"It's only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth -- and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up -- that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had."
-- Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
Why are we roaring though space on this mud ball, and what is life all about anyway?
I was seven years old when I came across a deer that had just died in a wooded area not far from my house. It was the unfamiliar stillness that stopped me first. I was walking into a foreign atmosphere, a pocket of life, or rather lack of it, which felt so apart from school, and home and friends. What is it in me that knew instantly, viscerally, that the boldly silent body was more than just a deer at rest? How was I recognizing what was so blatantly absent in its empty, open eyes?
I sat close wanting to pull information out of it with my curiosity, all the while afraid I would get caught doing something wrong. Not that I ever heard rules about avoiding dead animals exactly, but it was the very absence of talk about death that formed my seven-year-old logic of it somehow being forbidden, unclean, something I am not suppose to look at. It is one of those things to be whispered only by adults late at night behind closed doors.
And I know from the many clients I have worked with in therapy, that my early message of death as hidden and taboo is not unique. No wonder the loss of someone close to use shakes us at our very core. Not only can the death of that person create what feels at times like unbearable heartache and reconfigure the foundational structures of our lives, but since we are a mortality illiterate society, we often feel lost and isolated in our feelings and transitions.
And since death has always been paired with life, diverse ways to grieve have arisen and evolved through all cultures and times. Many of our current customs have their origins in centuries old rituals. The contemporary lighting of candles comes from the ancient use of fire to both protect from, and evoke spirits. In 17th century Europe, flowers were offerings to gain favor with the spirit of the one who has passed.
Almost all grief rituals involve music and storytelling. Funeral music commonly used today originated from ancient chants designed to placate the spirits. Keening, from the Gaelic term "caoineadh" meaning "to cry," is a Scot/Irish mourning song which also tells a story. This excerpt from Library Ireland is an example of a lyric that could have been heard echoing across the hillsides from the 7th though 16th centuries: "Raise the Keen, ye whose notes are well known, tell your beads, ye young women who grieve; lie down on his narrow house in mourning, and his spirit will sleep and be at rest."
The expression of mourning is so varied, with the Zoroastrian tradition including a Tower of Silence. Judaism observes an intense seven day period called shiva, followed by a year of mourning with yearly anniversary of yahrzeit. Some Sufis whirl in ecstasy as death is understood as a celebratory reuniting with the "Divine Beloved."
Yet on a personal level grief is infused with paradox. We are encouraged to say goodbye yet design ways to maintain bonds with the ones who have passed through photos and services of remembrance. We find ways to honor the life of the person who passed, and yet grief is about the ones who are here. It's a time for coming to terms with the end of an era, a relationship, and lifestyle, and it's also about new beginnings.
The normal grief process has many phases and may be experienced as physical symptoms, emotional distress, distorted thinking and behaviors. Grief often has many phases and while there are some core characteristics, each journey is unique.
So how can we navigate this confusing labyrinth of bereavement? Here are a few simple ways to hold a torch as you find your own way through.
• Make room for feelings. All kinds and at different times. You may be feeling calm and then burst into tears not even knowing what triggered it. There can be confusion, the blues, anger, fatigue, startling clarity, buoyancy, over/under eating, over/under sleeping, being surprised by fair weather friends, overwhelming love, fear, flashbacks, guilt, awkwardness, regretting lost opportunities. Feel them, write about them, talk about them.
• Create a ritual. Many feelings are expressed even more powerfully though ritual. Explore ways that are meaningful to you that offer comfort and invite Mystery. It can include music, silence, meaningful objects, a poem, lighting a candle, simple movements. The themes can vary -- rituals for letting go, forms of remembrance, expressions of forgiveness.
• Take time. What can be more significant than the birth and death of someone close to you? The loss never goes away, although it can get easier. There are so many factors that can influence the grief journey -- the length of the relationship, the roles and meaning the person had in your life. When there is a trauma within the relationship history or circumstances of death, emotions are even more amplified. It can be beneficial to work though complex grief with an experienced therapist.
• Connect. While grief is natural, it isn't easy. It can be very helpful to share with a group of people going through similar experiences, drawing upon collective wisdom. These days many people find it helpful to reach out through internet community forums as well.
It's common for people to spontaneously reminisce, envisioning the person they have lost. This valuable inner connection can also be intentionally cultivated. This meditation is especially appropriate when the relationship was based in love.
Set aside 15 minutes of undisturbed time, and close your eyes. Start with three minutes simply focusing on natural slow breathing while you relax. Then allow an image to arise of a beautiful place -- one that is peaceful and comfortable. As it takes shape, notice the colors, textures, light and sounds. Be aware of how you feel in this serene place, and bring anything into the environment that would support your comfort and ease. Take a moment to just enjoy being here.
Now invite the person you have lost to join you, knowing that their image may come in any form, and they may appear any age. Take time to greet them, and then express anything you would like to. Invite them to speak with you. Allow the experience to evolve spontaneously, connecting naturally while maintaining your own comfort.
Thank them for coming, and then close your imagery eyes as you bring your attention back to the room you are in. Take a few moments being present with your feelings and experiences.
Remember that no matter how your life circumstances change and your feelings ebb and flow, and even grappling with unanswerable questions, come home to the precious, miraculous being that you are, whole and living, here and now.
Leslie Davenport is the author of the classic book on self-healing "Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery." A pioneer in the health care revolution that recognizes psychospiritual dimensions as an integral part of health, she is a founding member of the Institute for Health & Healing at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, serves on the faculty of John F. Kennedy University, and is a clinical supervisor with the California Institute of Integral Studies. Visit Leslie on Red Room.