Metaphors for Grief in Nature

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I’m always astounded at the things nature teaches me about life and grief. This week I went for a walk at a park near my new house. It’s a wilderness park, with one trail that makes a 2 mile circle surrounding a prairie. For years, this area was farmland, and the park system has now preserved it to allow the landscape to fully restore back to it’s original state. For miles all around, it is now an expansive prairie, flanked by thin fingers of woodland and bogland where the ground slopes low. Mike and I first found it a few weeks ago, and it has quickly become my favorite escape since moving to Ohio two months ago.

Firstly, not many people go there, so it’s easy to feel almost entirely isolated in nature while you’re there, which I love. Secondly, with the time of year, all the plants have begun to die off or go dormant, with their seed pods yawning wide into the brisk winds and tossing their seeds into the breath of autumn. From the moment I first laid eyes on this place, I was completely drawn to it. With dozens of varieties of flora, even dead plants create a kaleidescope of textures and shades – from browns to tawny yellows to silvery blues. For weeks I’ve been feeling a pull to go back here… to feed my eyes with all the richness of seeds and grains, cattails and milkweed pods, dried leaves and rustling grasses. To be surrounded by a place where death is beautiful…

I’ve always had a love of things dead and forgotten… dead plants, skulls and bones, old discarded furniture left to rot on the curb. I have forever been a rescuer of the forgotten. It’s taken me years to realize that this is directly tied to all the death in my life. It’s as if, even at a young age, honoring old bones and dead leaves and forgotten places was a way to honor those I love who have died. Giving a new life to an old chair or desk someone threw away was a way to symbolize my own ability to give new life to the souls of those loved ones. This week, the prairie rekindled that love of honoring.

Thanks to El Nino, this has been an unseasonably warm winter in Ohio… you could be inclined to call it autumn still, based on the temperatures. Which is what got me out hiking. As I walked through the prairie last week, I ended up at a trail that went into the center of the park. And at the center there was a small pond. I hiked around to the far side of the pond, followed a deer trail that went up into the three-foot-high foliage, and sat down in a grassy spot. There, surrounded completely by nature, and the end of life-cycles, I began to think.

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Just like the prairie – I have been going through a long autumn in my own life… for probably the entire past 3 ½ years since he died, my seasons have slowed almost to a standstill. I was dormant for so long… and this past year or so I have been spreading seeds and waiting for what will grow come spring. Now, it feels, that spring – the spring of a new life, a different but equally beautiful life – is finally on the horizon. I couldn’t help but feel completely at home there in the prairie grasses… as if we were both on the same sort of journey. Am I anticipating what grows in my own spring, and also excited to see this sepia-toned prairieland in its full, bright, springtime glory.

It amazes me how many lessons nature has to give. I’ve always felt connected to nature this way, and particularly so right after Drew died. It’s been presenting me with lessons, incredible metaphors for my own pain and the seasons of a life with grief since those first months after his death. One of the most memorable was when I visited the Grand Canyon, three months after his death. Back then, I wrote about the metaphor of the canyon and the rift in my heart…

Much like the canyon itself, in times when I have the courage walk up to the edge of this unspeakably large hole in the very earth of me… the strength to open my eyes to it with an un-judging heart and fully see it… I find beauty. I find that the winds of every soul in my world have blown through and softened the walls of this pain, and they continue to do so, little by little. I find a landscape in me that has been slowly painted with passion, creativity, and dreaming – rendering it vibrant with color. Also, deep within, I find the river still rushing through – the losing of you – still creating rapids and cutting into me with strong currents. And it is here on the edge looking out that I know… this journey, canyon of my heart, will last my lifetime. It will not fade, I will not forget, it is now a part of my landscape for all time.”

11222575_10153662886925306_7272631406032413798_n.jpgThis experience has been a reminder to allow the wound of losing him to remain. A reminder not to try and dam of the river of grief, or try to fill in the void to cover it up, but instead to honor it, protect it, and know that even this trauamtic part of me is a beautiful piece of the landscape of who I am. This idea has stayed with me through all these years working hard to rebuild myself. Something tells me I will be finding some powerful lessons about life here in the new landscapes of Ohio, too. As I made my way back to my car, I collected as many different specimens as I could from the prairie to bring home as a reminder of this place that may seem dead and forgotten to so many others, but still holds a magic and a beauty all its own.

 

Building from the Grief Up

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Written Nov 8:
We took a trip to Pittsburgh yesterday. It was my first time to ever visit Pennsylvania. I’m not sure why, but I’ve wanted to visit this state since I was a kid. As we approached I was so surprised. The city itself was so beautiful… and the landscape was nothing like I’d expected – although I am not entirely sure what I expected it to be. The hills all around were steep and towering, the city itself built up within the twists and turns of the natural world. It felt inventive, and sturdy, and wonderfully adapted to the landscape. Tall, skinny houses on steep slopes. Narrow winding roads to accommodate the inclines and declines. A system of bridges to connect things amidst the two rivers that surround downtown and meet on one end.

I’m always fascinated by cities built up in areas like this. Even more impressive is that this city is 400 years old. You could feel the history of this place just driving through it. There was a certain feeling of grit and determination about it. A sense of the ingenuity and adaptability it took to create. I started to consider the idea of a place like this as a metaphor for human life and all it’s struggles…

Sometimes in life, we are born into a place with steep inclines and deep valleys. Other times, we are delivered to such a place somewhere along the way… by events like the death of a spouse, parent, child or other loved one. Or by some other catastrophic event.

The city was a reminder to me of our ability as humans to be adaptable. Despite the harshest of landscapes that life puts in our way, we can survive and create amazing lives. This city was also far more interesting and beautiful because of the hills and valleys that people had to work around to build it. And so I think it goes in life. Grief is the harshest landscape we will likely ever have to build the city of our hearts within. As we adapt though, we create something breathtaking. Every beautiful street in our hearts is influenced by the slopes of our grief. Each step took hard work, but work that was meaningful. We might start out in the bottom of the valley, where things feel overwhelming, but over time, we build up. We reach higher up the slopes. And eventually, we are looking down over the landscape of our grief and seeing a thing made beautiful – not in spite of the difficulties, but because of them.

The Walk of Grief: What we take into it, and what we bring out.

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A few weeks ago while I was in Virginia, I got to do something I’ve been wanting to do ever since Drew died. There is a spiritual center in Virginia Beach called A.R.E. – full of studies and books about spirituality and just about every topic imaginable related to death and afterlife. They also have a labyrinth on the grounds outside. Which is what I was most excited about.

It’s not the sort made of hedges or stone walls. It’s not a maze you have to figure out. This is a flat path with only one way in and out. The intention is that winding your way into the center slowly brings your focus to the center of yourself. You walk inward, bringing with you all the distractions, insecurities, fears, etc of the outside world… slowly letting them all fall away as you make your way toward the center. Once you reach the center, you may sit there a while to be with the deepest part of yourself – without the distractions of everything else. And then you begin your return journey outward, back to the world, and bring with you the calm and any lessons you found at the center so that you may carry them back into your life.

As I walked, I couldn’t help but think of just how perfectly this walk mirrored my walk through grief these past three years…

There is only one way to get to a different place with grief – and that is to walk through it. The first year for me was about walking inward… walking through all the pain and fear and agony and triggers that lie deep within myself. Walking deeper and deeper until I could find that center of calm within me. And doing this over and over and over again. It was never easy to strap on my boots and do that inner walk. Some days, the only way it happened was to cry endless tears until I exhausted myself into a heap of half-asleep calm. Or to scream at the top of my lungs until there was barely a breath left in me. As I look back, I am realizing, all of these were forms of walking within. All of them were ways of walking through the emotions to get to the calm at the center of my heart.

The second year it seems the focus shifted, and I was spending much more time at the center of myself – in that calm, mindful space. A lot of the initial shock of his death had worn off by then, and I had done a lot of very deep grieving for a year already, and so coming to the center began to be easier I think.

This year feels different still. It feels like I am walking back out again… and bringing with me all the wisdom and gifts of new perspective that the inward journey has given me. All the things I have learned about coping and healing and feeling through the grief. Lessons I know that I’m supposed to take out into the world with me as I begin to re-enter it.

In the end, I think this is the most important lesson these three long and painful and terrifying years have taught me: My reason for having to endure the death of my fiance is so that I can better understand the pain of others, and so that I can bring whatever tools I have acquired to help them. I think that may just be the point of all this – for us to learn how to help each other better. It doesn’t take away the pain or the empty space in my heart for him, but it does give me something I can DO with it that matters and honors him daily… which, in a way, keeps him always alive.