“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.” ~ Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
My withdrawal from the world of the living began three years ago, when my father was first diagnosed with cancer.
Everything came to a standstill for me. I found myself naturally cocooning, preparing for this monumental transition within my clan: the loss of our leader. I later came to call this time Anam Chara, which is Gaelic for “soul friend.”
My Irish ancestors had a ritual for the dying. Similar to a midwife, someone who takes on the role of a soul friend is there to help a loved one pass from this world onto the next.
How apropos. My father ushered me into this world (with my mother’s help, of course!). I would help my father move onto the next blissful phase, just by being present to whatever showed up for him.
My beloved father passed in the fall of 2011, a few days before his 81st birthday. We celebrated his entire span of life that day, not the beginning of a new year.
Unfortunately for me and perhaps for others who are grieving out there, society doesn’t necessarily consider death as a time to celebrate with great fanfare and joyful trumpets. Unlike a birth that’s usually a time of rejoicing within one’s community, death seems to be a time to be silent, to withdraw, to wait until the grief has subsided and only then re-enter the world as your same ol’ usual self.
As the time of illness and suffering ended for my father and my own grief journey began, I found very few folks who would talk to me about grieving, death, dying. I was ready to come back to the world of the living, but people weren’t ready for me. Few broached the topic of grief in all its guises, as if the topic was too taboo, as if talking about it would cause bad things to happen, as if suffering and death don’t exist.
How ironic, I thought. When we are born, we are all given both life and death. It’s an inevitable part of the human experience. And it’s a crucial piece of the whole puzzle, giving us reason to celebrate life each day knowing it will indeed end at some unknown point in time for us, for our loved ones.
To all those grieving out there, I want you to know, you are not alone.
Here are some self-nurturing tips that helped me during this trial; perhaps they will help you too, today or one day:
• Find your true resources: family, friends, perhaps even strangers who have recently experienced a loss themselves
• Forget the cynics who say, “Shrinks are only for the crazy.” Consider yourself temporarily insane and seek grief counseling, someone who is paid to listen intently without judgment
• Put any guilty feelings on the shelf for now: the grieving process has a life of its own, and it may take more time than anticipated to integrate the loss
• Ask for help. Don’t assume people will come to you and offer it without solicitation
• And perhaps most importantly, be kind to yourself, and re-discover what self-nurturing looks like to you; if you don’t know, be curious and try different things: like being in nature, kayaking, getting your hands dirty in the garden this summer, salsa dancing, whatever floats your boat….
What have you found to be helpful when grieving a significant loss? Community and communication are both extremely important during these rollercoaster times of life. Please share your ideas. Someone out there might find them very life-affirming.
Juli Arnold-Kole is an animal advocate, writer/editor, former ballet dancer and sometime trickster, based in Boulder.
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Editor: Kate Bartolotta
Photo: Heather Smith-Matthews