NORA L. JAMIESON
On March 24, Allan will have been dead for fifteen months. Fifteen months. Several people have mentioned that I haven’t written in a while. I was surprised to see that I hadn’t posted anything since 2018. I wanted to check in with you, there was, is?, an invisible wall, as well as intense grief that stopped me. And confusion. After all what more is there is say? So again I don’t know what’s coming, whether I’ll send it or what I need to say. The rituals have been done, an altar of memory lives in my heart and those who love him.
On his first year anniversary, December 24, a few beloved women gathered to perform the ritual of marking the first year since Allan’s dying. We lit a fire in the fire pit, ceremoniously walked up the to the Ancestor Shrine, where we made offerings of tobacco and whiskey, and removed the prayer flags we had made and carried them down to the fire where we burned them releasing the prayers to help Allan on his journey to the Ancestors. We made prayers for his journey, drummed and sang and I stepped over a thread I’d spun using a drop spindle, a threshold I’d made from Allan’s and my colors.
That’s all I knew. The marking of the year. But what is the threshold? Was I stepping into a new life? No. It was an acknowledgment that I’d gone through a year in the underworld, a place I still lived with occasional risings. And it was a threshold over which I’d hoped to weave a new relationship with Allan. I’ve been told that the more the grief abates the more one can feel the presence of the Beloved.
Yet every movement in that direction, each change – removing Allan’s desk and putting mine in his office, now our office, moving his clothing along to those who needed it, changing the bedroom around, shredding a material life, holds the possibility of plunging me back into very intense grief, fear, an almost existential abandonment. It was/is confusing and relentless, then will ease up for a few days, then return.
In Tear Soup, a wonderful book about grief, it is written that the first year is hell and the second isn’t much better. That’s true for me. So far. Yet I’ve engaged with life, seeing a few clients which I find gratifying and I feel present to them, painting this process of grief in Elisabeth Moss’ process painting Sangha, rejoining writing group. Going through motions, yet not yet alive, not yet wanting to live because the pain is intense when it comes. I miss the wild spark of possibility I always carried and I pray she is there waiting to push up through the soil.
So I didn’t write because I don’t know where I am, my compass is spinning and has not come round to my North Star. It’s too soon. I am always relieved and frightened both, when a veteran of such grief says to me, “oh you’re so new into this journey,” because it’s felt like a hundred years already. And yet, what less could I expect when grieving a thirty-seven year soulful relationship? Last year I knew I was in the underworld, no denying it. I knew where I was, like Erishkigal in hell.
This year I live in the land of heart ache visiting the upper world occasionally. Yet that’s an odd experience, because I feel like I’m visiting, literally, the upper world. Your world, the world where I mistakenly assume people aren’t in fresh grief, the world that goes on. But I am really still in the underworld. Do I even exist in the upper world? I know I am made real in those moments of honest connection with other people, who acknowledge this journey, who have taken it, and whose presence I acknowledge. But still in between and not knowing where life is taking me, where soul is taking me. How am I being rewoven, how are Allan and I being rewoven together. It requires a kind of surrender not resignation.
This week I felt something shift, some little shift that I cannot name or even see in my daily life. A friend said, it sounds like a faith door opened up, and that feels right as I sense Allan with me a little more than I did. Or rather, I have faith that he is here. Even as I write this I am hesitant to name it, because I know tomorrow it could all shift again.
Walking in the woods this morning, it dawned on me that the descent part of this journey is a definitive event. At least it was for me, I can remember the moment when my body said no more and took me down. And it is definitive for the community. At such times community knows when one’s beloved dies, there is a descent, and we mark it with a funeral and food, and love and offers of help. And the bereaved, though they don’t know where they are, are mirrored by the community. In the best of situations, the community conveys you are here, you belong to us, we know you’re confused, that your world is completely shredded. And “we will hold a place for you”.
And yet, in my experience, we don’t have such customs for the returning. And so while there is a community around the descent, there is not a formal communal understanding for witnessing and welcoming the grieving back into life. It is a poverty of our culture that we do not mirror back to them what the community sees they have brought back from their descent, which allows the one who slowly re-emerges to know where she is. I think probably most of us kind of bleed back into life quietly, full of confusion, full of a kind of estrangement from our former selves and lives. Maybe some people have fallen away thinking this is taking too long or simple because life is racing and demanding. If it weren’t for the women who are willing to tell me they see the subtle shifts, or a sparkle in my eye, that I’m returning even though I don’t know it, who hold a place for me, who hold the faith for me, I wouldn’t have a place to stand. Those returning from descent need to be welcomed, their transition needs to be marked somehow. Other cultures know this.
Francis Weller, in response to a woman’s question about returning from Vision Quest and feeling so lonely because noone in her life could relate to what she’d been through and did not welcome her back into community, said that now that she knows that is needed, she must give it to others. A step toward creating a different culture around descent.
Instead, in our Western culture, we wait for the grieving to make the overture, to bring themselves back into life. War veterans are expected to blend in, return to family, find their own healing resources. We’ve all assumed it. She’ll know when she’s ready, he’ll be his old self a year from now. No. We need to say to each other “I see you. I see your suffering and I see your healing and I see your gifts and we/I welcome your tiny steps back to us.” Don’t we all long for this?
But we cannot know to welcome anyone back from their descent if we don’t know of it. And we live in a culture of silence about such deep sorrow, such raw emotion. Muriel Rukseyer wrote, “what would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” I believe if all people spoke and expressed the truth of their grief, in the workplace, at home, with friends, the world would split open. Grief about the death of loved ones, of species, the defilement of the sacred, of clean air, water, the unspeakable horrors of war and on and on. If we did this in community, which is vital, it would build our courage to face that everything we love will die, that healing is possible. It would develop our understanding of our own suppressed grief, we would acknowledge our broken hearts. How can we have community, hold a place for each other when we’re estranged, silent? We suffer from isolation, my grief counselor once said to me that disconnection is hell. And I agree. And our culture is in it. But we can make a new culture, yet not without acknowledging that our unacknowledged grief is terrible.
So this is where I am, grieving Allan, grieving my old life, talking to the trees, talking to him as I walk the trails, wondering what will become of me, who am I becoming, some days in utter despair, some focused for three hours on painting, thinking of nothing but painting, feeling maybe life is possible. What will I return with and will anyone benefit from it or want it but knowing that what calls to me is soul, love, becoming a real human being and Elder. And to all those who are with me, know the depths of this year for me, who have stood by and continue to, deep, deep, bows of gratitude.
Love to you and blessings on your house and people,
“Your absence goes through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.” M. S. Merwin
I have been feeling the need to write to you, but often times I’ve been so low I couldn’t bring myself to again say what seems like the same words over and over. And I hesitated because for many of you this is Holiday season. Yet I’ve heard from some wondering where I am, whether I am OK and so I’m writing. Again I don’t know what I’ll say.
In three days, last year, Allan will die. I say it this way because for me this is the way it feels, not that I am anticipating his anniversary but that I am anticipating his dying. It is cellular, bone deep, as are the tears that continue to come, the missing that stitches everything with its color. I have again gone through the experiences of loss, fear, empty and wondering what will happen to me, because it does not feel like a matter of will, except for that deeply embedded life given will to have a life that is vital. And yet my heart still, most often, does not want to live, does not want to walk on alone, without Allan’s physical presence. This is bereavement. It has no pattern really, it is full of longing and realization, again and again, that the Beloved is not returning. That he no longer needs his toothbrush or all the shirts I gave him as Solstice presents, nor the empty stack of note cards he always kept handy to write thoughts, ideas for books, questions. His writing space has not been disturbed, except by the proverbial mice with whom he seemed to struck a truce, every once in a while I go sit there, not yet having the heart to read his latest writing, his little notes are a view right into his soul. Where ever Allan parked himself for long there were little pieces of paper with notes. I thumb through the card catalogue a map of his mind and heart.
My body carries on, she walks me in the woods, she eats, she sleeps, takes baths, visits with friends, and grieves. Lately I’ve wondered if my soul has gone away with him, that spark of inspiration, that sense of the deep holy of this path that I’ve lost track of, or who has lost track of me these past few weeks.
I speak to his picture every day and ask him to be with me, walk with me through this life. A medium I consulted told me that Allan and I will continue to work together, that his work here is not done, nor is mine, that we will be collaborating in some way, perhaps through the writing.
That everything we believed before he died, he finds is true.
And now it is the Solstice, a day we’ve celebrated in the Earth Spirit Council House for going on for 15 years, I believe this is the first year we will not sit. This was Allan’s favorite ritual, to sit among community in Holy silence and laughter. I remember our last Solstice last year, sitting on the front porch bundled in winter coat and blanket, smoking the last smoke of his daily ritual of one smoke a day, Holy time for him. He and Roxie and I. The sky was clear and it was very cold. He rolled the wheelchair over to the edge of the porch, scattered the tobacco and said Great Spirit, I mean no disrespect I know this isn’t my tradition, I thank you for this life and please watch over my family. I’m sure he made a variation of that prayer every evening. Tonight I will light a small fire in the wood stove given the rain, at 5:23 to mark the shortest day and the longest night. May it be luminous.
On the day of his anniversary, at 12:15 Petra, Anne and I will light a fire and burn the prayer flags that galloped in the wild wind the moment of his death, the prayer hoop we made him and installed at the ancestor shrine the morning of his memorial and the dried flowers from the memorial, with whisky, and tobacco and prayers. And other things. Petra will leave mid day and I will spend the rest of the time alone. At first this frightened me, yet now it seems that time is perhaps between Allan and I. I’ll join a friend’s family the next day for dinner.
That day I walk over some kind of threshold, I don’t know what kind or what will come from the marking of the year, all I know is that I have relived his dying since Thanksgiving, the grief pulling from the bone marrow and the last two days have been a bit less intense. Mercy. I’ve learned though that the waves, the tsunamis come with their own deep knowing. I know death and grieving are Holy paths because if allowed to, they break open the heart and eventually deep empathy and real compassion can deepen. Yet lately, in the depth of pain I’ve just wished for it to be over, my body and heart have had enough, I feel as though I’ve crawled through this year. I’m sure many of you recognize what I’m talking about and I can’t imagine the pain of multiple losses that we read of every day. Martin Prechtel said that all wars are because of unmetabolized grief. If you can’t grieve your heart can’t open.
But when the heart breaks open we learn what is important, just as the dying, in their wrestling with death, become aware of what is important in life. There are so many working to have us realize this long before we die, to live as true human beings. Things that seemed important fall away, and I know that is happening for me. At times I am aware of a different kind of love, a softening and embracing that has deepened. I remember all the angels sent my way, from amazing practitioners who love, surprise visits exquisitely timed with my deepest grief, friends who fiercely hold me through this time. Phone calls in my darkest hours. Those who still want to come walk Roxie from time to time.
And oftentimes I am just shaking with fear that my world has been shredded, that I will grow old without Allan beside me. The loneliness, the absence colors my every day. I’m always surprised when someone tells me they’ve enjoyed my company, or have been gifted by sitting with me. I’ve not yet felt joy, or deep pleasure for long, but I have felt the sun on my face, and noticed beauty of Roxie’s face, the embrace of friends, the enormous kindness in people, just waiting to be invited in, to be spiritually employed. And the wisdom that magically emerges from the heart when there is strong need. I truly don’t know if I’d be here without this holding. No one would choose grief, no one would choose to feel this deep loss, and I believe that is, in part, because we have no communal structures in place to hold us through this time, no communal places to come together and grieve.
I long for days of deep engagement, for usefulness, to feel the beauty and wonder of the earth and gratitude. I pray to develop the deep skill of holding the pain and the wonder as necessary parts of the great round and the same time. To feel Allan’s spirit accompanying me. And I pray for the Temple to reveal the ways in which she will next be a Refuge and my role in that.
These are my prayers this Solstice, and that the wounding of the world opens us into deep grief as a path to true compassion and love.
“To speak of sorrow, works upon it, moves it from its crouched place barring the way to and from the soul’s hall…” Poem by Denise Levertov
To those of you who don’t know, my husband and soul mate, Allan Griswold Johnson died on December 24, 2017. He’d been in treatment for lymphoma and was given an all clear in July, but the cancer became a brain tumor and it was three weeks from the day of his diagnosis to his death. Someone wrote me the other day, a woman from Israel, who follows Allan’s work and who has read my website as well, and she wrote her late condolences to me. After she read his obituary, she went to my site and notice “such a loud silence.” I had been thinking about putting these letters that I had been writing to extended community out to the larger community but hesitated because they are raw and repetitive. But then grief is raw and repetitive.
I thought a lot about exposing myself in this way to those I don’t know. But then I thought about the women who have written about their grieving, (particularly Lucille Meltz’s in her book, An Elder Widow’s Walk), how they took the risk of exposure in order to work with that sorrow crouched in the corner, silent and unseen. And to offer their experience to women like me desperate for companionship in this true descent. They allowed the Spirit of Grief to wail, to speak, to enter them, to as best they could, to not resist its deep intelligence.
It has helped me to write these letters and I’ve not edited them for this sharing. Those of you who might read them, I ask only that you respect them as part of the alchemical healing vessel for my grief and well as your own. Frances Weller tells us that grief is our commons, where we can meet, something none of us escape if we love. I am in the last season and the time of last year’s trauma, it is again very wrenching and mercurial this grief spirit as I approach the first full year without Allan.
May everyone in grief find solace, and community to hold them in their dark night of the soul.
January 3, 2017
I’m writing this to find out how I am. What might be revealed. I may never send it. This morning I am just here, looking out the window to the north where Allan is buried. I went to the grave yesterday which was good, better than I thought. There are three ugly metal bars there they put in for the winter and I’m going back today hang Tara Prayer flags on them. I know some of you have been through this in your own ways and know the swells of grief that nearly drown one. I find myself hanging onto each detail of the last many days, perhaps trying to understand, but more so trying to keep him close, keep the community close, keep the holiness close. And while that’s terrible in its heart ache, there is something in it that is comforting. Like fingering the edge of silk on a blanket over and over. The presence of his absence is enormous, sometimes a vortex, a black hole. I keep asking where are you? I’m told by others who love him yet are a bit more distant that he is here, and he is traveling. The last words he said, to me or them? eyes closed, it’s check out time. So simple after all the eloquence of the last few days, all the hard work of making contact with people who came to visit, getting out through the tumor to be real. It’s check out time. In a few hours he did check out.
Mostly I sit on the couch looking out the window, feed the fire, walk Roxie, worry about the furnace, the financials, let that go, sit, write, read, stare. Then again. Today I begin practice. The practice I have been doing is when the grief is terrible, after the initial seizure of my heart, I remember all those who are going through precisely this grief and join them and try to send out spaciousness and then my heart might relax some. Some. All these words feel flimsy, lacking muscle, lacking vitality. Edna St. Vincent Millay sais, life must go on, I just can’t think why.
January 4, 2018 writing on January 5th
Yesterday a huge storm, wind, snow, and deep cold, they called it the Trifecta. Why this winter so much weather Allan, after you die? Terrible day for my anxiety, stark fear, brought up because Allan is dead and the wolf is at the door, worries about losing power, heat, pipes freezing, being alone in it all. What am I afraid of really? What could have happened, could happen. The pipes freeze and I’d have to go to someone’s house to stay with Roxie and fix it all later? It isn’t rational, it is terrible scooped out devastating loss. My mother’s voice says I’m being dramatic, if so, then so be it. This is terrible. And I have love and support and women willing to come stay the night and sit with me. I feel they are all like the little Enki’s in Inanna’s story who sit with Erishkigal as she gives birth at the same time she is mourning her husband.
After a time she soothes. After a time. I miss him so much I could never have imagined the pain of it. I want to stay on medication all day, but I don’t. The ache in my heart makes me want to go there, to the grave, to where he is. To lay down with him in the cold, to die. It’s true. I listened to lama Tsultrim speak of her grief when David died and still a few years later. She felt she wasn’t doing as well as she should be as a spiritual practitioner, but the truth is, she said, that she still struggles. It will be two weeks since he died on Sunday, and today is a week since the burial. Right now we were entering the little graveyard in the cold and wind, the white, the pine coffin atop the grave held by the belts they lowered it with. I lifted the lid of the coffin and there he was just as we’d sent him off, so Allan and I was so glad to see him again. His lips a bit more dried and chapped, otherwise his sweet face in composure. I read the obituaries, always have, I bond with those who are in such loss, spouses of many years, everyone must pass through this gate, the gate out of the world leaving a partner or the one to midwife. It is the cost of love.
It’s embarrassing how dependent I am on him in some ways. Can’t run the snow blower, can’t do the taxes, all the complicated financials that I left to Allan as he was the best at it.
January 8, Monday.
Petra and the girls came Friday and Paul Saturday. A great comfort, even though I continue to fall apart, or disintegrate often, they let me. Susan stayed Sunday night and took me on two errands today, everyone will go through this in some way, we must know how to do it.
January 16, Patricia here, came on Monday, I have been in terrible straits since Friday night the 12th I think it was, didn’t take an ativan too scared to, took magnesium and melotonin I guess. Was jumping all night like electricity in my gut, pouring rain, freakish warmth, up all night, skylight leaked terrible, finally at 6:30 I took ½ pill, than at 7 the other half. Wrote Karen who put me on a program, she’s not worried about the ativan, I need sleep. I was really unravelling with the anxiety in my gut, very physical, like my engine can’t shut down. Still tremors and I try to shake it out.
Slowly over the last couple days with CBD oil and theanine and Patricia my gut has relaxed some. This is scouring, flaying. How do people do it?
January 19, 2018 Friday.
Saw Elizabeth yesterday, I wonder if you are surprised about that Allan. I went to her because of what I’ve been calling anxiety, like a flare in my solarplexus heart gut that has been somewhat calmed with CBD oil, Theanine, and Ativan at night with magnesium. Elizabeth taught me the method of first arousing the feeling in a gentle way then saying phrases like, I wonder what it would be like to feel deep peace even in the midst of deep grief? Or what would it be like to have spaciousness around the vulnerability and grief? I imagine the Grandmas sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes several putting their hands into my body around this little match head of fire and doing magic. This morning I imagined them absorbing the anxiety into their bodies and blowing it out their mouths into the cold air all the while I did the face soothing and upper arm motion and hand motion. We’ll see.
This has been an ordeal and it’s only a month. Every day is different confirms Patricia, I will be OK, I will come through this no doubt…day by day, moment by moment.
February 7, 2018 – I have been in hell is the only way to say it, coming through slowly. Adrenal storms that shake my body, terrible grief and adrenal shaking in the morning and in the evening. Deena has been here since January 27, I’ve seen a new doc. APRN Mary Leahy whose husband died a while ago and understands what I’m going through. We’re in another snowstorm, ice this afternoon and today my gut hurts or my left side, anxiety, cancer? Petra has come and gone, with Ann who did healing with me, the days are just getting through. And sometimes, sweet relief laying in the sun in the little room upstairs. Laura has organized people to come walk Roxie every day, David, Laura, Deb, Anne, friends take me places or help shop. I am in recovery from adrenal exhaustion and Mary Leahy affirms that every time we go into grief there is an adrenal release in the body. Tomorrow I see a bereavement counselor, Laurie Roberts who is recommended by McLean’s and who said she doesn’t see bereavement people in her clinical office because there is nothing clinical about grief. I liked that.
I had to fill out a form at Mary’s office. Emergency contact? Marital status? And I broke down into grief, crying. She was very empathic reassured me I’m in the storm it will get better, look for the signs that he is with me. She had no issue with the medical choices I make, so far, I don’t do colonoscopy etc. but I think she won’t push me now. I’m too vulnerable. My body feels odd so much of the time, today not good.
I miss Allan terribly, everything is painful, to see his picture, to not see it, to look at his writing, to not look at it. I am surrounded with community, have been, I feel blessed and afraid it will all go away and I’ll be alone.
In a saner moment yesterday I thought the only thing I can do with this is to become a more full human being, will you help me in that Allan? I read your last piece, What is this?, did you post it? It’s beautiful and troubling. This was in June before you knew the lie that you were OK.
How will I go on? Without you to be here, without you to love me and share with me the complexity you write about. How can I stay here in this house, how can I go? It’s everything to me. This is about love, I try to remember that, only about love and being a real human being, not about fixing, not about what next, or planning. There is no plan. Simple, slow is better as you said to us, simple. The fire, the snow, each moment.
One cannot know grief of this magnitude until one knows it. The rip tides that one can only surrender to if one hopes to make it through. I could die, I wouldn’t mind that actually but I wouldn’t do that to Petra, Paul, Emily, my community. How does one sustain healing from grief alone? One friend is impatient, wants me to look out instead of in. Fix it woman. Am I writing what’s important, don’t know, don’t know.
February 13, 2017
I’m sending this to all, even though many of you weren’t here are far flung, but were here in spirit. I don’t really know what I’m going to say yet, except that I wanted to thank you for sharing your personal grief in the council on Saturday, I’d have stayed if I could but my energy wouldn’t allow it. I now know what could I could never have really known what this would be like until I faced it. And I know from Saturday, more than theoretically, that we all share a common ground of grief and love. On Sunday, Allan will be dead for two months, yet my body and psyche still quake with the deepening understanding that he physically is gone from me, from us. Grief is so utterly personal and so utterly universal and when those two can join, I am comforted to join with all those who are in the throes of such deep loss. It has been like, as Patricia has said, not having a skin. Literally, as the myths tell us, in the Underworld. And when I am in the Underworld I don’t know if I’m going to come out, it’s like that. When I fall in there, I still don’t know it’s so painful. As many of you know, or all of you. I’m reading, at times, a beautiful book, The Threshold Between Loss and Revelation, by Rashani and Frances Weller who wrote the Wild Edge of Sorrow about grief, acute grief and the grief of the culture. I read stories of people who have come through this with something valuable for their people. I pray for that wisdom to come through. I recommend it to those of you in grief, or who will be, or who have been. Us all.
I have never been so humbled, so brought to earth as at this time, and it is unbearable, and yet you have helped me bear it with your acts of kindness, your words, your food, your e-mails and calls, your cards. Without your assurances that I will come through, I don’t know that I will, even though I know I can’t be rushed, or grief has its own time to have its way with us.
Deena leaves tomorrow, and I will have a few nights here without company, which I must do at some point. I’m going to try Wednesday to see how it is, the hardest times are morning, which I can get through, and this time that I am writing to you. I don’t know how I’ll be without someone here consistently, another unknown. I have always been a woman who loved morning and dusk and now they are the most painful parts of my day, I pray that once again they will speak to me of the mysteries.
I have thought often how will I repay my community, and was brought up short remembering Stephen Jenkinson’s teachings that a community without debt is not a village. It is the debt that coheres us, so know that I am cohered to you forever and when I come through I am here.
February 24, 2018
I have the need to check in again, and hope it’s OK, these letters about how it is here with me, with grief. And again I have no idea of what I will say. Except I pulled some sheets out of the bureau this morning, cotton sheets and they smelled so strongly of the sun and air, that I was thrown into fresh grief because Allan always hung the sheets out to dry and there he was. My mother wrote at the end of her life that she knew there was another world because she smelled it each time she took in the sheets off the line. Allan is in that other world now. I have been thinking that he is in the land of the dead, I am in the land of the living and he is a little bit in the land of the living and I in the land of the dead. The gate is a bit open, I’m trying to keep it such. The worlds mix at times as all the mystics say, and many of us know. As my mother knew.
Abbe was here overnight and this morning and we spoke about Vesseling, something Weller talks about in his book, that grief needs a vessel and a fire, that the fire heats the vessel in order to transmute the grief, to really cook it. And I’ve been wondering in my case, what the vessels are and came to that one of them is story. There is a deep story in Allan’s last year, all the work he’s done to heal not only from the cancer but to heal those deep places of wounding that gave rise to his work in the world, then the recurrence or perhaps all along presence of the brain tumors and the swiftness of his dying, not without it’s luminous moments, his surrender, and then finding he’d died on the same day as his dear beloved Grandmother. Abbe worked with him early in November and in his painting process he was making bridges between the living and the dead, something I’ve been thinking of and focused on for years.
That all goes into the vessel. And my focus for years on allowing grief to shape us, to honor its sometimes incomprehensible ways, to develop the skill of grief that everything we love will die. And then Allan died and we are thrown into the depths, the family and I. I am thrown raw into the very thing I’ve been thinking about, devoted to and it’s terrible. Sometimes I’m raw, nearly skinless with the pain of it, the implacability of it. He is gone. And this is my deep life’s story, honoring the grief, letting it speak to me.
I saw the grief counselor yesterday morning for a first session and she as much as said, that once she believed there was contact between the dead and the living, but she doesn’t believe it anymore, now she knows it. She has seen so much that convinced her. She also affirmed that if one goes deeply into the grieving, doesn’t turn away, we come through more whole. In her experience it’s a two to five year process for such a loss. And I thought yes, but I felt oomph in my gut, knowing that this spirit asks that I do this, not turn away, unless it’s utterly unbearable. And some things are, the reminders of the ICU, the emergency nature of the fall, my vigilance will have to be saved until a later time. Sometimes nails on a chalkboard anxiety makes it hard to concentrate at all, never mind think of Vessels. The grief counselor also shared with me that unless I let you know I need you, you will think I don’t. I do need you. Your phone calls, letters, notes are reminders of the web of our connections. I don’t need someone to stay every night anymore, and then perhaps I will for a while, I can’t predict or know how it’s going to go. And that is grieving, mercurial.
As I read what I’ve written it sounds more together than I feel, writing can do that. This remains an utterly humbling experience, needing help even to get out of the bathtub, which I can do now, the upsurge of anxiety that leaves me shaking leading to deep grief and the release of sobbing. Finding his handwriting, an innocuous list of ingredients can send me to the floor. Learning to live alone in this house, on this land that we loved. Finding him everywhere and nowhere. The love of 37 years. The counselor used the words spiritual amputation and that’s what it feels like, leading to the body symptoms that have accompanied this grief, creating more anxiety and worry. Every day is different. Mercurial. All this is in the vessel, over heat with sometimes the thinnest line to faith that something deep and Holy is at work if I tend. Many times that means nothing to me I just want him back, that’s all. Prayers, spirituality, Vesseling ask more than I have. Grief asks more than I have. I guess that’s why it takes a village of sorts.
So these days I am working with Karen around the cortisol levels which make for such anxiety, making sure I eat enough, wanting to get to a place where I can focus on this story that Allan and I and the community and all of us are in, this loving and grieving story. I don’t want to move on, get over it, look on the positive side in order to negate my pain, hide it, be ashamed of it. But at times I tell myself all those things, they are insidiously inside my learning and the pain of this is awful so why not move on. This is the story of our culture. We will all go through this, those of us who have loved and are left or leaving. So why don’t we know more of what we’re in, what is inevitable? Why don’t we have some understanding of, not the how to grieve, there is no how, but the landscape of grieving. If we weren’t in a death denying culture would be find this landscape so foreign when we enter it? I don’t believe so.
That should not be.
Love to you all,
May 9, 2018
This is a tender morning. Cool, new, I sit in bed feeling my fear, holding my hand over my heart asking the fear what she is saying. She is grieving Allan at her side, she is grieving the life, her own life she knew that was woven into and emerged out of the mesh of our relationship. She is afraid without the ground they made together and the ground of her own life and work. Each day, at 4AM, she wakes up, this fearful one, heart pounding and I try to hold her, I try to go to the Grandmothers, to soothe, to not be afraid of fear. And sometimes the fears melt into tears and a tenderness for such a deep loss and pain, and sometimes I can extend my heart to the great field of people of who are in such grief at this moment. And sometimes, most times, nothing helps.
I have always been an introvert, needing to withdraw in order to replenish, or to wander in my mind or the woods to let my mind expand into writing. I tried extroversion for many years and it wore me out. I’m having to trust that my healing is there in that contemplation, in that quiet while still seeing friends. But really? I know nothing.
The unknowing is frightening, the unknowing of how and where “I” will land. The before Nora and the after Nora, if indeed there is any real end to this process at all at my age. I wonder will I be working through this grief til the end of my life? All say, whom I trust to know, this deeply changes us, opens the heart to love, to eternal love and compassion, if the grief is followed through. Yet, my frightened heart is a closed heart, sometimes my heart feels like a tight fist difficult to expand, to let fall open into tenderness.
Relationships don’t die when someone dies, I think the grief counselor told me. And how does that look, will I be able to feel Allan eventually not very far away.
My grief is no more important than anyone else’s grief, grief seems to be one of the great commons we have, we love, we grieve. Yet when it is happening to a person, it is ultimately ones own to tend and without community witness, simply meaning, I think, a kind of tender awareness that someone is in the land of grief, because all you have been there know it is between the worlds. And that it takes time, lots of time.
Just “what is this” was Allan’s motivating question for his life’s work. Just “what is this” is mine around grief. There are answers, legitimate ones, having to do with brain functions, auric fields, cortisol levels. But what is this on a Soul level. Allan has died, I have not, and yet in a way I have temporarily died, gone to another world while in this world. I drive down the same roads yet they are not the same roads. There is a really good book about grief, called Tear Soup, in it Grandy a somewhat wise woman suffers a big loss, we never find out who but she begins to make tear soup, and we see everything that goes into the tear soup. Oh her refrigerator is a note: When one person is missing, the whole world seems empty. Yes. Into the soup go many, many years, memories, good and bad, and the soup isn’t done until it’s done, the grieving isn’t ever done but there comes a time when the tear soup gets put into the freezer for the next time.
Because I have had a kind of self death, I don’t know what I’d do without my friends and family saying, I’m here I care I love you and persisting even though there is a veil between us. They mirror that I am still here, even though I have died, or gone to the land of grieving, it is a reach across the divide that tells me I will emerge, be present once again, have not too really died.
I can hear someone, somewhere in my own mind perhaps this is overly dramatic, get on with it,
perhaps those of my lineage. I don’t know, but that voice is both inside and outside me. My response, when I feel strong, is this is getting on with life so I can have a heart when I emerge. So I can still love having faced this fear, this not knowing if I can make it. I am blessed, in an odd way, that I can do this, I literally don’t know how I would go to work if I had to right now, yet I am no less frightened at the sheer loss of the known that is part of this descent. At the sheer loss of every nuanced dance between us, between our energy fields, our hearts. Every fiber that was connected to Allan’s physical being is shredded, awaiting reweaving and that is frightening. Feelings of going crazy, loss of confidence, loss of competence are common in grief, I’ve learned, and I know why. The whole terrain has changed, not to the non-grieving which makes it hard to understand.
Right now I am a woman grieving, lamenting the death of my best friend, my soul mate, the one who loved me unconditionally and whom I was free to love wholly even through our difficult times together and individually. Someone who loves me a lot said she is anguished that my grief still seems so fresh. It is fresh, it is fresh with each new reminder, each task I have to do that Allan did, each shift in the season, the return of the thrush and the chickadee. His Earthly Self is gone and I am displaced, in place. I have to trust that grief, and even anxiety has it’s own deep intelligence and is carrying me across the “black river of loss” as Mary Oliver puts it, to somewhere that is fertile and that when I arrive some of my friends and community will be there.
It is hard to trust this, because it’s hard to trust life when a death is so quick, the truth of impermanence is implacable now. So trust has to be redefined to include the ever changing flow of life. In a way, there is no real ground but that. But I’m not there. Certain people I know are holding that wisdom for me, and I’m on my knees grateful for their wisdom.
While I was writing this a friend came to the house to take care of some things. He’s a friend and as done work for us for many years. He came to talk about painting the house and other things and I wept throughout our conversation. And he wept for his parents who have been dead for many years and it was a human connection through grief, unexpected really, yet so present.
April 20, 2018 Friday – Sunday morning April 22
The sun is out and it’s still cold, it’s having a hard time coming this spring. And it’s a hard grief morning, I keep trying to define refuge for myself. It is not escape from the grief, is it taking in enough compassion and love so that one can enter the territory of grief accompanied? I think that’s it. Right now it feels my heart will explode rather than implode. I keep finding myself wanting this to be over, which is natural, but not helpful as I think it’s a form of resistance and hardening.
I’d had some disturbing lab results on a routine test and was waiting for results from a more complicated test which I received as clear. And it was good to hear that and yet what came up after puzzling things for a bit as to my muted reaction, was the phone call Allan and I got exclaiming that the cancer was gone and how thrilled his doctor was and that’s why he did this work, etc. I didn’t worry that the test was inaccurate, it just brought up that painful memory.
I went to my writing group on Tuesday and stayed for an hour and half and wrote and read. They were all very kind. I knew I had to read or I’d feel like a ghost, a feeling that continues in the grocery store, driving down familiar streets. Now I start to cry as I write because the feeling in my heart is so enormous it blots out all possibilities and I have to cling onto the words of my wise friends to know I’ll come through this, me, not just endure and be a shell for the rest of my life, but will come through into some vitality. I talk to Allan all the time and I kiss his picture often. He’s come twice in dreams this week, meeting me in my distress in one, standing with me by the dishwasher in another. The dishwasher that he was an expert in filling and which I’m not. I’m trying to trust that he’s here and to call on his love.
So I am in the land of grief, and as many say the healing, the deepening is all happening below my awareness. All I can feel usually is the misery and ache of it.
My grief counselor told me she notices I don’t trust my process, that I know things and then negate them. That Allan is here, that mercy is available. I had asked for mercy the other day from the intensity of grief, especially after spending a long, icy, rainy day in bed, and I did receive a softening reprieve. The grief counselor has been with so much sorrow she knows a lot about the capacity to heal.
A friend who has made her own descent in grief, reminded me that all I need to do is rest, walk, eat, write when I can, look at the sky, not to have goals, not to push the river. When I write those words my heart eases.
I keep being gifted these angels, the doc. I go to whose husband died a few years ago and knows what I’m going through, the meditation program teacher through Wonderwell in New Hampshire who I’d not met before, because I’d not attended but one on-line sangha meeting. When I eventually ventured in to say I’d entered the program in acute grief, she said “first I love you. And I suggest we speak a bit after because my husband died a few years ago and I’d like to be of support to you.” She is going to see if she can be my adviser for the year. I am surrounded with love, and clear interventions, and I hope to pour it out as generously when my heart is more healed. My heart is so busy right now doing the work of transmuting that there is little room it seems for the horrors of the world, I don’t have the capacity right now except for friends and family the land here. I’ve heard the owls but not yet seen bears or fox.
Paul and Karla come this weekend, and Debby Black arrives on Wed. to stay for five days. A friend and I spoke the other day about her coming now and then for companionship and she offered to suggest it herself as well so I wouldn’t always having to be reaching out. I don’t even need to talk all the time, so much as have companionship in the house. And there are times more often when our house feels like a refuge to me rather than emptiness. I’m trying to reframe the reminders of his absence into reminders of our years together and his spiritual presence.
I know this is newsy and somewhat flat, or it seems to me, but what is deepest won’t form into words yet and when they do it is all lamentation.
I found our wedding invitation today, a little handmade one, asking people to witness our commitment to each other, to struggle, to joy, to life. And I thought how fitting, because that is exactly what we did, Allan and I, made that commitment and right now I’m in the struggle of grief, following the arc of our relationship into the next phase. And it is extraordinarily painful, ordinarily so, from what others tell me. The few women and men I know who have been through this. It is a pain that recurs and recurs, wave upon wave rising up into my heart which feels like it will implode or explode, the bitterest of missing, and even the tender memories can be like a knife. People tell me that even years after the death the grief is there. They tell me they have a life but it is different, as, of course, it must be. My persistent question is, but is it a vital life?
The other day in the midst of a wave of grief, I was weeping and moving books that had collected in a little bookcase behind the couch where Allan spent so much of his, what we thought, recuperating time. One of them I’d added, C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. It is where I read who would have thought that grief feels so much like fear. It does. Or perhaps it is. When Allan died, I lost the person for whom I was primary, who held me in compassion, love and respect, and to whom I could turn for council. The one whose name I would automatically write down in the “in case of emergency slot” on all those forms, the one who I’d think to call in an emergency, or to share good news. The one. Not that there weren’t others, but he, Allan, for thirty seven years has been that one. And for him, I held him as primary, his needs for counsel, his struggles, his turning to me, that being needed is gone too.
Crying I ate lunch, and opened the little Lewis book randomly to a page where he spoke about not wanting to cling to grief, but wanting to honor this phase of the marriage. This phase and I thought, yes, this too is a phase of the marriage, this carrying of what it means to be parted forever, physically, though not spiritually. He went on to suggest that it becomes a spiritual marriage. He speaks for no one but himself, which is what Im doing here too. I don’t know for everyone. But that this phase must be honored with grief. He said it is a phase like the honeymoon.
And he was wary about prolonging it because he might mistake it for his beloved. He was writing about having a day when he felt better. I’ve had such moments, perhaps an hour or two when things felt normal, so rare, when Allan’s absence began to feel normal and it brings a twinge of regret or more so, what happened here? Is he further away from me, am I moving away from him? In retrospect I see it is a merciful reprieve in the intensity of grief. That little book showing up and opening to that page felt like an intervention. Lewis went on to say that actually it is when his grief lessens that his beloved is more near, and I’ve heard this from many people. Perhaps the heart in grief can only hold the pain and is not as accessible, which feels true to me.
But for me, this loss is raw, implacable, demanding and there is no running from it or hurrying it along. It is not a matter of exerting my will. I am the one left here to honor this phase of our commitment and follow it through. Hours of tears, mornings of anxiety, all the while doing the laundry, making sure I eat, taking care of myself. And I don’t want to really but I know Allan and those who love me to. Because when I fall down the rabbit hole, I do not know I will survive, or emerge from this with any life or vitality. Or people to love, who love me, who relate to me, who tether me. Its like that for me. A form of insanity. I mean if Allan can die, my life be shredded, can’t anything happen? Yes it can. Isn’t that what the Buddhists are always saying.
Mirabai Starr, a contemporary mystic, wrote that when her daughter died, she wanted to want god, but all she wanted was her daughter. That so spoke to me, I want to want Spirit, but really all I want is Allan and then I could also want Spirit. Because our relationship was the ground we traveled out from in our thinking, in our work, in our inspirations. Not that it wasn’t hard at times, very, and sometimes I despaired.
And now? And now?
I talk to Allan a lot, I kiss his picture, I ask his advice, he comes to me as a benefactor in my meditations for where else have I felt such intense, unconditional, reliable, pure love. Allan was one of the kindest people I know. Not necessarily little acts of kindness, but always held people in his mind and heart with the benefit of doubt and inquiry. Who is this person really and why would they act this way? I never heard him speak meanly of anyone.
I miss him, I miss him, I miss him…and now, and now what more is there to say? That there are days when I feel fragile like glass, to use a friends description, and like I could shatter at the slightest disruption, days when I doubt utterly that I am loved or held, and I know Ill never be again in the way Allan loved and held me. Days when reaching out is something I make myself do, worrying that I intrude too much, ask too much of my community.
I am not OK, I am not moving on, I need, I need, I need. The need is for Allan, yes. But also for companionship of the quiet sort, or someone to sob with so I don’t feel like a ghost and in desolation. Days when I can’t pass by his things or his picture without a shock moving through me, days when they comfort me, days when I wake having slept fairly well and am not rising with anxiety, days when the anxiety is a 4AM alarm. And even when I have companionship, or am in conversation, unless it is a soulful one, or about death, and loss, I feel again like a ghost. I don’t care about much of anything except the well being of my friends and family. Beyond that it is all happening in another world from the one where I’m living.
Sunday, April 22
Yesterday, Saturday, Paul, Karla and I went to the car dealership and Paul skillfully traded in both cars for a new car for me. It was much more painful than Id thought it would be, selling the Prius, the car Allan loved and the car we used as a couple when we traveled. I’m not sure it was any more painful than daily driving into the garage and seeing it knowing that he was not in the house, that he would never be driving it again. And now this strange car sits in the garage, having nothing to do with our time together, a marker of sorts of now. Objects carry energy, carry a field, and untethering a life from objects is a delicate thing it seems to me.
I am not moving on, but I am emerging first from the depths of the physical descent I was in, and now into the full awareness of Allan’s death and into the world of the bereaved. The image I have is that I’m surrounded by a little bubble or slightly transparent field and now and then an arm, a leg, my vision straddles both worlds, this one and the world of the grieving. And perhaps that is the surreal feeling that comes over me.
And I know there are so many living in that world too. That’s what continually astonishes me, this open secret of the devastation of grief while life goes on around us. I understand that we go through grief differently, for me, in my life, experiences seem to be mediated through my body and heart, it is different for others. But I believe there are more commonalities than differences.
How many of us are swimming or floating in that other world in the grocery store, the person putting frozen peas in his cart, is he in grief. The woman standing in front of the celery, staring, is she in grief? A spouse, a child, a parent? Why don’t we recognize each other, or are we all in our own separate compartments of isolated grieving.
I imagine someday getting on the loudspeaker. Will everyone who is in abject grief please gather at the courtesy counter for a little circle. Because we know that we do not move on. Because we know that we need to know each other. Because we know that everyone who loves will experience the leaving or the being left. We could be helping each other by speaking about it when were able. But its an out in the open secret.
Love to you,
May 18, 2018
Dear Friends and Family,
I’m feeling the need to reach out to you again. For those of you who aren’t on caring bridge and are local, we’ve decided on a date for Allan’s memorial. It’s September 9th, from 1-3 at the Hillstead Museum in Farmington, CT.
This letter is harder to write, I think because now as my strength returns, as the anxiety moves a little bit, as I have more energy, I emerge from the depths of grief, surface, then descend again. Again I have no idea what I’m going to write. Each time I do this it is a risk of exposure, but it seems necessary somehow to be open. I’m not sure why, but am compelled.
Each experience is double bladed, each act of kindness of which there have been many and continue to be breaks my heart open again both with love and with a keen, excruciating knowing that Allan is not here. A friend came this morning and blew the paths free of leaves and as I followed him, I wept for the memory of Allan raking the paths over several days, tending the woods, as well as for my friend’s kindness in doing this labor of love. If Allan were here, I wouldn’t need such kindness and perhaps that is one of the terrible yields of such a loss, a deeper knowing of the love we are capable of, the humility of needing, and the way that coheres us to each other. I will never ever forget what this has been like, what this is like and am indebted to offer what I can to others. And still when the anxiety/fear has me in its grip, I’m sure people will disappear, help will withdraw magically, instantly like in a fairy tale. Anxiety and faith do not live side by side, nor does anxiety and intuition which Meltz speaks about. Hard to feel faith, heart and inner knowing at such times leading to a sense of incompetence, I can’t do this, and more fear.
I am humbled to become aware that perhaps I have unintentionally romanticized the dark, the power of the Dark Mother, who I have revered my whole adult life, the keeper of the mysteries, the unknown, the soul making descents in life. As I’ve said before one can’t know this descent until one experiences it. It’s just not possible. Yet I have friends who haven’t but have the capacity to walk along beside, to take my pain into themselves and use their wisdom and life experience to understand as much as they can the fear, anxiety and longing. The surreal nature of life now compared to before.
What world is this? The leaves are green, new and beautiful, but I can’t feel them, their life, their beauty. It’s like looking down the end of a telescope, the glass a bit wavy, the picture familiar but just enough distorted. I remember sitting on my father’s lap when I was five, watching Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and feeling surreal in my body. It’s like that. I am beginning to emerge slowly from that place, I can see the beauty now, but I cannot yet feel the life it gives, the exuberance of spring, the marvel of renewal. I more often think, how will I live here, how will I maintain, will I have a life. I can take in the love of friends, the kindnesses, the walking along beside. I’m embarrassed to say I’m astonished by it, astonished to find that if I reach out a hand, a hand reaches back. Why didn’t I assume this? Why didn’t I know this? I’ve spoken of community, know it’s absolute necessity, know it’s often created by hardship, know Allan loved me deeply. Perhaps more than I love myself. And if he could love me, why wouldn’t others want to extend themselves. We all need to be needed. I know this now. And what I’m also learning is that what someone extends is what their gift is. It is not easy to be with someone who drops into grief and despair with no warning, enters that rip tide, is carried away. I know it’s not when I’ve been on the other side, because I didn’t trust the grief’s deep intelligence to carry them. I’m having to learn that daily and I think I am, until the next time when I forget it all. It’s like that. But I trust there is a core building somewhere.
My mother wrote at the end of her life, the mystical is the most important thing in life. I think of those words often these days, as Allan comes to me in dreams, as I sense him moving me in a direction to reassure me and I still want to stay close to the gate between the worlds, the mystical, the mystery. I don’t want to override this descent, yet I too long for my life, whatever life that will be. I can’t know that now. And lots of times I despair I will have one. I do know I pray and my prayers are often answered. I do know there is a kind of community and love around me/us. I do know that I am very blessed to have been so loved, and blessed by this land, the Temple, family. I do know daily people experience terrible loss of loved ones, or whole communities devastated by violence. I think about all that grief not really grieved because people are in exile, on the run, terrified for their lives. How do we work with that energy released into the world, that field of unacknowledged grief, heart ache, despair? I can only think that while we’re working to end the violence, we have to work with the field in a mystical way. But how?
A friend and I are in the Margha program at Wonderwell and this year is the Bodhisattva training. I joined when I thought Allan would live, that we would not have to say goodbye for many years. I’ve barely been able to participate, or do any of the reading at all, but one thing I heard spoken was that we’re always being prayed for, those who walk that path, thousands, millions? pray daily that we be free from suffering, that we know love, they pray for our well being. They aspire to becoming Benefactors. That is their truest aspiration. It is being sent to all of us, many times a day. If we could only take it in. May it include the animals, the trees, the water, the earth.
I’m reading a book I’ve found very helpful and companioning. The Elder Widow’s Walk, by Lucille Ann Meltz, written for women who are widowed when they are 65 and older. Half of the women in the states over 65 are widowed. At a time of life when we are aging, discounted because we are old women, many have ill health, and are in near poverty because of the loss of a partner, it is a particular challenge to come through grief. While her circumstances are different than mine her experience speaks to me. It has become a companion. I have experienced, and do, many of the same fears, anxieties, despair and wrenching grief. She decided in the beginning that she would enter the grief, really enter it. She lives far up in Maine, the nearest movie theater is a 100 miles, no internet. She’s had years of psycho-spiritual practice, taught about grief and thought that would protect her some. It didn’t. She fell to her knees, was consumed. I recognize this. She is three years widowed now and her story is hopeful in that she can came through those three years with wisdom and has re-entered a different life that has vitality.
She is not done grieving, will never be, nor will I… I can only pray that my broken heart is a tender one, that can include others in it’s tenderness as I come through. I remind myself many times a day to soften, to myself, to others, to the world. When one is in such grief it is hard to hear of the world’s suffering, I pray that I come through to offer tenderness, solace, companionship in some form, in some way I can’t know. And while I wince a bit when I say this, I pray to stay close to the mystical gate, the gate between the living and the dead, knowing now that one can’t take such a prayer lightly. I pray for the openness and tenderness to meet life whatever life brings.
Thank you for your love, your prayers, your phone calls, your groceries, soups, Roxie walking, path clearing, muffins, and ability to bear my pain alongside me and life saving wisdoms. I’m going to push “send” soon, while I write to you I feel more like myself, and I know as soon as this goes out, I will re-enter the day and Allan’s absence, Petra’s presence, the stream of grieving and finding my way. Grief is like that, I turn a corner, see something, an e-mail comes in, some kind of reminder of the hospital stays, something opens up fresh tears. Right now a bit like an ambush, the hope is it becomes a memory, perhaps a comfort. And lastly I pray this enters a place that isn’t just about me, it’s about all of us who love. As Paul said to me this morning, it seems to him, you have to enter the grief as deeply as you loved. Yes.
With astonished gratitude and love,
June 22, 2018
Dear Friends and Family,
I’m feeling the need to check in with you all from the realm of grief. Again I don’t know what I’ll say. I know writing helps the loneliness that can overtake me and keeps me in touch with you. Yesterday was Summer Solstice, I think of all the fires we used to have up the hill years ago, and the Summer Solstice Holy Days that have been held here for many years. Not this year. This year, this Holy day tells me I’ve lived two seasons without Allan by my side. Two seasons. I have a birthday soon, I’ll be 69, my first in 37 years without Allan. It seems unbearable to me to think of celebrating, yet family is coming and I’m glad for their company.
I think I’ve been quiet of late, not writing as much and not speaking to the many visitors that used to come to the house for me or Roxie. Now I am a woman living alone for the most part, living in the presence of intense absence still, even as I write those words, my heart contracts with grief and fear and all the questions might come flooding in about the future. I try not to open the door to them, I’m really working to put myself in the hands of Spirit, my Benefactors and deep knowing, as well as deep not knowing, but as many of you know, fear can be a run away train. And my fear takes me away often. I am still working with the anxiety, in many ways. When it quiets I can focus and life looks less daunting.
I’ve been thinking a lot about transition in labor. I’ve never birthed a child, but I understand transition to be a stage where there is a great hunkering down and in while at the same time needing the support of one’s people in order to concentrate, to bear it, to deliver this new life. I feel as though I’ve entered that “stage” if indeed there are stages. Well there just aren’t, not predictable and neat anyway. I wish there were going to be a new baby after all this labor, that I might KNOW that, but this transition doesn’t hold such a promise as far as I can tell. I’m having to rely on those around me, those wise ones who know there will be a Soul child perhaps, or wisdom born from this ordeal. This is as bloody as labor, as grueling. I feel I’m holding back here and am going to try not to.
I miss Allan terribly, every day. I speak to him each evening, sit down at the table talk to his picture, tell him I love him around the world and back, through the veil, over the bridge between us forever and ever. He has come in dreams. Come when I’ve been in need.
I’ve understood as well that it is a real initiation. A teacher I respected once said that life happenings aren’t really proper initiations and now I know different. This is an ordeal no one would ask for yet many will enter, most of us, in fact who love. The beauty that shows itself along the way is the love, the kindnesses, the community that gathers. And yet, like Rilke says in a poem I’ve looked at again and again since Allan died, “it is possible I am pushing through solid rock, in flint like layers, as the ore lies, alone; I am such a long way in, I can see no way through, and no space, everything is close to my face, and everything is stone.” He asks god to break through to him. I ask the Holy to break through to me. My friend reminds me on the worst days that this is Holy work.
And that calms my heart. It is a work of love, it is a work of breaking the heart open to the commons of grief, the commons of love, things we all share no matter who we are or how different otherwise. Oh but it hurts. My heart often feels like it a bloody sheet being wrung out by two large hands, the implacability of death an insult to my wanting, to the sheer physical ache for his touch, his smell. His eyes looking at me. Gone. Gone. At times I cannot stand it.
Yet I am alive, I have a life, and it is grief right now. And mowing the lawn, wondering why I bother, and weeding the path, and writing in my journal, walking Roxie, walking with friends returning home to a still empty house, the air still thick with absence. Most days. Some days I think I might have a future, might have meaningful work again, might be able to stay here and make a life, might be needed. Yet it is all as unpredictable as Allan’s unexpected death. Or is it?
And yet I have sat with women in a few meaningful hours in the last month. I have a longing to engage in that way, yet never know if I’ll be able to given the day, the hour. But sometimes I can.
Then there are the sweet and fierce encounters with friends, who hold me tightly, who have faith that I am being remade and that is grief’s work to remake us, alter us indelibly. There are days of relief if not happiness. Mercy. And this is grief, it still astonishes me how common this is, how in the story of each life, to varying degrees, this grief will be visited upon each of us. Taking us down to depths we have never been. This profound, life altering, heart breaking thing will enter us and try to shape us into more real human beings. Elder us. I would give it all back. I would. But the Holy isn’t making deals and as my friend says we are all in the great river. As I write this, the man in the house I can see from my front window is dying. I found this out two days ago. I feel for him, and for his wife who waits. I know now. The young woman next door has breast cancer. Another dear friend has been diagnosed with cancer and is in treatment. Another friend’s sister died, and yet another. The great river, living, birthing, dying, rebirthing always moving. How can the human heart align with such deep truths as these, if Grief is a Spirit, and I think she is, maybe this is grief’s task. Will I learn this? Can my heart give way to this indelible truth? Can my human ego or survival instinct?
Yesterday I bought fabric to recover the chair that I had wanted to recover since before Allan was ill. I actually watched myself stop and buy fabric. Yes I did. Allan sat in that chair all last year and eventually said to us one evening, “I’d like to die in this chair.” I can’t part with the chair, but I ventured as far as to choose a new lighter fabric, this after returning from an EMDR session working with fear, this before going to the grief counselor, this act of faith in a future before waking this morning to sun and tears and deep missing and despair, this before Petra comes for an overnight. Day by day. Day by day.
Please know that I think of you, know that Temple is always open to sit, to pray, particularly in the summer months when it’s warm.
Much Love, Nora
August 8, 2017
I still feel the need to write to you to let emerge what is deep in me, that I can’t yet name, and somehow writing to you makes allows things to come more so than journaling. This will be full of typos probably and a bit rambling.
It is a bit over seven months now, the last two being pretty painful, and I’ve made two trips, one with a friend to co-pilot as I hadn’t driven on a highway since before Allan died. I visited my sister in law Annalee’s house which, of course, was very triggering of memories. It is one of the places where our early relationship began to develop. We went to the ocean, Plum Island, and it’s the oddest experience to look out and see the beauty but not yet be able to feel the wonder of it. I want my wonder back but it seems there isn’t room in my heart yet. Re-entry was excruciating which I didn’t expect, and Susan lovingly got me settled in. No Allan to say how’d it go, have a good time? or I’m so glad you’re home. Then Petra and the girls came a few days later and that helped me immensely, even though the tears still flow every day, Petra’s soulful presence gives me deep engagement which I crave right now. And then this past weekend I drove by myself with Roxie up to Arlington where Paul lives. It was both a deeply loving and terribly triggering weekend. As it was last Thanksgiving there that Allan really began to act so oddly, so non-Allan which had been going on for a couple of weeks or so but this was more severe. In two days he was in ICU and well, then…within the month he was dead. It was then I started crying and haven’t stopped since.
Many of you will have gotten my letter about stepping into the waters of my work a bit, extending that invitation, that Nora is still here but as Frances Weller says she is spiritually unemployed on the behalf of others. I was listening to him the other day on the Voice of America, Maria Caccitore’s Bread for the People’s show (Maria wrote a good book on how to be with the bereaved which I recommend). Frances said this beautiful thing, that grief is private in our culture, repressed and oppressed both by our institutions and our shame. That when grief is held private the community around the bereaved gifts are not used, they do not have the opportunity to be spiritually employed which is what we’re all here for. My work now is grieving openly, allowing it to flow as best as I can and there are so many around me whose gifts have come forth, employed, which is a gift to them they tell me and allows me to heal.
Yet grief is wearying as many of us, if not all, know, and I’ve been counseled many times that this is the time when people will expect the bereaved to move on to begin getting it together. This is like something in our water, we all carry it I think, this inner judgment, this limit around grief. Interestingly, in private relationships anyway, we don’t seem to ask people to put limits on their love. We don’t say, it’s seven months, time to cool it down. Love and grief go hand in hand. So why do we expect people to “move on” when this phase of the love comes to us.
I came home from Paul’s to a mailing from McLeans, (I cried so much that weekend that I had privately been subjecting myself to the same standard, a little subtle voice, come on Nora, people are getting tired of this, you’re tired of this), and yet in this mailing they said that most people don’t know this but at 7-9 months the bereaved really begin to feel they are falling apart. Because the finality of the death is sinking in it is one of the most painful times. So it can be a terrible time of isolation when this truth of this meets up with the cultural expectation to begin to shut it down and community starts to withdraw.
I am deeply grateful that I have wise people around me who know, and who haven’t pressured me or withdrawn from me, who somehow manage to walk alongside me in my grieving, it’s unpredictability, it’s multitude of other losses of self, friends, future. The not knowing, the discomfort of being with nearly inconsolable pain. They have walked me through to where I am. I aspire to have their courage. Maria Caccitore works with an acronym SALT. See them,
Allow them, Listen to them, and Trust them to know the way through. This is what these friends have done, not without a little sit down now and then to say, you’re thinking crazy. She also says we have everything we need inside us to live thorough grief, but the missing element is community. We cannot follow the inner instructions without community holding us.
As I said in my letter I attached, that some of you received, two streams are some days touching, sharing waters, the stream of deep grief, and the eternal stream of ongoing life. Life that is unknown to me, the future is unknown, how work will come to me is unknown, the shape my life will take is unknown. What I do know is that Soul, listening to Soul and developing our Soul, our deepest, most human and spiritual selves is what is important to me. The Mystery of how the visible and invisible worlds speak to us. And I feel I am doing that with working to allow myself to make this descent, not that I really feel I have much choice most days. I know deep inside that conviction sits.
It’s like the day before Allan died when he said he’d been thinking about Blessings. I asked him what he’d been thinking and he put his hand on my forehead and said ” a blessing is when one person acknowledges both the humanity and divinity in another. And this he emphasized, “The Blessing is in the acknowledgment” as he looked into my eyes. And I in turn Blessed him. And I know he meant when we all recognize it in all of us. Deeply acknowledging our humanity and our divinity. Many days I forget why grief work is Holy work, and why it matters to remember our dead, and how grief is deeply human and divine, borne out of deep love. That’s what my community reminds me of when I forget. Which is often.
Love to you all,
September 15, 2018
First, to those of you who were able to come to the Memorial, thank you for helping to make it a beautiful and real remembrance of Allan. And for those who could not be there I am sending in another e-mail, the film Emily put together for her father.
Checking in again, trying to put into words what I am experiencing, what life has been like this week after installing Allan’s prayer hoop at the Ancestor House up the hill, one I made for him with prayers written on strips of a shirt I loved seeing him in. The Spirit of Grief scours the heart and soul. Since the memorial, and maybe before, I feel I am on a threshold, my hands holding tight to the doorjambs because all I see is space in front of me, a free fall, that is the image in my mind. This week has been particularly grief soaked, my heart has felt like a bag of cement, so heavy I don’t know how I will endure it. I do laundry, cook foods I don’t feel like eating, cut flowers for the house, light candles, meditate, when I have courage I go to the grocery store. I walk the paths Allan and I cleared, and these days Roxie and I are the only ones who walk them. No Temple gatherings to walk them, sometimes a friend will walk Roxie with me or Petra and little Millie take to the woods with Roxie. It is very lonely, often isolated, longing for Allan, for my former life. Fall has come, friends have spread out into their lives. A friend and I walked one day with Roxie.
I have begun to see two or three women which is good, because the only thing that really interests me now, or rather, that I still know I care about is soul and women’s soul stories. The Mysteries.
I had hoped for peace after the Memorial, but as of yet, it has not come. Instead a litany of lasts runs through my heart. I’ll never, he’ll never, I’ll never, he’ll never, we’ll never … I pray for my heart to lighten and yesterday after gut wrenching crying for hours I thought, is this is the answer to my prayer, this is how it happens? In the afternoon after speaking with a wise friend she suggested I work my faith muscle by saying, this is the answer to my prayers, this is how the heart eventually lightens. Then I took a nap and woke up to an e-mail that Allan’s headstone had arrived at the cemetery. And I thought, did I know this was coming, this final acknowledgment of his physical absence? Is that what my intuition has known all this day. There were times during the day when I wanted to put away every picture of him, didn’t want to be reminded, others when I couldn’t bear the thought.
I can see why many women pull in to grieve, that it is not only their way, but because grief is a very humbling and at times humiliating experience if it isn’t supported, if friends send signals that you need to be moving on now. Or if that internalized cultural voice says, don’t both them, they’re busy, etc. After all the Memorial has happened and so time to get back to life. But it’s not that way. The Memorial has happened and now what life is there?
I went to the cemetery with a friend after I got the notice. Even though I had spent the day ripping apart, I had to see the stone. I gathered rose petals, sage, tobacco and we headed over, only to find that it had not been uncrated, still steel strapped. Impenetrable. Like my heavy heart feels at times. Maybe it wasn’t the right time, or maybe it’s because I forgot the Bushmills.
There had been a miscommunication and she felt so badly, that they put it in place last night, today we will visit. Every step of this journey takes courage, even the courage to not suck it up, to weep when weeping comes, to tend to the details that feel overwhelming. To say to friends I still need you, don’t go away just yet. The courage to be weakened. Frances Weller says we find our soul in those places of inferiority, weakness. And yet it is hard to reach out so much, to try to have some human contact each day.
And yet most days I think, for what, I lose the Holy nature of this side of love, the fear that comes with the descent into initiation into Elderhood — a hard earned wisdom that is not guaranteed. I am exercising my faith muscle, trying to change my language from one of doubt to faith.
Allan came to me the other night, in a dream, I heard a noise downstairs and went down to see him standing on the front porch, he looked angry. I opened the door and he came in and told me that he broke the glass. I woke up abruptly, went to pee, was so disappointed that he seemed angry about breaking the glass, I went back to sleep and there he stood in the same place at the front door and we embraced and I realized he’d broken the glass that separates the worlds, the human glass that is so smudged we can’t see what’s true. Acute grief and fear shrinks the world when what is needed is for the heart and awareness to fall open to the whole world, the Mysteries. I’m not there yet except at times of dream visitations. Of communications from Allan. Or times of deep engagement with friends who know of such worlds, who speak of them as truths not wonderings, or in meditation.
I did notice that the sky over the cemetery was beautiful last evening, the light behind the moving clouds against the red barn full of luminous Mystery. And I noticed that I noticed. There are these rare instances of beauty touching my heart then its meaning glancing off. But that’s better than a few months ago when I didn’t care at all. The only beauty that has always gotten in is kindness. But it is a sign.
In seven days begins the last season that I will live without Allan for the first time in 37 years. Death is a Mystery, grief is a Mystery, both wildly difficult to stay open to, the natural instinct is to turn away, pull in on oneself. I say no to that, even when I sometimes wonder if I’m off the rails, or I pathologize my grieving, I say no to hiding. Even though I’ve come close to that decisions this week. Opening to death and grief is, eventually, opening to life. If only we’d had cultural forms in place that really understand the depth, and breadth and transformation of grief. I believe the Dine people believe grief is Wakan, Holy, and that grieving people are in a Holy state, they are the ones to carry your prayers to because they are closer to Spirit. Maybe that comes a bit later, or maybe I am and don’t know it in a cognitive way, but for now I’ll weep when the tears are there as they are now as I finish this letter.
Two days before the Memorial a dear friend died, rather suddenly after a three month struggle with cancer. I’ve known him for forty years and he was so kind after Allan died, loved Roxie and walking her. David Weil. I’ll miss him too. I spoke with his partner who I do not know and it reminds me that I write these letters not only to share my experience, but in the hope that it might be of help in someone’s grieving. And Monika’s mother died, Terri’s brother and sister, so many entering the great river that is always moving.
When I as a girl I used to look at the National Enquirer with a girlfriend. We’d take turns looking at the page, full of gory images, before saying to the other, OK you can look now. That’s what reading about grief is like, it scares us, we don’t want to know. Unless you’re in it. Then we’re desperate to find others, a kind of grief kinship, who have been through it and out the other side. And you can’t know it until you know it, but when I found books that spoke my experience it was a great relief to know that others are going through this scouring and have come through. Changed, somewhat stripped of their old selves, but vital. May it be so. May we keep speaking our stories and the ways through.