I recently came across an article with the title “Why You Shouldn’t Trust Your Cat.” The idea presented is that domestic cats are actually only partially domesticated. From a genetic perspective, they are more wild than tame. Not everyone has, or wants, a cat, although millions have and do want at least one. But everyone has losses to grieve, and we grievers know that grief is not domesticated. Grief is wild.
Grief is a natural and human response to loss, and it is also wild and untamed. It pays no attention to rules and doesn’t follow directions, a map, or a schedule. We invent stages of grief and pretend grief is predictable but any stages, at best, describe what can happen in grief, not what will happen. Other times we come up with tasks and steps to do while grieving. These can be helpful for some, but they do more to tame and direct us rather than grief.
We use an umbrella and wear a jacket to deal with the rain but an umbrella and jacket don’t control the weather, they just help us cope. The weather, like grief, is a natural thing, and it is also wild, beyond our control.
One of the helpful things we do in response to the wildness of our grief is to develop and use rituals. In death, we often ritually clean, clothe, and dress the body. We may display it according to custom and gather to mark the transition for the deceased and for us, remembering the life, affirming its consequences which live on, celebrating the knowing and the loving, then and now. And we do so many different things to dispose (we need a better word) of the body. We bury and sometimes donate in part or whole for the benefit of others. We turn the body to ashes and then do any number of things to spread, keep, and transform them in meaningful ways. We say special words, have strategic music, gather in particular places and ways to remember, and find ways to move into new chapters of life. We retell stories, display pictures, and wear clothes and jewelry of the dead. Rituals are so useful and they can evolve to blend new creativity with ancient continuity.
When grief comes rolling in, we need rituals to help hold us and give us a framework in which to move and live in the unpredictable tempests of our grief. We need rituals like we need shelter in the storm, yet shelters do not contain a storm, and rituals, while immensely useful, cannot contain our grief.
Grief can be so wild that it scares us with its intensity, power, and mysterious mind of its own. Other times it is quiet and even comforting as it connects us to those dear to our hearts. It can both tear us and mend us. Grief hurts and it also heals.
In the book, A Monster Calls, author Patrick Ness begins with “The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do. Conor was awake when it came.” As the story progresses, the monster provokes in Conor fear, annoyance (he is 13 years old), and confusion. In the midst of his mother’s life-threatening illness, he must deal with the unpredictable visitations of a monster who tells him stories with unexpected twists and endings.
It is a mind-bending and heartbreaking time for Conor, and at first the monster just seems to make it all so much harder. However, while the monster never ceases to be a monster, never becomes tame, its presence becomes increasingly important to Conor. He needs its wildness and the unexpected gifts that it offers. The monster does not become controllable, but it does become a vessel of healing.
In a very different book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis tells the story of four children who find themselves in the strange land of Narnia where the animals talk. In that land there is an endless winter that is about to change as “Aslan is on the move.” A beaver family describes Aslan to the children as a strong and mighty lion. One of the children asks if Aslan is “safe,” and Mr. Beaver replies, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
Grief is like that. It’s wild, can be a monster, is certainly not safe, but in the end, it is good. Grief exists because of connection, because of love. Grief is what love looks like after loss, after death. Our relationships to grief can be wild, too, filled with pain, yearning, anger, fear, relief, and gratitude.
We will never domesticate grief and come to a place where it lives under our control and follows our rules. Yet we can make peace with grief and respect it for what it is, wildness and all. And no matter the weather and all that in life we also can’t control, we can befriend it for what it represents—the places in our lives where deep connections form and grow and continue to bind us together.