The Wisdom of Grief
It is said that when someone we love dies, a part of us dies too. In my experience, it is not a part but the whole—the self we’ve known is all at once shattered.
This is how it was when Aaron gasped his last breath on the ICU. Holding his body in death, I was both a mother and not a mother. Expiring in my arms, he was set free, released from the prison of plastic tubes and electronic monitors that attached him to his life.
For the first time since the moment of his birth, I could hold him without the tubes and wires. Dead, he was nakedly mine and altogether gone all in the same instant. Time stood still and the world fell silent. I was drawn into a vortex, and the self I knew was irreversibly shattered.
The Power of the Moment
What happened next: an energy larger than my body could contain broke through in a rush of strange, unfathomable syllables.
In retrospect, searching for a way to describe this experience, I thought of the phrase “speaking in tongues.” I know very little about speaking in tongues except that in certain moments of altered consciousness, some people seem to manifest this “gift”—if that’s what it is. Mostly, I’ve heard of this happening to Pentecostalists. It’s the last thing I would expect to happen to me.
What came through me, as I stood and wrapped my arms around my dead baby, was a form of speech emanating from a source deeper than personality. Though utterly indecipherable, these strange sounds were a kind of prayer. I was standing behind a curtain on the ICU, surrounded by the sanitized hospital air. Having asked for several moments to be alone with Aaron just after he expired, this incomprehensible prayer was the last thing I uttered before they took his body away.
Grief is a Force
Was I speaking in a long forgotten but suddenly remembered shamanic tongue to ritualize the moment of parting and make it bearable? One thing is certain: this was not a way I would have behaved if not for the wisdom of grief.
Everyone has his or her own way of grieving. Not everyone speaks in tongues at the moment of grief’s greatest impact. But anyone who’s ever lost a parent, child, lover, spouse, or close friend, knows that grief is one of the most powerful emotional forces there is—powerful enough to shatter the self we’ve carefully constructed.
Leaving Children’s Hospital after Aaron was taken away, this shattering was briefly lulled by the merciful numbing of shock. Aaron’s body had been taken out of my arms. The doctors and nurses, looking shamed, had expressed their condolences.
We retrieved the few things that Aaron had with him in his hospital crib: a stuffed koala bear, the gift of a friend; a lavender hippo from the hospital gift shop; a red parrot that we’d held before his eyes because we were told that newborns see red more easily than other colors; a tiny purple velvet pillow sewn by another friend, replete with wishes for health and healing; and the white cotton cap that kept Aaron warm in his hospital home. These things we took with us.
A Storm of Grief
The storm of grief hit once we arrived home. Our arms were empty. The house was empty. And most of all, Aaron’s room—the room he never saw—was empty.
Traditionally, Jews don’t give baby showers or prepare a baby’s room before the birth. Perhaps a history of persecution has made us wary of counting our chickens before they hatch. Without a cradle or crib, without baby clothes neatly tucked away in drawers or a mobile hanging from the ceiling, we’d nevertheless prepared this room for Aaron. The room that had been Roger’s office was emptied for the new arrival.
Walking into what was to be Aaron’s room, I felt myself pulled away from shore by a rip tide, toward death. All the life force in my body ached to go, to be with Aaron, wherever he was. A primitive howl emerged from my mouth. I understood, in this moment, how someone can die of a broken heart.
The Wisdom of Mourning
And then, suddenly, a voice that certainly is not that of my everyday self said “No! It’s Aaron who is dead, not you. You’re alive!” It was the wisdom of grief. I was called back to life by the wisdom of grief.
I felt myself spinning, as though through a tunnel, and then landing back in the room. Whose voice this was, calling me to be here, urging me to choose life, despite my everyday self’s desire to follow Aaron into the next world, I do not know. But the voice was undeniable, and I listened.
In the weeks and months that followed, I came to know these two selves: the one that urged me to give up the ghost, and the other that, despite everything, was alive in a new way. The simultaneous shattering of ego and expansion of consciousness is a common experience for people who are grieving.
No Preparation for the Power of Grief
Before we are personally affected, we know, of course, that death is an inherent part of life. People each day die of cancer or heart disease, of AIDS or accidents. They are raped and murdered. People are sick or have children who are sick and who die.
We “know” this. But we cannot emotionally absorb the fact that we could easily be one of them. Only when we ourselves are diagnosed with a serious disease or lose a loved one do we know, in a different way, that loss is not just something that happens to other people. The normal ego maintains its illusion of control and invulnerability until disaster strikes and it all begins to unravel.
This ego dissolution is the first phase of the extraordinary wisdom of grief.
Going into Grief
As I write, Boston grieves the deaths of seven people at Edgewater Technology, Inc., their lives cut short by a coworker who hunted them down with an assault rifle and machine gun. No sooner had the deed been done than ministers and television reporters were exhorting the bereaved to “let the healing begin.”
At a church service three days later, the minister urged congregants to release their pain and hold on to the positive memories. In the face of grief after violent loss, this is the all-too-common counsel: stay positive, forgive, move on.
In grief’s alchemy, however, the first phase is not about moving on but about being broken, a searing experience that cannot be pacified by all the compassionate counsel in the world.
No Short-Cut Through Grief
Healing through grief doesn’t start when we give up feeling bad; it begins with the agony of loss. The merciful numbing of shock must wear off and the reality of death take hold. Grief must sink in. In the alchemy of grief, going down always precedes coming up. Understandable but misguided attempts to speed up the process tend to derail it. Generally, a grief deferred is a grief prolonged. There are no short-cuts in the alchemy of the dark emotions. That’s the wisdom of grief.
Grief is a universal response to death and loss, built into our neurological systems. Animals grieve too. My cat Mojo, a friendly beast, hid in a corner for two weeks after the death of his mother, Little. His appetite, ordinarily ravenous for a good portion of the day, receded to a paltry shadow of its former level. He looked around for Little in every corner of the house, then took himself into seclusion.
While animals grieve, they don’t reflect on their emotional state (as far as I know). The grief process does not alter their sense of self or the meaning they attribute to loss. They do not change or grow from a spiritual standpoint. Because loss is an inevitable part of life, grief for human beings is an important and largely neglected aspect of psychospiritual development. Whatever the nature and extent of the loss, we grieve because we are interconnected, and that connection also breaks our hearts.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan
Read an interview with Miriam Greenspan: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/385/through-a-glass-darkly
See more about her writing: Poet – Healing Through the Dark Emotions | Healing Through the Dark Emotions (miriamgreenspan.com)