Grief is a funny thing. A peculiar thing, I mean, not an entertaining one. It creeps in unexpectedly when everything seems fine, silent as Carl Sandburg's fog which "comes / on little cat feet." It does not listen to reason. It pays no attention to any list of gratitudes. When it wells up, cue the waterworks.
Grief brings fragility. As though the delicate eggshell of the heart could crack open at any moment, revealing an endless salt wellspring. Even writing about it from a distance, I want to keep it at arm's-length. I use stock phrases: "a funny thing," "cue the waterworks." I'm deflecting to keep it at bay.
Grief doesn't only come in the aftermath of loss. There's anticipatory grief, awareness that a loss is coming. And sometimes losses compound one another. The loss of health. The loss of the unthinking freedom which comes with health. The loss of an anticipated future, of what one thought would be.
Grief is, I find, not like depression. When I have experienced depression it has placed a scrim between me and the world, whereas grief leaves one exposed and open. When I can head depression off at the pass, that's a good thing, whereas trying to evade grief seems emotionally and spiritually unwise.
Also unlike depression, grief has a known cause: loss, or the expectation of loss. It's not an existential sadness without explanation. Grief has meaning. As Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz has written, grief can offer the gift of transformation when we allow ourselves to feel it fully and to be changed.
I think back to conversations I had with my first spiritual director when I had my strokes. We spoke often about the challenges of equanimity. What might it mean, he asked, to respond to uncertainties about my health with equanimity? Could I make a practice of trying to accept whatever would be?
It is easier to bring equanimity to bear on uncertainties about my own health than on uncertainties about the health of someone I love. When the prognosis is not good, and none of us can know exactly what will happen next, the path toward equanimity detours often into the dips and valleys of grief.
I think of the verse from Psalms which my friend Rabbi Brant Rosen cited recently -- "God is close to the broken-hearted." This is another way that grief feels different to me from depression. When I have been depressed, God has felt absent. When I grieve, I know God is with me. There's comfort in that.
Everyone wants their loved ones to be healthy and whole, though we know that can't always be true. Grief may arise when we bump up against the disjunction between what we'd hoped for, and what may actually unfold. And we have no control over what cards we, or our loved ones, may be dealt.
Sickness and mortality are part of life. As a rabbi who has tended to others navigating these truths, I know that grief is a healthy response. If we try to numb ourselves from anticipated loss, the emotional waves will do more damage than if we just let them roll in over our heads and then melt away.
There's a parable about creatures living at the bottom of a rocky river, clinging to the stones in the current and being battered by the waves. And then one of them lets go, and discovers that the current is not an enemy but a friend. One can float safely over the sharp rocks, if one can trust and let go.
I trust that with such release, the currents of grief lead to shores of comfort. Safe shores where one can look back without regret, where one can cultivate gratitude without needing to pretend that there is no sorrow. Where loss, actual or anticipated, is outweighed by the continuing joy of connection.
Over the last few months I've been privileged to read near-daily postings from Eve Ilsen, trained dreamworker and rabbinic pastor, as she navigates her grief in the wake of the death of her husband Reb Zalman, may his memory be a blessing. Watching her walk the mourner's path moves me deeply.
I know there's a limit to how much one can learn by reading about someone else's emotional journey. But I've found it valuable to read about her grief's ebbs and flows. She's writing because doing so brings her comfort and connection, not to teach me (or anyone), but I'm grateful for her teaching.
And I want to acknowledge that there's a difference between grieving someone like Reb Zalman who had a long and fulfilling life, and grieving the loss of a child. Watching Superman Sam's parents grieve online humbles me and breaks my heart. To bury a child is an inversion of the natural order of things.
To be the grown child who eventually buries a grandparent, a teacher, a parent is not something one wishes for. But it's the way life works. How fortunate we are, we who are blessed to have beloved elders well into our own adulthood, we who eventually have to face their fragility (and our own).
Sometimes grief comes and goes like contractions. Fierce enough to steal the breath, and then it's gone, and then it returns. And as with labor, there's no way out but through. All anyone can do is keep breathing and let the tears come. Let go of the rocks and trust the current. Let the waves flow.
And when it is gone, how are we changed? What spiritual and emotional gifts might grief bestow, if we are open to receiving them? I think we feel grief for a reason. There is work it does in us. What can we learn from its visitations? How would it feel not to fight it, but to invite it to help us heal?
If you are grieving...
- 20 tips for grieving, from the Good Grief Center
- Some Jewish resources for grief, loss, and bereavement, compiled by Nahama Shudofsky and Simkha Weintraub
- A Buddhist perspective on grieving by Roshi Joan Halifax