An Intimate Look at Grief
DISCLAIMER: While this writing is a reflection of my process it includes mature themes of loss and grief. It may trigger similar feelings or memories of events in your life. It also shares moments from a movie that may reveal real aspects of cultural loss associated to Native American heritage and the nature of grief that spans a history and lives within a sacred people and lands. I am not specifically attending to the cultural and racial themes in this blog, but these horrific losses are no less significant.
I had the honorable opportunity to cry about my brother last night over the movie "Wind River". A lost Native American woman found dead in the snow on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. It wasn't clear what I was in for, until I saw the scene of her being found in the snow. And out of the recesses it came---a trembling, heaving mass of shock, sadness and devastation--again.
This week, 14 years ago, we'd gotten a call from one of Ryan's friends because his group hadn't seen him for a few days and were worried.
My sister and I were a week from 16 years old, my mom was working at behavioral health for the county and my dad worked and lived an hour away as a firefighter/medic and had experience in search and rescue.
I used to be able to just run through the story, but now that I am in my body and have processed so much of my inner world through my sensations---I am fully aware and feel it is important for you to know that my heart is pounding. This loss, amongst the other losses prior to and post the shock loss of my brother, set me on a deep journey. These losses set my course in search for healing and wholeness for the rest of my life. The losses also gave me a sense of longing to invite others into the truth of the mind, body, heart and spirit connection within the healing journey.
The losses, the story, the events leading up to and after are sacred. It is divine. And the story, when told, is evoked in my bones as well. It is a part of me. My brother is a part of me. I am the way I am because of it.
Shock losses tend to create very complicated grief within families. The effects of a sudden death will be surrounded by a haze of confusion, anger, denial, shock and a profound sense of surreality. Not to mention a depth of sadness that no words can describe. Early on you "see" the person in the world still, somewhere, but not with you, you "see" constant flashes of where they might be, when they might soon appear again, you hear the phone ring and it's them, you walk into the house and hear the music on and it's them, they have finally come home. You speak in the present tense about them and the goodbye is figment of your imagination because you were robbed the chance to do it. Similar to a phantom limb, but it's a necessary part of your core--- a lung, your gut or heart. Something is missing, but you can feel it with such a sensitivity, rawness and tenderness. My arms are shaking. And sometimes, when it's poked, it feels like a stabbing.
The celtic mystic, John O'Donohue, writer and scholar writes "suffering would be more manageable if its pain were restricted merely to the surface of one's life or at least to one corner of one's individuality...Alas, one's individuality is not constructed in such convenient compartments. Your mind, heart and body are a unity, each place within you intimately one with every other. Pain in one part of the body affects every other. Your nervous system is the miracle that makes of all the different parts one living and feeling presence. There is something about pain and suffering that is pervasive, it suffuses your full presence."
(Eternal Echoes, p. 152).
I am honored to walk alongside those with losses--all sorts of losses. Even the seemingly small losses can impact us to this degree, especially if we have a history of losses underneath. I've never once not felt the swell of communion in the sharing of a loss. It is the communion in the sharing of the loss that keeps it, him, alive and the wound continually getting the attention it needs.
Shock loss can take decades to fully take in. In shock, our system goes into a self-preservation state that numbs us, we "know" cognitively it happened, but because it's such a big loss and it happened suddenly, it cannot be processed all at one time and definitely not within 6 months to a year. One of my trainers in Somatic Experiencing®, Raja Selvam, was working with a woman who had lost her child suddenly through a miscarriage. They talked about her grief coming in waves over time, then Raja normalized the wave-like pattern of grief because the "grief is too big for the body". The woman's grief showed up in phantom limb-like symptoms. She had been experiencing the sensation of her child in her arms and a deep visceral ache in her heartspace. I've heard many parents whose child has left or gone away off on their own describe such similar phenomenon. She was instructed to let her arms do the holding and let her viscera do the aching while he held her body as it trembled in shock and pain.
Let it come naturally, you will gradually open up to feeling it more and more, coming to understand its messages, the nuances of the ways it must transform you. The unresolved nature of the relationship will linger. It is in facing the loss, uncovering the pain over time, even if only in your imagination, you might be gifted reconciliation.
It took a weekend for search and rescue to find my brother who had been snowboarding beyond the boundaries (classic Ryan!). He had made himself a small shelter when he couldn't make it out of the gorge he'd made it down to, possibly following the river to a way out. He died in the snow, most likely after falling into a deep warm sleep.
Each of my family members have their version of this horrific story. We were all in different places, totally going about our business, until search and rescue was called in and the police started to take his being a missing person seriously. Both of my parents had dreams about him the night before we found him and had a terrible sense that he was on the mountain and fought to have that be the main area they were to look.
So this week, for the last 14 years, in addition to holidays, birthdays and life celebrations, carries a significant heaviness. The feeling of "everything is alright", then, "oh wait, something is very wrong" (this is when you think you are in a nightmare), to the, "yes, definitely wrong" and it's your life and it will never be the same again. That feeling lingers in my memory and as I acknowledge it, I too feel that slow pounding heart and a bracing in my body to protect myself from impact. And then I remember him, us, our little lives, his drums, his laugh, his cars, shenanigans with skating, boarding, and his friends, oh his friends. I'll remember the pain he was in at times, his frustration towards the world that always made him break free and go his own way. And my body softens to feel him in my memory, our memory of us, of our world back then.
Wind River's wildlife and fish ranger, Cory, who lost his daughter three years earlier, explains grief to a father who has just lost his daughter to violence and snow on the reservation, "I'd like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn't. If there's a comfort, you get used to the pain. If you let yourself". He goes on saying he learned, "I got good news and bad news. The bad news is you'll never be the same. You'll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can't be replaced. Your daughter is gone. Now the good news, as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, you'll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. If you shy from the pain of it, then you'll rob yourself of every memory of her...every one. From her first step to her last smile. You'll kill'em all. Take the pain. Take the pain Martin. It's the only way to keep her with you."
For my parents the loss of their son shattered reality, obliterated their hearts and bodies. I have never not seen this happen with a loss of a child. It looks different for everyone but to lose something from you before you die, it's felt as terribly wrong and against the order of things. At Ryan's funeral, my pastor from my home church Jeff said, "A pastor shouldn't bury a child he watched grow up and parents shouldn't have to bury their son when he had the rest of his life to live and died, and you are still alive". As if their places should be switched. Both my mom and dad would go through upheavals in every way and have to learn how to function, find meaning and purpose again, and deal with massive physiological ramifications of this loss, if they could.
My sister and I went to school the next day. With our brother's portrait being shown on the daily news and our world suddenly different, we went to school. We had learned the necessity of doing this through other traumas we'd passed through and it wouldn't fail us now. School is where friends, soccer, music, classes, boys, and distraction was, it was also where we could be away from the eery air of our house. Such a blur. I remember a teacher talking to me about it all outside class before the bell rang. I was just in a haze, "okay", I said, "I'll be okay". And over the next 14 years I would be wrestling with taking in, grieving, and coming to terms with the loss of my brother to a snowy mountain.
Loss has a sneaky way of laying latent until there's enough support or reminders to bring it home and when it does--you can guarantee it will come around again if you can't process it then. It will come around in a different way, in a different time, but it will. In a way, Haley and I lost a part of our parents with Ryan's death and over the years we've also lost each other and found ourselves, and one another again. And that's the sweet, uncanny gift of grief. You find yourself and others entirely unique, surviving, living and being in the world and with others with a guttural purpose, instinct, compassion and tenderness because you KNOW pain. You know what once was will never be and you now have a life to live, people to love and people loving you.
I have spoken about grief, written about grief, led groups and workshops on grief and processed grief with countless clients as a form of trauma recovery because grief is a necessity in life, a universal truth while living in this world. Grief is foundational to being alive. Getting to know your losses and grieving them creates a burial so you can remember them, and lay them to rest, so you can remain living for them.
And today I will climb a mountain, go out and hike the hills to connect to Ryan. I couldn't do this 10 years ago during this anniversary week and am surprised my body wants this, but maybe it needs to address it deeper, address it on a mountain and with my husband Ryan nearby, who never met my brother Ryan, but has met him through me. My twin, Haley, is having a baby in February, the first baby to be born in our family since Ryan's death. This little peanut gets to bring new life, new meaning, and take us full circle to letting love in despite the pain love lost causes. And Ryan, is in this too.
A blessing for your journey by John O'Donohue
May you know tender shelter and healing blessing when you are called to stand in the place of pain.
May the places of darkness within you be turned towards the light.
May you be granted the wisdom to avoid false resistance and when suffering knocks on the door of your life, may you be able to glimpse its hidden gift.
May you be able to see the fruits of suffering.
May memory bless and shelter you with the hard-earned light of past travail, may this give you confidence and trust.