Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Work of Grief

Because poetry and music somehow allow more room for feelings to move, listening to a song or reading a poem gives me the desired space to abide with the sorrow that happens to be with me now.  In an effort to bridge the vast expanse between what was and what now is, a thoughtful friend sent me this poem by the Irish poet John O'Donohue.  It rang true for me and perhaps may resonate for you too:

When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you becomes fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone.
There are days when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.
Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.
It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.
Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.

My work of grief is not yet done.  As Donohue's words say so astutely:  "All you [I] can depend on now is that sorrow will remain faithful to itself." 

Meanwhile, because short of poetry, music or ritual, words can be so inadequate, many have difficulty coming close to comfort the one who grieves.  Awkwardness may yield to avoidance,  discomfort to defensiveness, insecurity to invisibility.  The goal for some - perhaps unconscious - is to distance from the pain, as if waiting for the bleeding heart to be bandaged by emergency personnel or to be scabbed over before taking the risk of stepping forward.

I've come to think of these responses as Avoiding the Void.  As I stand on the brink of the canyon that has opened before me, I notice that some can tread the ground with a sure foot while others hold back in silence, perhaps even in a kind of paralyzed panic.  Unresolved grief from the past or unimagined grief from the future can stand in the way of being fully present.  Mourning the recently departed is one step away from the void that all of us inevitably have to face...that of our own mortality and sooner or later, that of those we love.
John Donne speaks precisely to the matter of our interconnectedness and our mortality in his 1624 Meditation XVII (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions) "Nunc lento sonito dicunt, morieris Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die." 
Or, as the  frequently quoted poem based on that meditation ends:

Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.