He picks up what he thinks is
a road map, and it is
his death; he holds it easily, and
nothing can take it from this firm hand.
(William E. Stafford [1914–93], excerpt from “My Father: October 1942”)*
I am writing in the rickety rain shelter at the leafy border of our allotment flower and vegetable patch (you may recognize the setting from last month’s article). A loud thunderstorm is rolling in and I watch as the big pink cosmos petals are pleated by the downpour. A raindrop falls heavily onto my writing hand—there’s a leak in the roofing felt. The weather matches how I feel: salty water behind my eyes, close to seeping through at the slightest escalation.
What’s happened? Larry, my life companion of 30 years, left this morning to go on a Buddhist retreat in the Spanish Pyrenees; no physical contact, no phone nor letters, for over four months. During the retreat he will be ordained as a Buddhist, the opportunity of a lifetime, much looked forward to and prepared for, and we have sent him off with plentiful appreciation and celebration. And while the nobleman is off on his quest for the Holy Grail, traveling through pestilence-ridden lands, I am left behind, much less heroically, to guard the castle.
No doubt here too, through necessity, inner riches are to be discovered. To start with, the challenge of dealing with loss. Returning to the empty house after giving Larry a lift to the train station, intense feelings coursed through my body and mind. But what were they exactly? Convention says sadness and grief and loneliness—words that felt like disconnected stories keeping me in my head. That’s not the most useful place to be in a situation like this, my mindfulness training advises.
I was impelled to stay intimately connected with the actual sensations: a tearing in my chest, an overall sense of weakness, of smallness, of vulnerability. Being attentive in this way felt in itself comforting and caring; close. I wanted to feel close. I walked through the flat tentatively, uncertain how to be with myself, what to do in this new and yet familiar space.
My phone buzzed: a message from a good friend. At our last meeting there had been some tension and her gentle words released something. I curled up on the couch and started whimpering, like a dog left tied outside a shop. The same fundamental, mammalian separation pain. That felt good, healing, allowing the feelings to wash through me, not expanding energy trying to be stoic. (Even if a small, critical part of me thought that stoicism is a better strategy; that I shouldn’t be so self-indulgent, and I certainly shouldn’t let other people know about it.) I allowed the sobbing to go on for a while.
The deluge at the allotment has run its course, and the cosmos and daisies are shining brightly back at the sun again. I pick the last of the raspberries and some dripping, floppy lettuce for dinner. Back at the flat, I almost see my beloved through the half open door to his study, facing his computer; the familiar shape of his back, the curly white fluff below the hairline needing a trim. I almost see his posture, which speaks of alertness, commitment, openheartedness; spreading his nets wide as a poet, publisher, tai-chi teacher, and activist. His presence, mysteriously, is more palpable and clearer than when he was here “in person” a few hours ago. Maybe the right word for my feelings is the Finnish haikeus, which captures both sadness and gratitude, apparently. Or maybe there is no right word? Just this searching for some way to give the feelings a home.
Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.
I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.
(Denise Levertov [1923–97], excerpt from “Talking to Grief”)*
The last project Larry completed before his departure was the publication of a book, which he co-edited, called Living our Dying. The Scottish writer and cleric Richard Holloway. summarized it: “It will not only help you to die a good death, it will strengthen you to live a good life.” I dip into it for some guidance in this transitional moment. It entails many variations on the basic human experience of loss and grief. My husband isn’t dead; he has only left for a long time . . . but who knows? Any parting with anyone could be the last moment of seeing them alive. The upheaval of losing something or somebody we might have thought essential to our lives and dreams is universal. Perhaps you, too, have had a recent separation or bereavement, and your grieving is still vivid and raw. I hope something in this essay will speak to you, soothe you, and give you strength.
You may also experience and recognize “Great Grief”—a feeling that rises in us as if from the earth itself—about the state of the world. The decline of life-supporting conditions on our planet is becoming more and more apparent, with the spread of wildfires and destructive floods filling the daily news. The world is “sick, lost, harrowed, broken, toxic, violent, and full of shame” in the words of Em Strang. Grief educator Ted Bowman finds that people experiencing loss or heavy anticipatory grief “yearn for words and acknowledgement.” (Butler)
Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow . . .
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
(Maya Angelou [1928–2014], excerpt from “Alone”)*
Certainly the presence of others, on the page or otherwise, helps. When writing, I imagine you reading this; I am not alone, we are sharing the burden of grief and I can feel uplifted by that. But even if not for the eyes of others, expressing how we feel helps us to process difficult states of mind. There is a well-known saying in therapeutic writing circles: If it is not mentionable, it is not manageable. After the suicide of her brother, which followed the suicide of their father, Jayne Wilding found that the “grief was difficult to speak of and I felt very alone. Like Ann Frank, my diary or journal became my friend and confidante.” What also helped was “to connect with nature and the natural cycle of the year, where death has its place.” (Butler)
In his deceased father, Kim Stafford recognized “the predicament of being human. He was denied certainty, but blessed with a sense of engagement with what comes.” (Butler) I take heart from that, and celebrate the opportunities that lie ahead for me, over the next four months in particular. They are wise words for dealing with our “Great Grief” too. Let’s keep engaging and sharing!
* Poems referenced in Living Our Dying (Butler).
Butler, Larry, and Sheila Templeton, ed. 2021. Living Our Dying. Perth, Scotland: Rymour Books
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global