Grief. I think Ive carried it around with me my whole life.
But most recently, I was plunged into feelings of despair, depression, sadness, anxiety and fear over the course of my husband’s illness – and as he died by the relentless disease ALS. When he was in his dying time, which lasted one year after his diagnosis, our most important teacher told him, “Every thing is at stake in the way you choose to die. Know that your Dying and your Death can be a Tree that you can plant for your children. And one day, after you’ve gone from this world, they may gather around that tree, and tell stories about you and your lives together, gather in its shade and eat of it’s fruit. You might think now this dying is happening to you as you sit there taking it, but the way you decide to do your Dying can be that gift and offering to your children.”
We never would have known Love, and his Grief, could look like that without such a teacher.
Even though we were incapacitated by feelings of anxiety, fear, sorrow, depression, and a wretched physical sadness, there were still the labors of grief and love to do. Our miserable feelings could not get in the way of our responsibilities to leaving that gift to his children. And today, because of that Grief-work, our children are already gathered round that tree telling those stories.
My greatest teachers were my Husband and his sorrowful courage, Death herself and the disease ALS. Somehow, if I couldn’t find the strength for this, to find a way to be in agreement with it, my debilitating feelings would have crushed and destroyed me. I might not be standing now without the labors Grief-as-the-Other-Side-of-love called us to. Yes, I begged the disease to stop its relentless march, but it just would not listen. And while each day it ate him a little bit more from the inside, I was made crazy with a quiet rage. Angry. Sad to the point of vomiting. Full of sorrow for all of us and terrified for my children. Taking anti-depressants so I could somehow keep getting up each day.
They called this experience, “Anticipatory Grief” – the daily recognition of life ebbing away, cut by cut by cut. But looking back, I disagree, I don’t use the word Grief for what that was. Those were the proper feelings a person rightly feels when forced to witness what Loves makes us stand there and witness, when we do not want to understand what torments us, when its far too painful. We want to cover our eyes and run away it hurts so much, but Love makes us figure out how to keep going, no matter how terrible it gets. To keep showing up, while the Living are still with us on this side of the Otherworld.
Grief is the other side of Love. My husband was saved by that call to plant a Tree with the strength given him by GRIEF. While our rightfully sad feelings often debilitate us into inaction and paralysis, our responsibility to walking our Grief out into the world by making beauty for our children and our dead, can offer us the fuel to show up with everything we can muster.
When my husband died in our bed, and was buried in our woods, my deepest and most real Grief-work began. Those feelings remained stuck in my body – fear, rage, nightmarish memories and depression continued – and missing who we used to be filled me with sadness. Troubles clanged about in my body and hurt, felt like my heart and throat would crack open into a bruised, roiling wave and rush out of me endlessly. But just because the Dead have flown, doesn’t mean we want to stop tending, somehow we want to tend even more to their absence. But how?
When Love tends to the Living, we just call it Love — but Love is such a confusing and diminished word, don’t you think? We love our children and our husbands, and our dogs and hamsters, and French fries and TV shows and new shoes. The Inuit have something like 45 words for snow, so I’ve heard. American’s need more than one word for Love and I suggest to you, that Grief is, in fact, one of those true-love-action-words.
Grief over the plight of dwindling rainforests and wildlife survival moves Jane Goodall to work tirelessly to protect chimpanzees. Its her heartbreak that moves her to action! And like Jane, my husband’s GRIEF over endangered species moved him to LOVE the world in such a way that he dedicated his life to red wolf recovery. Grief over this broken world became his rocket fuel – moved his body and his hands to do the work of restoration – trying for god’s sake to make a better world, for Life, for as yet unborn children.
There is this creature called the “Holy Dove.” She has two wings – one made of Love … the other wing made of Grief. When we have allowed the gods of Grief and Love to have their way with us, we take on the wings of that Dove. And no matter how much our hearts break in our chests, those gorgeous wings we’ve been so bittersweetly blessed with, keep us rolling and dipping across the life of the sky, no matter if the sun shines or black clouds and rain threaten. We learn how to carry ourselves under those wings as a skill, lifting our Dead upon those wings, bringing them sight of our days, and a joy and pride for our Doings on their behalf. In that way, we fly together.
Remembering how my husband walked his grief-love out of his failing body into that mythic planting, I felt heavy call to responsibility to lift myself out of my stupor, walk outside and transform a lifeless hillside into an organic garden for our children. I agreed to stand up and fly my grief out into an asparagus field (he loved asparagus) and to create a habitat that a million tadpoles and birds would call home. I keep trying, and when failures happen, I seek out what I can still do. My grief now becomes poetry. I fly it out to the barn to milk goats and make soap with my children, and splatter my hands in oil paints while mythic images of who he is, and who I’ve become pour from my heart.
While I wish for the debilitating sad feelings to one day end, I don’t want to get rid of my Grief – my responsibility to carry him, like he carried his children over his last days. Grief flies me as that two-winged bird into a world of imaginal love. Without those two wings, I would spiral, flail about, suffer deeply on the ground. We humans are really meant to to fly, no matter on what side of the Otherworld we live. When I fly as that Dove, I carry my husband, my grandmothers and grandfathers through my days offering us all a beautiful view of this still wonderful world – and am blessed to give them the holy opportunity to keep cheering us on.
“Death is not the opposite of life, Death is the opposite of Birth, and Life holds them both,” another teacher said to us. Because I want him back the way I had grown accustomed to seeing him, in that amazing and strong body, my feelings of sadness are still present. But somehow, as this winged Grief Dove-Love Being, I’ve gained a miraculous understanding – I get to LOVE him as he is even now, taken by Death but still in Life, learning the feel of him gliding the skies with me and enjoying the ride.
Now, when I feel waves of sadness, they no longer break through by body, but roll over me. These feelings are reminders to rouse those wings and seek that longing for a lift toward Beauty – for him, for our children, for the serving of Life. Life in all its fullness, including even this. Those felt-whispers say “get up again, go to the garden and pick up the seeds, mulch my asparagus, be happy in the frog-song chirping from those swales we dug for our grandchildren….pick up your paintbrushes, and move out once more into the Tending.Don’t forget to tend my children’s Tree. Gather round it.” And so for our children I make myself rise, even though I’m tired, stretch my greif-wings, and we fly.
Alisa Esposito directs Sparkroot, a gathering place for wondering about what it means to be a modern human in these wild and troubling times. How might we decolonize our minds, revive our imaginations and walk our way toward a more beautiful world? Sparkroot brings in culture changing teachers, hosts myth and storytelling evenings, and hosts a shaggy little hoarde of unschoolers and all their shenanigans. Alisa is a dedicated traveler of the West’s many dark and winding rabbit holes, as well as an attendee of such renegade learning halls as Stephen Jenkinson’s Orphan Wisdom School and Martin Shaw’s School of Myth. You can find her popping seeds into the ground in her garden, tossing mulch about or wiping oil paints from her hands in between fits of poetry writing, at her sweet little renovated Chatham farmhouse. She partners and contributes to organizations such as Go Conscious Earth, protecting Congo Basin Rainforest, and heart2heart, offering holistic, kind, alternative services to dying people and their families. She works part-time for Abundance NC and is embarking on a number of transformative writing projects. Oh, and she doesn’t know how she’d make it without her dogs.