alchemy of grief

The Alchemy Of Grief

The morning that Dan died I had a dream that a white wolf was sitting on my bed, facing me with his paws on my chest. I could feel his weight, sense the moisture of his breath and smell his fur. We were breathing together in stillness except for the gentle rise and fall of my chest. I wasn’t scared. Even in my dream, I remembered lines from a Clarissa Pinkola Estes book where she describes the nature of wolves and how they huddle, sway and breathe together before a hunt. Wolves know that they are most powerful when they are in sync with the pack and that it is a necessary step before launching into the world.


So we huddled, swayed and breathed together on that bed and this wolf’s gaze held me in perfect nothingness. It wasn’t blank, just pure. I heard Dan say my name and woke up. The dream was over, I knew he was dead and that there was no longer anything to do.  I laid in the gaze of nothingness until I could accept that there was a day ahead of me which was only slightly less overwhelming than the idea that there was a whole life ahead of me.


Grief has always made me feel as if I was moving underwater and death has always put me at odds with the world around me. I never once said,”Why him?” But as long as I am being completely honest I have often asked, “Why me?” While the world around me spent a decade getting engaged, marrying, and having babies, I was watching death creep into my life and escort my most beloved ones out the door. It was never quick, it was always painful, and there were weekends and mornings and late nights in hospital chairs in both Los Angeles and New York.  There were heartbreaking confessions laden with the weight of an entire lifetime and a lot of quiet listening.  In the last few years my question of “Why me?” has gently shifted into a realization of “Of course, me.”
And with that, these losses have revealed themselves to be my greatest teachers.


Last night I shared with someone that all of these experiences had left me feeling as if I was an iron being repeatedly pushed into the fire for shaping. A sword being forged over and over and over again until only what is real and everlasting, my core, exists. The process is similar to alchemy, and the phase I experienced with this chapter of death was the nigredo.

“Right at the beginning you meet the dragon, or as the alchemists called it, the blackness, the nigredo, and this encounter produces suffering…”  – Carl Jung


It was a time in my life where everyone around me chirped about love and light while I was doing all I could just to keep my shadows at bay. With a final death also came a final realization, that my walls are my wounds and that my shadows have just as much to teach me as the light does. My resistance to this natural process was how the suffering came in. My eventual acceptance was the exact place serenity planted seeds.


These days when I think about death, I immediately think about all that I want to do in this life. When I grieve my loved ones, I show up more fully for the love that is present in my life today.  


So how does living and loving through loss change us?


There were these moments, these snaps in consciousness when I was with Dan when the entire universe would shift. I was seeing with new eyes, and it was brutal and beautiful at the same time. I listen to his last voicemail all the time. He was so positive and calm in his message. He told me not to worry because he was on his way to his oncologist’s office and he had a feeling that everything was going to be okay.  He was dead a month later.

There was the moment when he came up to me in a crowd of people and asked me if we could have dinner that week. Somehow I knew he was sick just by looking in his eyes. He kept smiling at everyone and making small talk, but I saw real fear in every cell in his body.


That was heartbreaking.


There was the moment that I sat down to dinner with him that same week. I watched him hold back tears and begin to tremble. Instead of talking he slid a piece of paper across the table that explained his diagnosis and the impossible survival rate. He asked me to read through it carefully and not to tell anybody.


That was vulnerability.


There was that moment in the hospital room where the doctor was asking him questions as he had done in front of me many times before. Only this time Dan interrupted him, looked at me and said ‘I have to get really honest with the doctor right now. I think it’s okay to do that with you here. I don’t want to ask you to leave. I want you here with me. I can’t pretend in front of you. Are you going to be okay with it?’


 That was intimacy.


There was the moment one evening when he did not like how someone was speaking to me, and he intervened on my behalf. No one has ever done that for me. He apologized to me for interrupting me then stood in front of me and talked the other person into getting right-sized very quickly. Dan suggested that he apologize to me. We had literally just left the hospital, and he still had chemo pumping through his veins. Standing up was a struggle for him. He made standing up for me look effortless.


 That was strength.


There was the moment when I told him that it was time to tell his daughter about his diagnosis. I did not want to say it to him because it felt as if I was admitting that I knew he was dying. I did not want to scare him. I did not want to cry, but I could not stop myself. The tears and the words kept pouring out of me as he listened from his hospital bed. I told him that we had many good times together but that the most important moments between us were these right here. I told him that being with him during this time was a gift and that he should not take that away from his daughter. I stopped to breathe, and he said ‘I think you’re right about my daughter. I’m going to write her a letter and tell her what’s happening to me.’


 That was acceptance.


There was the moment when I told him about putting my Uncle in hospice care.  I could not believe what I was saying to him as the words fell out of my mouth. I expressed how liberating it was for my Uncle to make the decision to transition into hospice care and how he felt released and unburdened.  I told Dan about sitting with my Uncle in a hospital room for three days and nights, sometimes holding his frail body and rocking him gently back and forth like a parent would hold a child.  I told Dan that in those moments death did not feel like a tragedy. It simply felt like the next step. At age 5 you cannot fathom what it would feel like to have the freedom and experiences of 15-year-old. At 15 you cannot imagine what it would feel like to be 30 and have your own child. At 30 you cannot ever imagine having the body and the physical limitations of an 80-year-old. But every step of the way it just happens. You take the next breath, and the next step happens.  I did not want Dan to be afraid of the next step. I wanted him to know that he was safe, perfectly safe, no matter what happened.


That was love.


Then there was that morning when I woke up from a dream that I was having about Dan. For a second I was confused because in my early morning daze I thought he was actually there in the room with me, but my brain knew that by this time he had lost the ability to speak and was in hospice care.  I laid in bed staring at the ceiling because I knew he was dead. I got the call a few hours later.


 That was connection.


I have a whole life to live, or maybe I just have the next moment, the next breath.  I try every day to focus on what I am grateful for but to say that it has been a struggle to move forward in the midst of significant losses would be putting it mildly.  Sitting on the beach yesterday watching the waves was just a reminder for me to keep things fluid, that everything in life is ebb and tide and that nothing we are given in this life is to be wasted. It is perfectly natural to contract during times of fear, anxiety, change, and stress but it gets me nowhere. Those feelings and labels that I assign to life changes are an illusion. Good. Bad. Difficult. Scary. Sad. None of it is real. My perception can change at any moment.  Maybe life is merely a call to the banquet table to feast and learn and share. Death is just a little bit to the left of that.

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