When we live attentively, slowing down sufficiently to listen — to the human and nonhuman, to others and to our hearts, to joy and grief — the attention turns to caring, to generosity and compassion. And when we care, it gives us all kinds of energy, one of which is the energy of grief.
The energy of grief
When things are going wrong or we’re experiencing an influx of loss in our lives, it’s all too easy and understandable that we sometimes become overwhelmed and get stuck, wallowing in sorrow and feeling increasingly hopeless, which is, of course, life- and energy-draining.
And yet, we have to allow for grief. Sacred texts from most religions have a huge amount of grief in them. The Psalms, for example, are at least half lamentation and there’s plenty more in the Book of Lamentations and in the prophets. And for good reason. These texts were often written at critical moments of history. Experiences of exile, of political failure, of plague or crop failure can elicit either apathy and overwhelmed resignation or provoke a rise in political energy and activism. Calls for change arise out of admitting that something is wrong, facing the injustice, loss and grief and harnessing the tidal wave of sorrow so that it transforms into a call for change rather than a giving in to despair. Such grief begins in silence, grows to a huge cry and it doesn’t lie down and die until it’s heard.
The Book of Lamentations — an extraordinary piece of writing that is five interlinked poems on the destruction of Jerusalem, the first four of which are acrostics in Hebrew — is exactly this kind of writing. It is a deep cri de coeur and plea for change.
And when we give grief this kind of space we become acutely aware of what we value and what our vision of life is to take into the future. Paradoxically, life can take on intensity and meaning from what (and who) we have loved and lost. Confronted by the transience of life, it can become all the more precious and vital, making us more inclined to live in the present, savouring each ordinary moment for just how special it is. Alan Lightman puts this well in The Accidental Universe:
If against our wishes and hopes, we are stuck with mortality, does mortality grant a beauty and grandeur all its own? Even though we struggle and howl against the brief flash of our lives, might we find something majestic in that brevity? Could there be a preciousness an value to existence stemming from the very fact of its temporary duration? And I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer its flower opens to reveal silky white petals, which encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.
We all enter the land of grief at some point. The question is whether we find it to be a place of grim despair where we become hollowed out, exhausted and retreat into disconnection. Or whether we find ourselves in a space where sorrow is heard, honoured and allowed to make a difference, with gratitude for all the joys that came before the loss.
We come to grief as a place of transformation when we have the maturity to face the enormity of the loss, give it due weight and the time it needs, and enter into the simple daily rituals that signal to ourselves and the world that what we are grieving for mattered and goes on mattering. And we come to this space more readily when we have support — whether of kin or kith — or of the stories others have left for us to help us on the way — or, hopefully, all of these.
The focus of grief
Grief only gives us the vitality to act if we have the time, space and support (internal and more widely) to work with it so that it brings a clarity of vision. If grief is not to end up in choked despair and fatigue, certainly on a political and societal scale, but even with personal losses, then it must not end in the voice of lamentation but go on to become the voice of discernment, enabling us to see and stand with the good that can still be done in our lives and the world. As Adrienne Rich puts it:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
This kind of grief is a refusal to veer into despair or cynicism. As Wendell Berry expresses so beautifully:
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.
For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Resting in the grace of the world is the epitome of living in the moment, which in turn enables us to centre, breathe and shift perspective. And it is this clear-sighted focus and gentle grace that allows grief to be cathartic.
The joy in grief
None of us are strangers to grief. A few weeks ago, writing about joy, I explored the question of how we can celebrate and honour our joys with gratitude in harsh and challenging times. One of the possible answers is that many of the things that we commonly oppose as dualistic opposites are in fact intimately bound together. And grief and joy surely do not exist without one another.
We feel grief precisely because we have the courage to love, make commitments, and care about others and the planet on which we live. Real and deep joy isn’t a way of crassly ignoring the suffering of the world any more than grief in its turn invalidates joy. Rather, the two are twin-aspects of living attentively with deep connection.
When we take the time to attend to grief, to acknowledge its weight and work with its contours and the ways it will change us as it becomes part of our story, then not only is mourning cathartic, but it leads us full circle back to joy, to real delight in the world. Loss and love go hand in hand.
Writing the grief
Writers are those who witness to the human condition and to how the human and nonhuman stories of this earth have been, are and might yet be. Writers are those who make meaning from all that life brings, even when that meaning remains steeped in mystery or contains unanswerable questions. And grief, like love, is an enormous thread through all of these stories which is why writers are those who help us to negotiate loss.
How many of us in times of crisis or loss have turned not only to our internal resources and the support of others, but also to books as solace and ways of making sense and connection?
Writing of grief in the poems, stories and essays we put into the world is part of that venerable stream of solace. And, just as crucially, writing of grief in our journals is one of the rituals that enables us negotiate our own losses, transforming the stories of who we are and what we write for others in turn.
Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself.
Walt Whitman says in his journal. And he is saying something much more profound than the limiting adage; ‘write what you know.’ Rather he is calling for writing to be authentic, a reflection of the passions and values of the writer, to mirror of how they perceive and relate to the world.
Isabelle Allende, for whom story and life intertwine, puts it like this:
I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.
We do the same, as writers, with our sorrows. Mourning with those who mourn is not throwing ourselves into endless joylessness and despondency, but a recognition that anguish and delight flow through life together and both need honouring. In the face of all the losses we will negotiate by virtue of being alive, our only choices are despair or finding the gracious equilibrium to live with both grief and joy, sorrow and gratitude, trusting the journey, however uncertain, throwing in our lot with whatever reconstitutes the world.