Two years after my husband Vic’s death, I drive home to the Finger Lakes of New York after visiting my son in North Carolina. I’m on familiar roads, but get lost three times—once by turning too soon, twice by driving past my exit. Maybe I’m distracted by listening to a CD, but the real issue is I’m on my way home after spending time with loving family. It’s a transition that grabs me by the throat and throws me to the ground.
I pull in the driveway in fog and drizzle. It’s late in the day, and the dogs need to be fed and walked after many hours in the car. I pull on my rain pants and hiking boots and walk down the main trail. There is enough light to see the ground beneath my feet and make out the hedgerow, but not enough to be captivated by the comfortable familiarity of these fields. Instead, I am isolated in fog, sinking into a pit of loneliness. Vic is not here in the place where I still expect to find him. Instead, I feel the presence of his absence, a deep aching emptiness in the pit of my stomach and a constriction around my heart. He is not here, and he will not be here.
In his book, Loving Grief, Paul Bennett points out a truth that keeps me afloat: grief is none other than the love we feel for the person who is gone. Grief is the way my love feels now. This longing is my love. This pain is my love. The words ride on my breath like a mantra, opening and softening my chest.
I listen to mindfulness lectures on CDs during my long drive home. Pema Chodron reminds me to be curious instead of anxious. She reminds me to wait and watch rather than assuming the worst. She reminds me that I am not alone in grief. Hundreds and thousands and millions of others feel a similar aching emptiness at this very moment. Everyone hurts. Everyone suffers loss. My situation is not unique or special. It is human.
The next day, editing a story about my early married years when death felt far away, the heartache persists despite morning sunshine. Outside with the dogs, I pick four crimson apples from the weeping crabtree in the yard and carry them with me to the woods. I lay these bright orbs on the stones where Vic’s ashes are buried—red exuberance against gray shale. I wonder if a creature of the woods will enjoy them tonight.
Walking again that evening, after a long autumn sunset, I admire the crescent moon and the brightness of Jupiter, but can’t escape my misery. Near the stream, a moan escapes from my chest. My young dog Willow comes running, distracted from her sniffing exploration, but when she understands I’m not calling her, she returns to her search. Old Daisy stays close by. In desperation, I tip my head back and howl at the sky. I weep and yip at the crescent moon hanging low in the west.
There is no answer for my anguish, but my belly and chest let go and the beauty and serenity of the land rush in to fill the open space.
This article is adapted from Elaine Mansfield’s book, Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief.