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. 


  1. I feel a little naked answering publicly Laya, but I thank you for the John Donohue poem which I had never seen before and which reduced me to tears, easy these days it seems. Yes, it must be agony, weaning your eyes
    from that gap in the air, reducing the coiled hill of tears to the last drop, he says it so well...He seemed to know from personal experience that one day you will
    "be able to enter the hearth
    In your soul" where Tom
    awaits your return.
    I pray that day comes soon.
    Thank you for writing to all of us to let us know the territory you are trudging through. You are our scout.
    with love
    Tirzah (I can't seem to get the formal title turned off.)

  2. I agree with you, Laya, that music and poetry have a real and lasting emotional impact on people; That is the reason that Music Therapy has been gaining acceptance as a legitimate form of treatment for various ailments even in the most conservative institutions, such as NYU hospital and Mayo clinic. It is right next, and equal to Physical and Occupational Therapy, Speech Pathology and Auditory Training in the arsenal of treatment options that are available in rehabilitation.

    It is hard to imagine the civil rights and the anti war movements without the protest songs that energizes “the kids”. The tribe elders dismissed them, their songs, and their singers song-writers, even as Dylan advised them to not “criticize what don’t understand”.

    Things are different now, “the kids” are now in control, and they know better…
    CPT codes, the ultimate “seal of approval” from the mainstream, are now available for music therapy.

    With that in mind, is it sacrilege to question the Jewish tradition of not allowing music in the first 30 days of mourning? I am just saying…

  3. The gentle invitation to join you at the canyon's lookout point is an offering, a gift of great value and importance. Your compassionate wake-up call is a reminder that healing comes when we make space for the exquisite knowledge pain can give us and the mysterious transformation that can occur when we embrace what we might reflexively turn away from.

    That said, I wish I had music or poetry to offer you, to soothe or comfort. I am standing with you and the others at the lookout point, approaching, affirming, the Void.
    much love

  4. Ahhh...thank you kind readers for standing with me at the lookout point! Your comments are so gratefully received.

    And here's another poem I found utterly touching and beautiful sent to me by the very one who thought she had no music or poetry to offer!):

    I got out of bed
    on two strong legs.
    It might have been
    otherwise. I ate
    cereal, sweet
    milk, ripe, flawless
    peach. It might
    have been otherwise.
    I took the dog uphill
    to the birch wood.
    All morning I did
    the work I love.

    At noon I lay down
    with my mate. It might
    have been otherwise.
    We ate dinner together
    at a table with silver
    candlesticks. It might
    have been otherwise.
    I slept in a bed
    in a room with paintings
    on the walls, and
    planned another day
    just like this day.
    But one day, I know,
    it will be otherwise.

    .....Jane Kenyon

  5. Hi, Laya,
    I tried to respond to this post several days ago, and then I somehow lost all that I had typed. So, I will try again . . . .

    John O'Donahue's poem is incredible in that it says the unsayable, like your post "Leaving an Impression" did. It actually reveals, somehow, in words, what such a loss feels like. I pray with your other friends here that you will be able to enter that hearth soon and frequently, where Tom is always with you.

    In my class last night, we got on the topic of death, and one of my classmates told of how her father had died suddenly, several years ago. She said that in the whole first year after his death, she felt terrible fear that she would forget or lose her memories of what her father had been like, of who he had been. She was so scared of forgetting. Yet after that first year was over, and in the years since, she's realized that her memories were not lost at all in her grief, and that they came back strong, and that of course she will always remember him and he will always be a part of her. Her words reminded me of the poem and the hearth that the one grieving will eventually arrive at. And they also reminded me of the people I have lost in my life, even many, many years ago, and how they are still vividly with me when I think of them, as if it were just yesterday.

    Most of all I appreciate your bravely sharing how it is for you when we, your friends, approach you and deal with your loss through the muck of all of our own issues and fears and different degrees of avoiding the Void. The thin line between life and death is right there with each of us, always. Yet I do feel a bit of terror at even writing that, at even saying it . . . . I pray that we can all stand with you on the edge and that we can stretch ourselves as much as possible to get closer and to face the void with you, to shoulder some of the "black tide" (as O'Donahue calls it) with you.

    Much love,

  6. Dear Laya,

    A friend who lost a brother in Vietnam told me this when my mother died:
    This loss means there will always be a hole in the ground,
    but one day you will be able to walk up to the
    hole, and not fall in, and then to see the flowers you've planted all around it.

    Although I couldn't yet see it at the time, this was true.

    The other image that helped me when my father died was that as his ship
    sailed from this side and we all stood mourning on the shore, there were
    loved ones on the other side watching his sails come across the divide and
    rejoicing that he would soon arrive.

    Your writing is powerful and moving. Thanks for all you are sharing,