There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and time to uproot…. a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to be silent and a time to speak…
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Excerpts from the children’s book “Cry, Heart, But Never Break” by Glenn Ringtved
Illustrations by Charlotte Pard
“Some people say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death’s heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.”
Death proceeds to tell the children about two girls, Joy and Delight.
“They were bright and sunny and their days were full of happiness. The only shadow was their sense that something was missing. They didn’t know what, but they felt they couldn’t fully enjoy their happiness.”
Death goes on to tell a story of how their lives weren’t balanced until they met and fell in love with Sorrow and Grief. Death tells the children, it is the same with life and death. “What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?”
“Moments later, the children heard the upstairs window open. Then, in a voice somewhere between a cry and a whisper, Death said, ‘Fly, Soul. Fly, fly away.’ The curtains were blowing in the gentle morning breeze. Looking at the children, Death said quietly, ‘Cry, Heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life.’”
“Ever after, whenever the children opened a window, they would think of their grandmother. And when the breeze caressed their faces, they could feel her touch.”
Especially in Weeping
Especially in weeping
the soul reveals
and through secret pressure
changes sorrow into water.
The first budding of the spirit
is in the tear,
a slow and transparent word.
Then following this elemental alchemy
thought turns itself into substance
as real as a stone or an arm.
And there is nothing uneasy in the liquid
except the mineral
anguish of matter.
Grieving is sacred work. It has the power to take you deep into your Source, where you will have a glimpse of your true home. That is where you find peace.
I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.
Gone To Seed
I have been tromping through the woods for 25 years, foraging for wild plants and springtime ephemerals for my botanical artwork. I’ve stayed close to home in the Vermont woods, stopped along roadsides all over New England, and traveled far and wide in the Alaskan forests and tundra.
Now it is fall; not my usual collecting time for wildflowers and green shoots. But I am dying. I may not have time to wait for spring. Here in the autumn woods in Vermont, my heart leaps at the broken, eaten, rotting, golden foliage and the many colored fruits standing straight up, or lying on the ground to plant their seed. Life is so rich, even as it prepares to die.
I am calling this series “Gone to Seed.” I never intended it to have such profound importance to me. As it has evolved, it has become a clear metaphor for my life. I see the whole cycle of life in the plants in this season, just as I see the whole cycle of life in me. My roots are my exceptional family that nurtured and grew me, and my children are the brilliantly colored seeds, bursting out of the pod and into the world, as I float out of the frame and into the universe.
In the extremely helpful book, Mourning and Mitzvah, Rabbi Anne Brener, shares the time-honored gifts from the Jewish faith. She explains that Jewish law prohibits extending the usual polite greeting to the mourner; We do not say ‘Shalom Alekhim’ (Peace be with you) or ‘Good day’ or ‘Good bye’ because ‘Shalom’ and ‘good’ do not appropriately describe the days or feelings of a mourner.
Rather than extend the usual polite greetings, Judaism suggests that someone attempting to provide comfort simply sit beside the mourner and share in his or her grief. Rabbi Brener explains that the greatest teaching on how to comfort comes in the name of God that is invoked in the blessing on behalf of mourners. The Mourner’s Blessing goes like this: “May HaMakom (God) comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
There are many names for God in the Jewish tradition; such as, HaRachaman which means the Compassionate one and El Emunah which means the Faithful One. However, in the Mourner’s prayer the name for God that is used is HaMakom and it is very different from all other names for the Divine. This name is not descriptive of a quality. Instead HaMakom means “The Place.”
Rabbi Brener beautifully explains, “HaMakom embrace without defining the nature of the embrace.” She goes on to explain that within this holy embrace there is neither a description of the face of Holiness or a prescription for the behavior of the one in need of this embrace. This non-intrusive embrace is exactly the kind of safe attention that mourners need in order to find their voice of healing.
So the Jewish tradition creates a safe place for healing and calls this safe place God. Rabbi Brener also refers to as it Holy Places of Comfort and encourages us all to provide these safe sanctuaries to mourners. Here mourners will receive the healing and comfort that they need directly from God. She says “We acknowledge the mysterious nature of healing” and “assert that healing comes from some place of soul which is beyond our understanding or control.”
In Rabbi Brener’s own experience of working with people in mourning, she has found that those in grief are often severely burdened by feeling a need to attend to the inept people who come to help them. These “would be comforters” often have good intentions but actually do more harm than good by trying to provide a magic fix in the form of just-the-right word or phrase to transform their mourning.
The deep wisdom of Judaism acknowledges that you can’t make it better. You can’t take away the pain of loss and you can’t bring back the person who has died. Coming to terms with this powerlessness, paradoxically allows us to show up for the bereaved in the most truly helpful way possible—to share in his or her grief. According to the ritual of Shiva, comforters are present but in a precise and limited way. Brener explains that a ritualized way of interacting is designed to carry the mourner through the initial shock of numbness—or unreality—without too much intrusion. The comforter is advised to walk past the mourner and wait for a cue from the mourner that says it is alright to speak. And mourners may not find their voice—or their desire to speak—for some time.
My friends, let’s grow up.
Let’s stop pretending we don’t know the deal here.
Or if we truly haven’t noticed, let’s wake up and notice.
Look: Everything that can be lost, will be lost.
It’s simple — how could we have missed it for so long?
Let’s grieve our losses fully, like ripe human beings,
But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.
Let’s not act so betrayed,
As though life had broken her secret promise to us.
Impermanence is life’s only promise to us,
And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability.
(excerpt from The Dakini Speaks by Jennifer Wellwood)
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.
Don’t Surrender Your Loneliness
Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly. Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you.
As few human or divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight.
Has made my eyes so soft.
My voice so tender.
My need of God absolutely clear.
Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
The song of the mourner is our invitation to turn our ears and tune our hearts to the great spiritual call of life: being of service to one another.
All beauty of this world is wet with the dew of tears.
After the loss of a loved one, many of us are left with old hurts, unhealed goodbyes, unsaid, love unexpressed. We grieve not only the person but also the hopes, dreams and unfulfilled expectation that we had for and with that person…. Your beloved is within reach–within you–much closer than you think. All that is keeping you from a sense of connection with your deceased loved one is your unused imagination. In the imagination, death does not end a relationship…. It is never too late to reconcile and heal your relationship with a deceased loved one.
Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.
Excerpt from When We Were Old by Brooke McNamara
When we were old we forgot all the lines of our poems because we’d become them…The real thing revealed itself to us, when we were old, and warmed our faces as if around a fire. And we grieved, and we grieved, and we hatched from the grieving and became new, even when we were old. When we were old we forgot about ever getting to that other imagined place, and so instead became the blessing, descending into our very own feet for the first time, which were just the right shape for walking slowly the golden dirt path each day.
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.
Grief is subversive, undermining the quiet agreement to behave and be in control of our emotions. It is an act of protest that declares our refusal to live numb and small. There is something feral about grief, something essentially outside the ordained and sanctioned behaviors of our culture. Because of that, grief is necessary to the vitality of the soul. Contrary to our fears, grief is suffused with life-force…. It is not a state of deadness or emotional flatness. Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated. It resists the demands to remain passive and still. We move in jangled, unsettled and riotous ways when grief takes hold us us. It is truly an emotion of that rises from soul.
Grief and gratitude are kindred souls, each pointing to the beauty of what is transient and given to us by grace.
Patricia Campbell Carlson
No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.
Grief and Praise
Stephen Jenkinson, also know as The Griefwalker, is a Harvard trained theologian, spiritual counselor, ceremonialist, and storyteller. He is also the founder of a school called Orphan Wisdom. Jenkinson calls it “a redemptive project that comes from where we come from. It is rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, working for a time we may not see.” He is also “revolutionizing the way we think about grief and dying in North America” by challenging the prevailing paradigm that grief is an affliction, a misery, or an affliction that we need “coping and management and five stages and twelve steps to get over.”
Provocatively Jenkinson asks, “What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of loving life anyway?” He goes on to say that in a time like ours—an information-drunk culture that confuses wisdom with information—grieving is a subversive act. Jenkinson teaches that grief as a skill “is the skill of being able to praise or love.” He calls them “honored guests” that should be welcomed at your table. They clink their glasses together “toasting the living.”
Martin Prechtel, who comes from the Mayan people in Guatemala, echoes the sentiment that grief is a skill or way of looking at the world that links grief with praise. In his travels and work as a shaman, he noticed that people who couldn’t “weep properly for the dead” were not fully alive. He clarifies what he means by weeping properly, it doesn’t mean right or wrong but really knowing how to do it “where you look bad when you’re done…when your hair is missing and your clothes are ripped and you’re down on your hands and knees in the street.”
Prechtel noticed that people who couldn’t grieve couldn’t praise. Through self-inquiry he observed that when he—or other Mayan or indigenous people—pray it always contains great grief. As soon as he begins to utter a pray his voice is choked with emotion and his eyes well with tears. Emphatically Prechtel states that this is not “an act” or performance—it’s not theatrics! “Your mortality is in your face every time you praise realistically.” People often asked him what this means and he explains, “It’s because if you are praising something—your grief has to be present for the stakes to be high enough for the praise to be legitimate.”
According to ancient wisdom, true praise has to contain the notion that you are mortal, and that the praised is mortal and the “beauty is that at this moment we are all together at this place to be together.” Ancient wisdom is holistic wisdom. It acknowledges the fleeting quality of life right in the midst of life. There’s a grief contained in praise that “makes the magic of praise very real because the stakes are extremely high.”
Prechtel explains that grief is, in truth, a “praise of life!” He says that you have to wail from deep within because otherwise it means you don’t “love the thing you lost” and then, what use is it? “You’ve gotta love the thing you lost. And you’ve gotta love the thing you’ve got!” He elaborates, “That’s why the thing you’ve got—when you’re grieving for the thing—is called praise. And when you’re praising for the thing you’ve lost—it’s called grief.”
Stephen Jenkinson echoes this same idea when he defines grief, “It’s how you love all those things in life that end.” And in this world—all things come to an end. He encourages us to realize that our “cultural, spiritual and ancestral treasure will be in seeds we know the story of that will feed those we love.”
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Naomi Shihab Nye
How did the rose ever open its heart and give to the world all of its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise we all remain too frightened.
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
A single crocus ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace.
If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things in nature have a message you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive.
I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, “It tastes sweet, does it not?” “You caught me,” grief answered, “and you’ve ruined my business, how can I sell sorrow when you know it’s a blessing?”
The cloud weeps, and then the garden sprouts,
The baby cries, and the mother’s milk flows.
The nurse of Creation has said, Let them cry a lot.
This rain-weeping and sun-burning twine together
to make us grow. Keep your intelligence white-hot
and your grief glistening, so your life will stay fresh.
Cry easily like a little child.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
When we descend all the way down to the bottom of a loss, and dwell patiently with an open heart, in the darkness and pain, we can bring back up with us the sweetness of life and the exaltation of inner growth. When there is nothing left to lose, we find the true self–the self that is whole, the self that is enough, the self that no longer looks to others for definition, or completion, or anything but companionship on the journey.
Perhaps the biggest paradox is that we can come again to love life even when we are mindful of death. Holding these apparent contradictions at once is a sign of wholeness–or healing–or shalom–words that have the same meaning linguistically. It helps us to love more courageously, to search in every moment for what is holy and eternal, to cherish each day and to cultivate life by caring for ourselves, each other, and the planet.
Rabbi Anne Brener
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.