What happens to us when we lose a loved one?
They say, “time heals all wounds”, but is this true? Is the repression of painful events and feelings what helps us “get over” a profound loss? Or is it an opportunity to open the heart, the mind, the senses to a process of releasing our mortality-bound concept of the person we have lost. Surrendering to the loss of his or her “personhood” only to glimpse, beyond the heavy boulders of grief, a new intimacy?
I think of my mother, a woman of many dimensions in her mortal life: a Southern Belle beauty with a sharp wit, and often, an acid tongue, certainly a depression dating back to her early adolescence; a courage to fight this depression, a fierce love of her children, yet a sense of being lost in a world that never met her expectations. In mortal life, there was a great love, and a persistent tension between us. She died some years ago quite suddenly. I was there in the hospital in her final days, but by the time I arrived after a long plane flight, she was closed off from the world. I talked to her, held her as she died, but though some would say otherwise, I doubt she had any idea I was there.
A few days after her death, I dreamed I entered her room in the small apartment she had called home for many years. It was empty but for a white palate on the floor. Mom was dressed in a white coat and pants – yoga pants, I thought, though she never did yoga in mortal life. She was relaxed, her body moving with an ease and grace and freedom that was all new. She saw me and said, “I can’t believe it is almost time for you to go—“ Apparently I was on my way to the airport, to leave her again, as I had done so many times. She said, “Just let me hold you one last time—“ We reached for each other and I melted into her arms, as I surely did as a baby.
I woke in tears. This mother in my dreams was a new being. Someone I may have known pre-verbal, or in isolated moments, but I had never seen her whole, free, open, loving.
When I think of my mother now, I do not whitewash the history of trauma she suffered, or how that played out in her life. What I focus on is the new relationship that began after her death. A relationship, arguably, with the “her” in me. I felt a warmth, an intimacy, a closeness with this new mother. Not a fantasy, not a delusion. A sense that, with her death, we could be close to each other, essence-to-essence, in a way that all the layers of protection, blame, judgment and our false selves had blocked in mortal life.
It is a relationship I cherish more and more as I age. Not long ago, I dreamed of walking in the kitchen door at my house, to be greeted by my mother. She was happy and surprised to see me as a woman in my 60’s – the same age she was in this same dream. We laughed and hugged each other, again, with that easy intimacy that stripped away all the fears and resentments that drove a wedge between us when she lived on earth.
Often it takes a full year for us to really admit that someone we loved is really dead. The shock is so powerful when the love is so deep. We keep waiting for the phone to ring, the door to open, that voice on the pillow beside us in the dark. It is simply unbelievable that this person is never, never coming back in the “mortal coil” as Shakespeare said. The shock keeps our grieving frozen, and, quite often, out of sheer self defense, we push the love away as well. It is just too painful to feel the depth of love when the next thought is, “And I will never see him again!”
Sometimes, usually into the second year, another wave of grieving comes. This can be nightmares that re-play the final stages of life, the last moments with the beloved, the last time we heard that soft, weak voice whisper, “I love you too.”…
It could be that, into the second year, our psyche is delivering a tough-love punch to the self: “See: It happened. He is GONE. —Wake up!”
What are we being called to Wake Up to? Nightmares can often have a healing effect if we look beyond the horror of the images and the renewed shock of the loss. If our loved one is dead to us in mortal form, what is left? Did the love go away? They say a loved one lives on within the living, but how is this love experienced. There is a difference between a memory (good or bad) and a re-conceptualizing of the relationship. In the case of my mother, it has meant a release into a love that eluded us in mortal life. In the case of someone I recently lost, it means I must let go of the form of him: his lanky walk, the sly way he looked out of the corner of his eyes, the way he nursed a latte all day long and there it would be in the frig the next morning….That reality is held in memory, and is dear. Now, he is elsewhere. Does this mean I can’t feel close to him? Talk to him on my morning walks? Imagine him sitting on the porch in the summertime, listening to me, answering me…?
A new intimacy is possible if we can let go of the attachment to form. In the second year of grieving my recent loss, I have come to realize that if I let the shock give way to horror, and the horror give way to deep grieving and acceptance of the end of his mortal form, I can actually feel close to “him” – the pure essence of him that I can feel and taste and hear, with much the same reality that I felt when he sat across the table from me, offering me a slice of triple berry pie.
Much of this awareness came to me a few weeks ago. In typical first year fashion, I had pushed him out of my thoughts for awhile. On Christmas Eve, I felt a great heaviness flow over me. This didn’t make sense. We never spent Christmas together…well, a talk on the phone, as we had every week for 30 years…but why now this heaviness, this awareness, as if I wanted to open a door and find him standing there. But knowing he wouldn’t be there.
I heard a voice inside me whisper, “There are no words”…
I wrote this poem, and sobbed, for some time. A letting go, only to let a new level of intimacy come into being:
How do you write a poem with no words?
There are no words,
only the light on the olive tree,
the hummingbird thrumming
then, no sound.
The wind rustles the palo verde,
then, the light is your sight,
the wind, your breath,
your laughter, the hummingbird,
I invite all of you to explore the intimate relationship that is possible, after letting go of the moral form of your beloved.