Grief unites us all.
Grief knows no depth. It is an emotion that is perfect—if one wants to describe perfection in this light. That may sound morbid or depressing, but those of us who know this kind of “perfect sorrow” understand.
You are perfectly, exquisitely sad when you grieve over the loss of someone close to you.
Several events in succession led me to to a deeper understanding of how grief can be a doorway to awakening. It is interesting to me that random events in one’s life become the puzzle pieces that fit so neatly together.
The first event involves Jim Carrey, a superstar actor who is famous for his impressions and outrageous behavior. He was appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote his latest movie. During the interview, he shared this thought that was valid and profound:
“I’ve learned to feel whatever it is I’m feeling, whatever emotion it is and to not fight it. People who say they don’t get down or depressed, well, I think they just aren’t being honest with themselves.”
Being ‘awake,’ according to Jim, means to be alive to what you are feeling at that moment and having the ability to process what you are feeling simultaneously. Grief, sorrow and sadness are like any other emotion; you feel it, you let it move through your consciousness, then it moves on and out of you.
The burden of feeling a certain way, because it’s more comfortable for others, is just too enormous for me. So I let myself feel whatever it is that I’m experiencing without any resistance. And because of that freedom that I allow myself and others, I know that I’m awakening to a deeper understanding of human emotion.
Once you allow yourself this freedom to feel without resistance, you also allow yourself to feel the profound joy that is the other side of grief. That’s just how the equation works.
The second event happened not long after. Jesse Sublett, the writer/musician who was a member of the Skunks—a punk rock band that enjoyed success during the era of the Sex Pistols—was being interviewed on a public radio program a few years ago. He was speaking specifically of his girlfriend’s murder and how it had affected him. The words that came through the radio while I was driving to work resonated inside of me.
The interviewer touched on the subject of “closure” around a traumatic event, and Jesse answered, “Closure? Are you kidding? There isn’t any such thing as closure. Why do we insist that there has to be some kind of closure to tragedy?”
He’s right. Grief is ongoing. You never stop grieving over the loss of a loved one because you continue to love that person. When he said that, I felt validated. I felt as though I had a brother in spirit.
This journey of experiencing grief is a personal one. After my young son died tragically in 1998, I felt isolated and alone. Therapists wanted to medicate me, friends wanted me to accept his loss and “move on” (whatever that means). My professors expected me to be unaffected in my daily responsibilities.
I thought I was going mad; I was in deep emotional trouble. Something made me ask a friend of mine for a very big favor.
I was attending college as an undergrad and was studying Native American History. Lyle was a friend and a member of the Meskwaki tribe of Nebraska. He invited me to a sweat lodge ceremony. He didn’t invite me right away, I asked him for help.
Actually, I begged him for help—and he sensed that I was completely desperate.
I drove miles up the canyon to the sweat lodge site during a moonless night. The sweat was held at a wolf rescue refuge and I remember that the wolves were howling and growling as my friend Lisa and I drove in. I asked the holy man for permission to enter the lodge and he gave it to me. I felt completely humbled that a full-blood member of the Rosebud Reservation allowed us to participate.
The holy man said during the ceremony:
“You need to honor your loved one. You need to remember him, talk to him, let him be near you.” Those words saved my life.
I was able to go on, to remember my son, to honor that memory and to bring it up to myself and others if that’s what I needed to do. I was awakened to a deeper, more meaningful way of thinking, feeling and being. For that, I am so grateful.
Awakening to all of our emotions, no matter how difficult or beautiful, allows us complete freedom to be authentic to ourselves and others. I did not know it at the time, but I was following some kind of “inner voice” that compelled me to act. I needed some kind of ceremony for my life, to honor my son’s passing.
Grief—like love and joy—unites us all. Awakening to an emotion, without fear or hesitation, allows us to be who we are. Letting authentic emotion move through our bodies keeps us in the present moment. Awakening to this truth has hopefully grown my soul into being more alive. I think that most of 21st century unhappiness and anxiety is a direct result of repressed emotions that have been blocked or bottle up up for years.
The last ‘puzzle piece’ to drop into place was a story by a wonderful Pueblo author, Leslie Marmon-Silko. She retells a story of the death of a child in one of her books, Storyteller. In this particular Pueblo story, a child falls off a mesa to her death. The mother climbs to the place where her child fell and throws her clothes from the mesa, letting them sail on the wind. The clothes turn into beautiful butterflies and fly away.
It’s comforting to know, that when we are in our saddest, most vulnerable moments, that joy and beauty can exist simultaneously along with grief and sorrow.
This story is an example of that to me. Awakening to that knowledge is a monumental step toward awareness and inner peace.
The journey of awakening is never ending, and the vehicle of experiencing grief is part of the journey. We are completely stripped of pretension when we honestly grieve and mourn. The healing and growth that can take place during these times of complete surrender carries us to a higher place of understanding.
I learned that I did not have to sublimate what I was feeling because it made others uncomfortable; that I could remember my son in his life and in his passing; that the memories of joy and grief go hand in hand.
I also learned a secret that is revealed through sacrifice: my experience was not unique. Sharing it was cathartic and healing, for me as well as others experiencing grief. Because it is a part of the journey—just like joy.
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Assistant Ed: Ben Neal/Ed: Bryonie Wise