Grief and Mercy

Two of my friends have suffered unbearable losses in recent months. Gina, age 60, married less than five years to a wonderful man, lost him to a swift moving cancer. “It’s so unfair,” she said. “His mother died at 104. I thought I might have another thirty years together with him.”  A younger friend, Mary, was six months pregnant with her first child when, on a regular pre-natal checkup, there was suddenly no fetal heartbeat. “I did everything right, ” Mary said. “No alcohol, no smoking, good nutrition. How could this happen to me? How could my baby die inside me?” Both of these women are trying to bear the consequences of love; the bewilderment at whom they are suddenly without.  How can I comfort them? There are no words that can approach such loss that lodges in the breast and stomach and feels like a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon. Or are there words? Searching my own heart and experience I remember a line from Siddartha in which Herman Hesse says. “everything returns.” When I read those words after my husband’s death in Vietnam in 1969 they felt like a key to a locked door; a map to navigate the unlit rooms of my dark sorrow even though their true meaning was a mystery to me. What does it really mean to chant ‘everything returns” over and over when it’s painfully obvious that the object of our love cannot return? Perhaps they are words of compassion and mercy for oneself. In his book describing the process of grief, Unattended Sorrow, Stephen Levine says, “…we must …cultivate mercy for ourselves, which will gradually expand into compassion for other sentient beings … Without mercy… we abandon those most painful memories within us to […]

Building resilience with diary writing.

When I was old enough to write in a diary, (I received one in blue leather for a birthday around age eight or nine) I did not understand its purpose. I knew it must be for something private because it had a lock and key. Is there a difference between private thoughts and everyday descriptions? I wondered. What should I write in this little book that seems intended for secrets? What if someone finds the key? It was boring to write about my dolls, my cat or the Lilac bushes where my brothers and I played house. Instead, I recorded the scenes that frightened me; the times when my father became angry and broke furniture or kicked in the screen of our TV set because it refused to work.  The times I saw my mother cry. The problem was that the scenes were so scary that I didn’t want to reread them. So, I tore them out and eventually I had only the blue leather cover with no pages in between. Perhaps it was a childish way to make painful images disappear; write them down and tear them up. Today, I can still recall some of those scenes without benefit of the torn out pages and, most importantly, I see a small girl who used writing intuitively, unwittingly, as a way to manage  anxiety and fear. The act of writing gave me a modicum of control over an uncontrollable situation. The choice to tear up my words built my resilience by making me think I had at least a small choice.

The Whale

La Baleine (The Whale) was painted by Frederic Walperswyler,  in 1990. It is a huge mural, six-feet high and twenty feet long – whale size – painted in acrylic over five wood panels. She (whales are always feminine in French) appears lithe and strong in her watery medium; embodying and resisting; powerful and graceful. Frederic says that it was the experience of working on this immense creation in small sections that brought him to abstraction in his work. Like writing composed word after word, he gathered her form stroke by stroke out of the abyss of the surrounding ocean. You can see more of his paintings in the virtual gallery,  Artnet  
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