Muse: to reflect, contemplate, to
meditate in silence on some subject.
“There are opportunities even in the most difficult moments.”
One of the greatest opportunities we have in grief is to let our hearts be broken open by our pain rather than trying to shut down in self-protection. This is no easy task. When we break open we allow the pain to move through our whole being as it begins to transform us from the inside out. This transformation is an alchemy of sorts where pain is transformed into wisdom, sadness into compassion, heartbreak into empathy, suffering into kindness, despair into hope, longing into connection, struggle into peace, and sorrow turns into healing.
I have heard it said that pain may just be what healing feels like and when we can allow ourselves to break open the pain can transform us into a greater way of being.
So when opportunity knocks may we all learn to open our doors wide.
To journey without being changed is to be a nomad.
To change without journeying is to be a chameleon.
To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.
The Pilgrimage of Grief
One of the definitions of a pilgrimage is “a rigorous, soulful journey that evokes emotion and commotion as it awakens our ability to respond from our deepest places” (Cousineau 2012).
When we hear the word pilgrimage we may think we have to travel halfway around the world to walk a certain path in order to learn more about ourselves. We also think of all the preparation it takes to go on such a journey. We would need to plan for how long we will be gone, plan our route, get our plane tickets, and of course, we would need to have all of the proper equipment such as the right shoes, appropriate clothing, a sturdy backpack, and most certainly a map.
Grief is its own sort of pilgrimage (soul journey) that takes us on an inward excursion to faraway lands that lie buried deep within us. Grief is our tour guide on this pilgrimage as it knows all of our hidden, out of the way places that we didn’t even know existed. It is a long expedition with no final destination.
A grief pilgrimage isn’t something that one chooses to do instead it chooses us. There is no way to really prepare for a grief pilgrimage as there are no tickets to purchase but the price we have paid is high. Even though we carry no backpack the burden is heavy. And there most certainly is not a map as we will learn to make our own as we go. Sometimes we may know that we will soon be taking this journey when loss looms large on the horizon but this does not mean we can make any real preparations nor does it make the pilgrimage any easier. Other times we may suddenly find ourselves being thrown onto this path with no advanced warning.
There will be many long days and sleepless nights on this journey. With grief as our tour guide, we soon find out that grief has no sense of direction and that there are no direct routes or shortcuts to wherever it is that we may be going. Most days on this journey we just feel lost so we end up doing more than our fair share of backtracking as well as walking in circles that seem to lead to nowhere. We also learn that grief comes and goes as it pleases. We never know when or where along our travels that grief will decide to take us in a whole new direction without any prior notice. And no matter how many times we ask grief will never ever say how long this pilgrimage will last.
When we first start out on our pilgrimage grief usually takes us to a very dark and quite chaotic inner landscape. This darkness is like no other we have experienced. It’s as if the light inside of us has been snuffed out and no matter how hard we try we can’t seem to reignite our inner spark. It is a weighted darkness that not only makes it difficult to move but also makes it difficult to breathe. This weighted darkness encourages us to slow down and take one step at a time on this unfamiliar path. In due time we will learn that even the darkness has something to teach us and we will eventually find the light that is contained within this darkness.
Some days grief leads us into the desert of our sadness. Here we feel like we are walking in the Sahara at high noon where there is nothing to quench our thirst, our longing. We feel scorched by the heat of being ripped apart by our loss. Everywhere we look the scenery is the same with no end in sight. Sometimes strong winds begin to blow which causes a sandstorm that temporarily blinds us as it erases any tracks we may have made in the sand that had given us some sense of direction. Yet we continue to trudge along as the sands shift beneath us reminding us that there is also a shift happening inside of us. We search for solid ground but find none. We will soon come to understand that just because we can’t feel solid ground beneath our feet doesn’t mean it is not there.
Other days grief will take us on an exploration of our own inner arctic circle where a deafening silence surrounds us. Here we feel isolated, cold, and numb. We feel like we are frozen in time and nothing can thaw us; nothing can reach us. In this stillness we allow our new reality to catch up with us as the permanence of our loss begins to slowly sink in.
This circuitous route of grief continues. It takes us to all of the deepest places within ourselves. We go from the depths of despair to the heat of anger, to the chaos of confusion, to overwhelming fear and uncertainty, to disbelief, and back again. As exhausting as all of this commotion is we slowly begin to trust this process.
One day on our journey grief sneaks up on us and slowly turns us around and whispers in our ear, “Look at how far you have come.” We look at the scrambled path that we have traveled. We see all of the ins and outs and the ups and downs that we have stumbled through and for the first time in a very long time we are able to take a deep breath. Grief then gently starts to lead us back to visit some of the places we have overlooked. Grief shows us our strength that has helped us to carry the weight of our loss. It shows us our courage that helped us face each new day, each new feeling, as we traversed this treacherous terrain. It shows us our perseverance because there were many days when we didn’t want to go on but we did. It shows us our hope that every day wasn’t going to be this painful. Our hope reminded us that somehow things would get better and that somehow we would be able to make something good out of this pain. It showed us our connection to everything even when we felt isolated and so alone. It showed us how the threads of connection are sewn into us and through us linking us to ourselves on a deeper level, linking us to others and most importantly showing us how we will always be connected to our lost loved ones. It also showed us the places of love that we had overlooked. The kind smile from a stranger, supportive words from a friend, a gentle hug from a loved one, a song played that reminded us of our loved one. Grief shows us that it is love that has been the faithful friend that has carried us on this pilgrimage and allowed us to grow and be transformed by our experience.
At some point in our journey, we will be walking along and we will notice the sunrise as it begins to peek over the horizon. We will notice the color of the sky and the smell of the flowers. And we will hear the birds start to sing. We feel the life in us, our inner spark, beginning to return.
Even though this pilgrimage never ends as our love never ends we know we must continue to walk this ever-winding path to deeper meaning and healing.
The death of someone we love
can totally transform us as humans.
That transformation can be revolutionary
in that it completely changes our life.
We do not go back
to who we were before the loss.
We are changed by it forever.
Grief deepens you.
Our losses can wake us up
to an undying love.
Grief can be a unifying force.
It can carry us from fractured states
of separation to a deeper state of unity
with our own selves and others.
The Written Word
There are many ways to express our grief and putting our thoughts, feelings, and ideas on paper can be a very healing process. The suggested prompts here can be done one time or multiple times. I’ve learned it helps to set a timer for 10-15 minutes and keep your pen moving for the entire time. I encourage using pen and paper rather than a keyboard as there is a hand/heart connection when writing longhand. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar, just write. When the timer goes off you stop writing even if you are in mid-sentence. Don’t reread your work at this time. Just set it aside for a couple of weeks and then go back and see what your words may have to say to you.
(If you choose to use a keyboard the same instructions apply).
Try this writing prompt:
When you look at your own grief pilgrimage what is it that you have carried with you and what is it that you have left behind?
I will list some books, articles, poems, movies, or other resources that I as well as others have found helpful on this grief journey. I hope these resources may deepen your understanding of grief, maybe bring you some sense of comfort, and help you to feel less alone in your grief.