Grief and Loss
‘Tis a fearful thing
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
But a holy thing
To love what death can touch.
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
A holy thing, to love
what death has touched.
How do you say good-bye to a loved one with whom you have had a complex relationship? This is the question that I have been wrestling with for the past six months. As a clinician and a minister, I have been trained to sit with people in the midst of loss and grief. Nonetheless, the training and experience of sitting with others’ pain does not soften the blow when facing my own experience of loss. My relationship with my stepmom was complex. I knew that she loved fiercely, followed a strong moral compass, cared for the welfare of people often regarded by society as the least of us, and delighted in socializing with others through conversations and games. But she also could be the most critical and harsh with close family members. She held an expectation that loved ones bend to her will which led to several periods of estrangement between her and me. When I learned of her ALS diagnosis, we had not spoken in seven years.
So I was completely caught off guard when I became tearful as her condition progressed. Despite the differences between us, I knew in my heart that she was a critical part of my ability to heal from being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. At the age of 16, when I finally developed the courage to tell about the abuse, she was the one person who believed me. And she insisted that my abuser admit what he had done if he truly loved me and hoped to repair our relationship. Her actions made all the difference in my recovery because I was believed, and I know that not all survivors have that experience. But despite her believing me, it did not change the fact that she had strong views about what my healing path should look like, which differed from what actually unfolded. In the end, I needed to separate from my family to find wholeness. From my 20s until her death, we experienced periods of connectedness and estrangement depending on where I was in my healing journey.
In grieving the loss of my stepmom, I have not only grieved the loss of my relationship with her, but I have been grieving all my hopes of what that relationship could have been. In addition, this loss has tapped into deep sadness as well as anger over the time lost not only between my stepmom and me, but also between my dad, sister, my sister’s children, my children and me. As I play games with my youngest son, I am reminded of how much my stepmom and my youngest son both loved to play games, but often struggled to find others to play with them. They would have adored one another in that respect, but they never got to know each other.
And as I mourn, I feel that the grief I am experiencing as a result of her death is linked to all of the losses over the years. The tears I cry for her carry the shadow of all the losses that have come before. I suspect that is a shared experience of the human condition. When we shed tears from a loss, those tears hold a piece of every loss we have known up to the most recent loss. After a lifetime of losses, the tears can seem endless. But the water (tears of sadness) and fire (anger) provide alchemy through our mourning. On the other side of grief, we may gain a new level of appreciation for our life and loved ones around us. We may also evaluate the course of our life and make a course correction. Each loss provides an opportunity for transformation into the fulfilling life that we desire.
Contemplative Expressive Arts Practice
This contemplative expressive arts process works with the alchemy of water (sadness) and fire (anger).
Draw two overlapping circles so that the place where the two circles overlap form an almond shape (mandorla). Gather art materials that you may wish to use.
Choose one side to represent water (sadness), the other side to represent fire (anger), and the center to hold the tension between the two for the purposes of transformation.
Before starting the creative process, take a moment to turn inward.
Using art materials that you are drawn to at this time, create an image or images on the water side. When you finish, create an image or images on the fire side.
Give a name to the water side and a name to the fire side of the image.
Now have the water side engage in dialogue with the fire side until you reach a resting point in the dialogue.
Once the dialogue is finished, take a moment to turn inward again.
Create an image or images in the center of the image.
Give a title to the image in the center.
In response to the overall piece, engage in some free flow writing starting with the sentence stem “I am…”.