A rebuff by a friend or family member. An email, a text, you thought you had deleted, that besieges you, ravaging your heart. Sometimes it takes a cannon ball to crash through the structures of our carefully constructed lives: a trauma in the shape of death, divorce, or terminal illness…
This week, grief came to call, throwing a dark shroud over the landscape of my life. The death of my beloved, chocolate-coloured Burmese released a deluge of sorrow, plaintive echoes of an unbounded lamentation.
Each one of us has a unique journey. A timeline marked by graves of grief, some neglected, some still tended daily or on certain occasions. For some, letting go, moving on, comes easily. Others flee from the ravenous jaws of grief, buffered by a smokescreen of a smiling face, or the distraction of a full schedule.
Times of sorrow are not events, but transitional processes that unfold slowly. These are sacred times in our life journeys. We are obliged to review, to reminisce. To embrace the lacerating pain, and make up a story that makes sense of it all, for us. It is at times of mourning that we must forgo the busyness, the anti-depressants, the avoidance and embrace the weight of silence that descends in the wake of loss. It is at these times we must fully experience the darkness, contemplate the nothingness, without trying to replace or substitute. Our inner children require nurture (not a spa-day of pampering), our bodies require rest, nourishment, a withdrawal of the senses. Our souls require silence, so that grieving can become sacred, rituals relevant.
Grief can be deeply unsettling, disturbing, and uncomfortable for others to witness. So often, I find myself stumbling over words, mumbling platitudes, sending my “deepest sympathies”. Shakespeare knew that grief requires framing: “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak, whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bides it break.” And physician and pathologist, Sir Henry Maudsley wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century “sorrows which find no vent in tears may soon make other organs weep.”
Kahlil Gibran observed “Tears and laughter are inseparable. The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain…. Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced…”
We cry when we are joyful, and when we are overwhelmed by grief. Emotional tears differ from the slicing-of-onions tears. They contain hormones and endorphins which are a moist balm to the searing pain. Tears herald the depth of feelings, reveal relics of unresolved emotions. But only words can identify what lies buried in the heart.
In life, there are those people and animals we deeply love, those we meet in body and mind, a few very precious souls who know our souls. They may be born into homes, cities, countries, so far away from our original starting points. Through our choices, and the complex interwoven chainmail of synchronistic events, our journeys converge; mingle, often for just one brief tremulous moment. Tempus fugit … time flees. With each passing milestone, an anniversary of a death, or a birth or something new, the sweet remembrance of a time tinted now with nostalgia, we become aware of the transience of this life and the Mystery of it all. Sorrow can be a gestation period, long cold waiting in the dank bunker of nothingness… The bittersweet memories, “little bit of your taste in my mouth…” the faint perfume of sadness, the remembrance of deep sense of aloneness that pervades our lives cyclically in a heap of broken images. The inconstant ebb and flow of feelings. The fallow periods of sorrow that herald the bright bud of hope. We may appear less efficient in the world of doingness, and feel as though we are falling apart. We are. Everything will be a mess, and we are required to laboriously re-build from new foundations.
Sorrow, melancholy, depression, like the clouds that scud across moonlit skies to obscure the pure luminescence of the lunar face, are ephemeral, always cyclical. Like the ocean, they ebb and flow, to flood our shores with boundless energy and inspiration, or recede like the tide, revealing shards of broken shells and glistening pebbles etched in the wet sand.
Do we really ever get over ourselves? Should we even try?
“I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano; A stage where every man must play a part, And mine is a sad one” the bard said. Some walk lightly, some dance and sing along the way, others have a more sombre journey. A friend of mine shared that she had discovered a pair of pearl earrings in a velvet lined box. She had worn them only once. On her wedding day, a dewy-eyed bride, dressed in white. For her, these lustrous orbs from the watery deep enclose two tear drops of a frozen memory, the chronicle of a sacred day. She described how she had enfolded the cool silky smoothness in her hand, revisiting that time in her nascent life, to feel once more the featherlike nudge of innocence, and the bittersweet lamentation of enormous loss.
Many of us may cope by framing a new narrative for the lost dreams and disappointments that lie in wait like sharp stones on our path. Nelson Mandela told a friend of mine who had a private luncheon with this iconic figure of the joy he experienced in his incarceration when he and the other prisoners would sing together as they worked crushing rock in the quarry, day after day in the searing sun and scalding wind. Many public figures have a narrative of their lives which fits their public persona. Often their birth charts may suggest otherwise. Nearly all of us have misty water-coloured memories of the way we were … our version of a prism of an event, faded by time, embellished by the re-telling.
When we are ready, we re-frame the story in the picture gallery of our life… or float like a cannon ball… until we understand why we are sinking… Damien Rice
THE TINY BOAT
God bless this tiny little boat
And me who travels in it
It stays afloat for years and years
And sinks within a minute.
And so the soul in which we sail
Unknown by years of thinking,
Is deeply felt and understood
The minute that it’s sinking.
Michael Leunig (1945- )