NORA L. JAMIESON
“To love is to accept the rites of grief.” Francis Weller
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,