Grief changes our experience of life. When we are grieving, enter into a crucible of transformation. Grief forces us to journey through a threshold into an unfamiliar terrain. And in this terrain we find ourselves, standing alone with our suffering, wondering which way to go.
The On the Loss of My Parents series is a tribute to my parents, Bruce Alger (1918-2011) and Vi Alger (1919-2010). It is the origin and foundation for my project, “Aging in the Second Half of Life.” On the Loss of My Parents is also an example of how transformative writing can cultivate healing, self-renewal, and understanding that is good for self and others at the same time.
Grief defies analysis. There are no stages of grief. We can identify common characteristics and qualities of grief, but the journey we are compelled to take is personal and unique. I cannot really “know” another person’s grief, and no one else can really understand the nature of mine.
I think of grief as a threshold because I felt as though I moved through a point of no return in life when my parents died. The death of a loved one tears a threshold right in the middle of our own reality. And we fall down on the cusp of that opening, weakened and on bloodied knees.
What once was will never be again. Grief gives us permission to express our heartache and sadness at the brutal side of life.
I also believe that grief is a journey in which we have become lost and alone, and are trying to find our way back into life again.
Grief does not merely come to visit for a while, it takes up a permanent residence inside. We do not “heal” our grief, but we do learn from it and accommodate its presence. All experiences of grief are unique. There are no standardized stages for grieving.
Grief tears a threshold into our lifestyle, and demands that we begin a journey into the mystery of the rest of our life.
When we grieve our spirit is invaded by severe feelings of sadness and anguish. There is a biting sharpness in our grief that hijacks our sensibilities. And we feel as though we are drowning in an agonizing swirl of melancholy that offers no reprieve.
Initially, grief caused me to fall down. I was hurt and unable to move soon after my parents had died. My body, mind, and spirit were wounded. I lost my way in life. I was confined in the midst of my freedom. I lost my mobility in life.
When life has beaten us down, we have to pick ourselves up and find a way to put one foot in front of the other again. Grief makes movement painful and uncertain. The reason for this is clear to me now. I could not simply pick up the pieces up and return to life as it was. That is not the goal. Grief demands that we stand up again and journey into the unknown.
We must hold a conversation on the edge, a conversation with our own anguish.
Grief changes everything about us and the world around us.
The Artistry of Bereavement
Grief is an inhospitable learning environment.
I held imaginary conversations with my parents after they had died. They were now on the other side of the Great Mystery. What would they say to me now?
I kept looking for them. A ghost of what they once were. Perhaps their spirits would appear to my physical senses. If only I could talk to them now. I want to know where they are and if they are ok. Are they at rest? What does that even mean?
They continue to have a large presence in my life. Sometimes, I feel them when I am in the presence of nature. Maybe our energy really does return into the Earth, and flows back into Life again. They are everywhere now, amongst the trees, hills, and landscapes.
Clichés attacked me on all sides. What would my parents want for me now that they are gone? The answer is obvious, yet unsatisfying. Another part of me feels I am being too dismissive. Grief makes the need to know relentless and intolerable.
There are things about life we are not meant to know.
There are things in life we can never know.
And when we can’t know, we must embrace a fierce sense of creativity. When we can’t understand, we must attempt to discover things we didn’t know existed. This is the crucible of the creative fire within.
Mom and Dad…
Though I can no longer feel your touch
Except through the breath of my spirit;
You subtly inhabit a private space within
And remain as faithful to me as the day I was born.
I don’t know why I intuitively turned toward poetry. I just did. And quality aside, I realized that writing poetry was the beginning of a real and authentic conversation with my grief.
I got up from the ground. I was still wounded. But I tried to walk again for the first time.
There is a poetry waiting to be discovered that is hidden inside our pain.
Creativity is the beginning of a merciful release from our suffering.
The Poetics of Grief
For me, the ideal response to grief is the creative expression of that grief. This implies an artistry of grieving and a poetics of grief. Moving into grief creatively is an essential frontier of learning and a powerful point of no return in life.
The poet lives and writes at the frontier between deep internal experience and the revelations of the outer world. There is no going back for the poet once this frontier has been reached; a new territory is visible and what has been said cannot be unsaid.
The death of a loved one is a fierce and primal call to attention. Grief ensnares us in spiritual vertigo, mental confusion, and emotional agitation. Mourning overwhelms our body, constricts our mind, and focuses our spirit.
When we look out into the world through the lens of grief, many of the priorities we once held appear greyed out and unimportant. We intuitively know that we have started a process of transformation, but words still fail to describe our experience.
This unknowing is precisely where the creative work of the poet begins.
Grief makes demands of us we don’t understand. We feel completely submissive in its presence. In being completely without words, we begin to find them.
Mom and dad…
Your warmth lives on in spite of your demise
Memories flourish everywhere in the here and now;
As your echo brushes against my awareness
From an impenetrable distance you will always hold me near.
Grief energises memory so that we begin the work of building a new relationship with the past. Remembrance is a means make new discoveries about what used to be. Memory is a guardian of our presence in the present moment. To remember is to create, invent, and express.
Memory is touch.
Standing on the Other Side of the Threshold and Looking Back
Often, I found that something quite unexpected and innocent would trigger powerful memories of my parents. I suspect that this will always be the case now. And I want it to be that way.
Once, while walking on a cold winter’s day, I experienced the intense presence of my mother (but did not actually see her) as sunlight danced in particles of floating ice crystals that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Perhaps it was just subconscious wishful thinking. I choose to believe otherwise.
Grief walks with us, even on a cold winter day.
In the midst of my grief, I did not merely recall past events, I constantly re-lived them. Over and over again, I circled around particular experiences. And each time I completed the cycle, my understanding of them had shifted ever so subtly. We never relive a memory in exactly the same way.
In losing my mother and father, the contents of my memory have evolved. The death of my parents changed my relationship to the past. I feel the pain of their absence, but they are not gone.
I remember watching their bodies being placed into body bags. Then on to a gurney, and then wheeled away – forever. This was my last visit with them. I can still hear the sound of the zipper.
I have learned that the ultimate purpose of grief and bereavement is to begin a process of re-imagining what life will become. We do not simple “get over” our grief. While we learn to live with it better, it becomes a constant companion, and indeed a trusted teacher and mentor.
Grief forces us to be authentic. It will not tolerate masks and false appearances. We must be brutally honest when grieving. We must be willing to face the truth, and remain standing.
And now, I must continue the journey without them. I am without them now. It will be ok.
Mom and dad…
Your laughter dances in the midst of my sadness
A perpetual source of gratitude;
And now after your passing
I stand firmly in the midst of your presence.
- The seventh article in this series is On the Loss of My Parents: 7 – Their Legacy for Life