In October, I was attending a women’s retreat at a beautiful venue on an island near Seattle. A friend and I were looking out at a tree, happily dropping its leaves.

I sighed, “Oh, here we go. Soon all the color will be on the ground, dried to a crispy brown.”

My friend smiled, “Haven’t you ever noticed how beautiful bare branches are? In the coldest, darkest time of winter, they reach their limbs to the sky.”

I smiled, and thanked her. I imagined the tree before me, bereft of its color, reaching up to the moon on a dark night. Its beauty seemed not unlike the arms of a person, pared down to her essence, reaching out into the unknown.

I am reminded of this image, as we enter January. The lights of the holidays are down, all the leaves have sailed forth from the trees, and we are left in darkness.

I am living through in a time in my life when many people around me have lost loved ones. Loss seems to go in cycles, like waves against the shore. This winter I know many people who are grieving. Some lost an elderly parent who was ailing, some lost a beloved family member who died quite suddenly, or they are still grieving a loss from long ago. We think we can prepare for the onslaught of emotion that comes with even a much-anticipated death. In my experience, even when we know what is coming, it is a terribly traumatic shock.

As human beings it is simply difficult to wrap our minds around the absolute finality of death. I lost my father to cancer in the prophetic year, 1984. I knew he was dying, but something in me held on, somehow not believing it would ever happen. I was young. I had never lost someone so close to me. For twenty years after that, every time I phoned my stepmother, I expected my Dad to answer the phone, crooning, “Happy New Year!” I only gave up this expectation when she passed, and at long last, I grieved the loss of my childhood phone number.

How do we bear this inevitable, dreaded, reality? Many religions ascribe metaphysical meaning to it, seeing death as a transition, or that chariot to heaven. Does this help, when we are in the throes of fresh, raw, grief?

For me, I now realize that the death of my father was a necessary rite of passage for me to open a whole new door in my own consciousness. I was gifted with many dreams with my father in them. In one I was carrying his emaciated, body through Fifth Avenue in Manhattan at rush hour, weeping and calling out, “Stop! Will someone stop? I need to take my father to the hospital!” No one stopped.

I now see this scene as a love letter from my Dad, from wherever he is beyond the grave. He was telling me to stop, to really look at my frantic, hectic life. To take my soul to the hospital, for it was unhealthy, and needed attention.

I still miss my father. I will until the day I die, but I am grateful for the spiritual opportunity his death offered me.

I invite all those who are grieving, who have lost loved ones, or who, like many of us, grieve the state of our world, the environment, the genocide of innocent people. Beneath the grieving is a brave new world of your own soul and human spirit, learning new perspectives, embracing new causes, reaching out to heal the world, as you heal yourself.

I realize that until I experienced the death of my father, my capacity for empathy was impaired. I thought of myself as a good person, but my activities and thoughts were too ego-bound, too full of trivial pursuits, too unaware.

I am not saying give up silliness and fun. Far from it. Paradoxically, we can discover more joy and humor, the more we embark on a journey to become aware of the great blessing of this life, every moment, every day. We learn not to waste time worrying about how awful things are.

We can bask in the beauty of the bare branches of winter, ever grateful for the seasons and our intimate relationship with all things.

Epilogue: This is dedicated to all those who have lost dear ones, to the lovely friend who showed me the beauty of winter branches, and to my wonderful father.

Copyright 2012 by Elizabeth Clark-Stern

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