost and how it had happened and grew my gratitude that he had been part of my story at all. In doing so, I also welcomed in a season of discovery, cultivating appreciation and self-love for the truths of who I was that had been unlocked in this process.
As time marches on, I hope one day you will take pause and acknowledge for a moment that your capacity to wholly appreciate the vast experience of life has grown from the dark journey of loss. In being broken wide open, your gratitude for this gift of life and its treasures has become immeasurable. Perhaps you will feel guilty like I once did to realize self-actualization arrived within the horrific vortex of loss. Yet, there they sit hand in hand; these two an inseparable pair.
This is not to say that grief doesn't appear again and again within the story of living or that healing happens overnight. No, the sadness comes within life's pages because it too is part of the whole experience of what it means to live and fully appreciate what has been. Sadness comes to pay a visit as we live out our every days, but now gratitude greets her at the door with a hug for a brief reunion, reflecting once more on what has been. Grief's shadow was heavy across the path as my family celebrated first holidays without him. Grief sneaks in while I watch our babies live out childhood milestones without him, sometimes manifesting as moments of debilitating sadness and sometimes bringing a smile to my face knowing how he would have delighted in those moments and is so proud. Grief has come to me on the first notes of a song and in the lingering loneliness of holding so much I long to tell him. With the waves of grief and sadness comes enormous gratitude that what I am missing in those moments had once been mine at all. With perspective gained of just how high and unpredictable the stakes are in the game of life, we within the tribe of loss now more wholly experience gratitude for the gifts within the present.
I see you in the midst of your overwhelming grief, I once stood in that very space. The recent death of my friend brought me back to that first day of my journey and some unfinished healing work of my own; an opportunity to learn something new about myself and my story and become more whole. What came to me was the young child within my soul who was screaming and pleading for space to be held and time to be sad, so weary from a journey of pushing and forcing and finding my way to safety once more. I had been too terrified and driven toward survival before, both fight and flight in action, to let her be heard. Instead of shushing this scared and sad inner child again, I finally made space for her and in the tender company of sadness and peace as strength watched anxiously from the corner, gratitude served a cup of hot cocoa to the tear stained and weary child who had been begging to tell her story of sadness for so long and once again the healing begins.
You are strong and whole even in your weariness and the broken parts of you strewn about by this storm are slowly being reclaimed with each life-giving breath and reassembled in the fire of longing and loss raging within. Even tonight, your truths are being carved out and the chambers of your heart rebuilt, the sacred container for the fire of your life. You won't know it for months or maybe years but you are still here and you are so precious and worthy of the journey ahead. You are a powerful creature being forged into something magnificent in these flames and one day your broken road will shift to become simply the way ahead. Onward, forward to the rest of the story of your one powerful and meaningful life. As your phoenix soul emerges to cliff's edge with glorious wings spread wide to feel the delightful winds of what will be rush through her feathers, the emptiness of your today will become an invaluable memory of your journey into the underbelly of living and loving and loss and an authentic glimpse at the truth of who you are and the vast emotional experience manifest as a tender soul powerfully alive within skin.
I beg of you to welcome the grief wholly, to let it come and bring its healing. Make time and space as you need to just be. I see you toiling and I honor your pain. I honor the enormity of your journey. And yet, listen...
Listen into the distance and when your precious soul begins to whisper hope and inspiration to the heavens, spread your wings. Take flight, say yes to life.