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On Holding Grief and Loss

“It never grew easy,

but at last I grew peaceful…

I lay on the rocks, reaching

into the darkness, learning

little by little to love

our only world”

~ Mary Oliver, expert form Starfish

Sometimes Life undoes us. Sometimes all that we have carefully woven begins to unravel. Our days becomes like sieves as we watch what we have held dear and as we watch our cherished plans slip past us into the unknown.

In our community we have talked much about the Life/Death/Life Cycle. The way of nature is circular and inclusive ~ creation and destruction, doing and undoing, growing and decaying, knowing and unknowing, taking in and letting go, filling and emptying. This is a deep and old wisdom and the more we are initiated into its mysteries, the more we will have opportunity to make peace with our lives, with Life.


I have been reflecting on how this profound truth about our nature can be subtly distorted, thus keeping us from the medicine of its mystery. This happens when we get caught up in the “It all will add up” story. The “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” story. The “It’s ok to lose because you will gain even more” story. On the surface it may seem like we are honoring all the cycles of nature, but if we look more closely another narrative emerges: we are making it all about the math; the gain will outweigh the loss, and so all will be well.

The past two years have been filled with transitions and loss for almost everyone I know, myself included. In some of the darkest moments I have found myself asking, “Will this be worth it?” In other words, will this difficult choice, will this excruciating loss, will this profound grief, be redeemed by the greater gain it will bring? In those times, I have found this question to be a seductive trap, offering promise of comfort while stealing my energy and obstructing my access to my knowing. It is impossible to answer. It keeps us like a hamster on a wheel, moving so quickly on shifting ground.

What I was really asking was aligned with the story that for everything I lose I will gain more ~ which is a popular collective distortion of the mystery of the cycles of death and rebirth. I was looking for the equation to work out as a way of making sense of loss and a way accepting my grief. In these moments, the deep mysteries of death and rebirth become a mental math game. It becomes a constant balancing of the equations, of making things add up in our favor.

But what is truer to my lived experience seems to be different. Even when we receive and create beautiful lives after loss and grief, what was lost will never be regained or replaced. We will carry our stories and be re-visited by our grief and feel the absence of what we have lost.

The relief comes with realizing that in the midst of loss and grief and difficult choices, it is not our task to turn the loss into gain. But rather to be with all of it and make enough space, eventually, for the sorrowful and the beautiful to live side by side. This is nature. The Life/Death/Life cycle does not erase loss and decay. It is big enough to hold all of it. And so are we.

Maybe our task is not to spin grief into gold, but rather to cultivate a way of being that is big enough to hold all of it. Maybe our task is about becoming the kind of person that can hold the loss and grief, and also have eyes to see when the first soft rays of sun appear on the horizon. To become the kind of person that can be warmed by that light when it arrives, with a heart expansive enough to welcome the beauty even as it hosts the sadness.

Deep awareness of the Life/Death/Life cycle does offer a profound medicine and deep hope. It does offer healing as we learn to trust that death and rebirth are in continual motion. Sometimes, the hope of new life arriving on the wind does infuse our days with strength to go on when we are exhausted and weary. And, this is different than feeling like we have to wring enough meaning out of loss and grief until it finally makes sense and is replaced by a new and better life.

Dearhearts, may we step off the hamster wheel and put down our calculators. This is not how we weave meaning in our lives. Let us feel each other’s deep sighs of relief as we place our feet right where we each stand. Remembering the expansiveness of Nature lives within each of us. Remembering that we can hold the loss, the mistakes, the ways we have hurt ourselves and others, the ways others have hurt us, the sadness, the grief … not because we will work hard enough to spin it all into gold, but because we are brave and tender enough to be here loving our lives. Because little by little we will hold more, see more, love more. Because we will watch the magic of alchemy as our lives are held and moved and shaped by the rhythms of death and rebirth. Not because, as Mary Oliver put it, it will get easier, but because we will grow more peaceful.

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