I could be an expert on grief at this point. I have lost many loved ones: a partner, a son, my son’s fiancée, a husband, a sister, a grandmother I was close to, several best friends, people I thought I would live with forever and their children, poetry companions, mentors and elders. I have lost homes and countries where I thought I had found home, said good-bye to children I helped raise and never heard from again, my faith in the Divine and faith in myself. I have been a hospice volunteer. My dad has severe dementia, so I have lost the man he was.
This is what I know: that grief comes in waves, it recedes and flows back but eventually the sharpest pain softens. That anniversaries of any kind—birthdays, day of death, holidays—bring up memories. That we may never feel we got to say all we meant to and that we may never know if our loved ones heard us, despite assurances from mediums that they do.
But I also know that love is not broken or diminished by death. That it lives on, it just becomes long distance or across dimensions. That we are not bound by time or space, if we can just stop holding onto the idea that it has to be tangible in this life. That our loved ones are part of us, no matter what we believe about the afterlife. We are the afterlife.
I know that being grateful for the time our loved one spent with us is a key to enjoying the holidays even though we miss his presence. To have gratitude for ourselves, to be grateful for the depth of our sorrow as a measure of the depth of our love. Thank goodness, we can love and hurt deeply.
In the midst of those terrible days after my son passed, when my soul felt as though it had left my body, I was too angry to pray. I asked others to pray for me. I attended Thanksgiving at Christ in the Desert Monastery so that I could be immersed in silence yet be in company; I could not handle a cheerful meal with friends. As I was leaving, I told the guest master I was grateful to be with the monks because I was unable to pray; I was too angry at God. He answered me, “I would be, too.” and a huge weight fell off me. I realized that my anger was natural. But in the midst of the most excruciating turmoil—why had I failed my son, why had God failed me—I knew there was a gift. In complete darkness and not knowing how I would survive the pain, I believed I would find a gift. I had no idea what it was but I knew it was there. I had seen it when my partner died: the incredible release of creative energy when I no longer was under the cloud of his depression and no longer anxious that he might carry out his threats of suicide, how friends mourned with me, how I knew how to hold sacred silence at the altar we created, to weep with abandon and to laugh as we shared stories. I inherited some of his qualities: the ability to laugh at myself, to dance not caring if I had a partner, to be silly and gregarious and inclusive and spontaneous. I was not alone in my mourning.
These gifts would come to me after Sam’s death as well. Fund raisers to compensate for time off work, prayers and vigils, the moment of complete silence in the circle at one, friends showing up to help scatter his ashes in the Chama, healing touch received at the Women’s Moon Lodge, the wonderful counselor at The Center for Grief, Loss and Transition, the ability to weep during the service at Unity, the poems that came, performances during Día de los Muertos in Mexico, the solace of grandchildren, and more.
But what I want to say here is that Thanksgiving is a time to say thanks, to grandchildren who fill my heart with joy, to friends who invite me to share the meal, to light-bearers who light the path before us, to poets who nourish my soul, to many who hold me in their hearts. But especially I want to acknowledge those of you who have walked this path. Those who have lost someone and mourn in waves that rise and fall, as we hold those precious memories close and admit we miss our loved ones. It is just not the same without them. We will never get over it, but our lives will move on.
For the first couple of years after Sam passed, there was often an empty seat beside me at meditations, prayer circles, poetry readings, concerts, places both crowded with an audience and intimate with a small circle. Yet the seat next to me…empty. The last time I noticed this was at David Whyte’s event at Islandwood which happened to be during Día de los Muertos. The packed room and the empty seat. I did not want that seat taken, although I had decided not to share my loss with the strangers beside me that week-end. I would leave my ghosts, my sadness, at home, I thought. Concentrate on joy and inspiration and hope.
This year, we created an altar to hold the photos and names of those we have lost. We drank a toast and shared what we received from them. Never will I feel we had enough time or that I have said enough words. If you do hear me, know that I love you beyond this lifetime and you are part of me forever.