The death of a loved one forces us to reckon with the meaning of life in a way nothing else does. Despite being a constant, we rarely talk about death until it sweeps into our world leaving us clouded, unsteady, and scared.
On top of our own set of mixed feelings, friends and family sometimes don’t know what to say or do to ease our suffering, which can often leave both parties feeling disconnected. (Here are some great tips for offering sympathy with grace.) There’s also no one-size-fits-all advice for how to process the rage, sadness, and fear that accompany death’s arrival.
While there’s no official field guide for processing this profound loss, many insightful words have been written on the topic.
“Grief dares us to love once more,” writes author, naturalist, and activist Terry Tempest Williams in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.
I stumbled across Williams’s part memoir, part exposé — which relays the story of the deaths of her mother and grandmother and countless other mothers and grandmothers to cancer, and the threats to bird-nesting sanctuaries along the Great Salt Lake as the result of the U.S. government’s nuclear-weapons tests in the deserts of nearby Nevada — at a local library just after the unexpected death of my own mother in 1997.
I was 25 and just beginning to piece together a relationship with my mother after a difficult childhood when I suddenly had to deal with what felt like the permanent loss of where I had come from.
The way Williams articulates how she navigates the pain and loss of her family’s beloved matriarch, as well as the threats to one important place she goes when she needs solace — Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge — illuminates the infrangible bond between land and humans. What happens to one, happens to the other. What happens to one of us, happens to all of us. Williams’s words provided refuge for me at a time when nothing else made much sense.
“What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later,” writes author and naturalist Helen Macdonald in her memoir H Is for Hawk.
In an attempt to repair her own broken wings after the death of her father, Macdonald, a falconer, decides to spend much of her time alone teaching a Northern Goshawk — one of the most difficult raptors to train — to hunt.
“Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try,” she notes.
While Macdonald chose to deal with her pain mostly alone, Nora McInerny Purmort shares hers publicly with incredible candor and laugh-out-loud humor. She began a Tumblr, My Husband’s Tumor, to build the community she wanted to find but didn’t when her husband, Aaron, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The goal was not to document Aaron’s illness, but highlight his life and humanity, and name the love, joy, and sorrow they felt and experienced during trips to hospitals for radiation and the birth of their son. It’s an attempt to bring out into the light something that happens to all of us eventually. “I’m writing a book about it — the good stuff and the terrible stuff — because I know I’m not special,” she explains in her memoir, It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too).
Like Purmort, Elizabeth Alexander details the lessons learned living with and living on after the death of her husband in the beautiful memoir The Light of The World. Using her tremendous poetic gifts, she reflects not just on the trauma and depth of loss, but what she calls the “sacred love” they shared, as well as the community, family, and beauty they created together as artists.
“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss,” she writes.
It’s been 19 years since my mother’s passing, and while I haven’t filled the hole that bore its way into my heart years ago after her passing, I’ve gone around it and bridged the gap at others.
I’ve transformed myself as I’ve faced the depths of my despair, loved and lost plenty more times, and found myself and my mother in unexpected places and in unexpected moments.
My losses have shown me just how many forms grief can take, as well as how much time, but I’ve come to see grieving as essential to continuing my story. It’s taught me to be fierce — and to be fragile.
It’s also taught me that the indefatigable poet Mary Oliver was right when she wrote In Blackwater Woods,
To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Heidi Wachter is an Experience Life staff writer.