Shattered by Death: Embarking on the Journey of Grief
Sunday, 13 September 2009
“Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”
– C.S. Lewis (A Grief Observed)
“Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek for the answers that cannot be given. For you wouldn’t be able to live with them. And the point is to live everything, live the questions now, and perhaps without knowing it, you will live along some day into the answers.”-Rainier Maria Rilke (Letters to A Young Poet)
There are few junctures in life where body and spirit meet, such as when a loved one passes away. In fact, this “meeting” of body and spirit is not a gentle meeting at all, but rather a violent clash of wills, that easily shatters any and all preconceptions one might have about life and death.
You are jarred from the comfort of your own body, your own sense of well being, and are forced to deal with emotions and feelings so raw and intense it seems to threaten your very sanity. Your sense of time, even your sense of reality becomes skewed, distorted and it feels like you are even removed from the three-dimensional world of time and space…
For me, this meditation is not merely an academic exercise, nor is it an armchair philosophical reflection from the safety of some ivory tower. Nor is it even a pretense at voicing that which cannot be voiced or expressing the inexpressible.
No, instead, I invite you to embark with me on a very uncomfortable journey we all will embark on at some point in our lives, not just once, but repeatedly. Even as I am writing this I do not know what form or shape this journey will take, but one thing I know is that this is only the beginning…
I cannot guarantee that this journey in the form of this meditation will provide any answers to the eternal questions so many others before has have attempted to answer, nor can I guarantee that it might even be rewarding, I can only hope it will be at least some start to a journey we all will make in body and spirit.
As with any journey in life it is nice to have some traveling companions, and this journey is no exception, dear reader. I would like therefore to introduce you to two companions, but before I do so, allow me to explain myself.
On 19 August 2009, for the third time in two years, death visited my family when my father was killed in a car accident in Botswana. A year ago, on 23 August 2008, my grandfather (my paternal grandfather) breathed his last breath in a hospital bed in Pretoria when Emphysema finally claimed his life. On 7 April 2007, my brother was taken from us, suddenly and tragically, when he took his own life.
Once again I was confronted by the reality of my own mortality and once again I realised that it does not get any “easier”. Instead of making you a stronger person it often feels that someone has hit a “reset” button and that you not only have to deal with your current grief, but, in a sense, is forced to revisit your old grief.
This brings me to our first companion, the Christian writer, C.S. Lewis. Nobody, in my opinion, has written with such frankness and honesty about the experience of grief and how it touches us in body and mind. In A Grief Observed he says the following, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”.
Elsewhere in the book he expands on the theme of grief and fear:
“And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hinging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now here is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.”
In dealing with his grief, our companion senses a great shattering of our idea of God, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time.”
Our second companion is the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, someone whose works I only recently became familiar with. In a letter he wrote to a young poet who asked for his advice about poetry and entering the German military, he writes the following about sadness, which can shed some light on our journey of grief:
“It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, – is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens.”
Rilke asks us to deal with the following question when dealing with our grief or sadness: “Please, ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad?”
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions yet, nor am I sure that I ever will, but I know that I have embarked on this journey of grief and I am somewhat comforted by words of Rilke, that all might not be in vain after all:
“So you mustn’t be frightened… if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”
Eugene Mouton is 28 years old and lives in Melville, Johannesburg. He studied theology at the (then) Rand Afrikaans University. He is currently working in Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He has found a spiritual home with fellow believers at Die Kapel, a gay friendly church in Melville. He still has a burning passion for spirtuality and has started his own website dealing with spirituality: www.holism.co.za. Except for spirituality, his interests include reading, writing, poetry, music, Facebook, watching dvds and going out with his friends.