A few days ago I was walking with a friend and the topic of loss and grief came up. We discussed emotional numbing, the protective response to traumatic loss and/or the accumulation of multiple losses piled on top of each other. Working through and integrating grief is hard enough in a culture which ignores it. But when there is a tidal wave of loss, the accumulation of held grief can become a long-term weight.
I began to think about this in my own life. I experienced decades of lying, cheating, betrayal and abuse before my marriage ended. That was followed by many years of trying to shepherd my children through the dysfunction of divorce and loss of Home. I was just getting back on my feet when I was diagnosed with two cancers. In one year I lost my health, my womanly body, my memory and mental function, my job, my income, my career, and my social life. I soldiered on, doing the best I could in any moment. I did alright. I accepted the gifts of change. But five years out, I’m wondering if some of my extreme fatigue is cumulative grief.
While my friend and I were talking about grief, we were walking along a big river, chock full of spring snow melt. That seemed like an apt metaphor. The river is an entity in itself, always in the same place, but made up of uncountable droplets of water, moving moving moving. At this time of year the river is wild. While in its presence these words came to mind: timeless, unstoppable, chaotic, dangerous, thundering, powerful. If I unearthed my cumulative grief, those uncountable droplets of tears, it might be like this river.
I went home and made a list of the losses associated with divorce and cancer. Each individual loss was a whole area of my life and identity. The list filled three notebook pages. I did not just write a list of words, I also took the time to experience the feeling associated with each loss. Was I angry? Was I sad? Accepting? I found that I still had a lot of sadness. But there were several items in particular that really brought on the tears: the loss of my womanly body, the loss of my community, and my inability (as a mother) to shield my children from pain and dysfunction.
I let myself be the river. I let the tears flow and flow and flow. As a medicine man once told me, “Our tears are not pine sol, they are Holy Water”. After a long time of crying, I gave myself a soothing cup of cocoa and a hot pack. I relaxed and came back to my breath. Then I chose three objects to represent those three losses and placed them on the altar in my home. I cleansed with sage.
I am not in a hurry to heal these losses, to make everything all better. What I want to do is acknowledge their presence. I want to sit with these losses and let them speak to me.