Writing about Sorrow and Death

More from journal for February 18, 1992

Candle.  Cup of tea.  Bach B minor Mass.

I want to write about sorrow and death.  I was going to listen to aap sahaee hoaa on earphones, but the tape is in the hut, so I put on this instead.  I can tell from the way everything inside me is dissolving and letting down that this is the right choice, this is what I’ve been holding myself up out of.  

Aap sahaee hoaa is a chant we listened to after our dog Fiona was killed on the road.

I did call Eleanor and she asked me to pray for her.  It’s very easy to pray for Eleanor, to have strong feelings of reaching out to the great beings of the universe and asking for help for her.  It’s easy to do it for Mama Greene, too, but so hard to do it for my mother.  I deduce from this that I love Magee and Eleanor, but have no such feelings for Mom.  It’s not that I don’t care about her, because I do, although I don’t see that my caring can find much expression.  I feel no connection with Mom.  Perhaps the very strong sense of connection with Mama Greene made that very clear, also I’ve stopped trying to make a connection happen so I can step back and see that in fact there’s not one, and that it’s really not something I can do anything about.  “What if you let your mom’s pain be your mom’s?”  When have I felt connected to her?  Only in those very rare times when she’s let down her guard, allowing herself to be vulnerable.  The truth is that I feel no sense of connection to Mom at all, and I feel sorrow about that.  I do feel connected to Mama Greene and very deeply sad that she has announced her coming death to me.  I feel a little sad that we can’t make it more conscious and explicit, but I also feel very accepting that that’s how it is, and that without being explicit we were able to communicate.  Now I understand why people mostly leave the important things unspoken.  Words are hopelessly inadequate, and if the feelings are clear, as they were with Magee, then clarification by words is not necessary.  But when you have a situation like I did with Mom & Dad, where the words were not congruent with the feeling — “I love you” never carrying unconditional acceptance but rather some pressure to be or do something I couldn’t — then you keep trying to clarify, not realizing that the feeling that should be there is not.

Mama Greene, also called Magee, was the woman who came to take care of us when I was three.  I called her “Mama Greene” instead of “Mrs. Greene,” supposedly because I couldn’t say “Missus.”  I think I knew a mama when I saw one.  She mothered all of us, including Mom & Dad, for the rest of her life.

Gramps Clark died just after Jo’s wedding, he was too frail to come, and I remember thinking of his courage and courtesy, to hang on until she was safely married so as not to spoil the wedding.  Grampappy Deupree’s death was like the foundations cracked.  I remember getting the message in the Arlington Zen Center.  I was surprised at the sense of loss and feeling so bereft since I had never felt close to him, even a bit scared of him, yet I think he was so important because he gave me a sense of strength in the background which was badly needed since my own parents were so clearly not mature people I could lean on.  There was a huge family gathering for the funeral and I think we were all aware that this was the last time we would all be together.  Geegee died a couple of years later and I didn’t go home — partly because of a mis-communication with Mom: she didn’t want me to feel pressured and I took it as rejection, I thought she didn’t want to pay for my plane ticket.

Dad’s death.  I remember intense grief when Jack told me about his state of health and we knew he couldn’t go on much longer.  That was about a year before he died.  He called me on the phone, I think it was that fall, and started reciting a Frost poem: “My sorrow when she’s here with me/ thinks these dark days of autumn rain/ are beautiful.”  I burst into tears, knowing that this was his way of telling me that he was going to die, but I think he was uncomfortable with my tears, and somehow I never found the right thing to say to him.  That whole year was a long painful letting go, not of a relationship, but of the hope of a relationship.  I’m glad that I was able to go home at the last and help out, even though it was only on the practical level, I couldn’t do a thing on the emotional level, and my sickness and Mom’s drinking made everything much more difficult.  I feel all choked up, I guess in some ways I felt more of a connection to him, partly that we shared that strong connection to principle rather than impulse as a basis for action.  Also he was skinny, not very attractive, depended on wit rather than charm, I think I felt some sense of fellowship — we were both little nerds who wanted to be liked.

What else do I know about death?  O gosh, I left out Fiona — that death was my most complete experience because it was uncomplicated by confused and conflicted feelings.  I was able to learn how to mourn in some pure sense, I was able to experience that freedom to live in the present moment, so I could finally understand how Miriam was able to play with the dog when we took Michael’s body to the crematorium.  That death let me know how complicated and confused, how dull and tangled was my mourning for my father, made it clear that I was mourning the loss of a relationship that never was, that I had been mourning it a long time, that death didn’t really change anything.

Fiona was our first dog, killed on the road.

I was thinking that I actually experienced more sorrow and pain around the loss of relationships.  I remember dull grey aching for Jerry — but that was an unfulfilled relationship, a crush based on a single night’s encounter.  There was terrible pain for the loss of Pete to my best friend, but again there had never been a relationship, just the hope of one, and I had no way to express my feelings or deal with them.  There was wild and terrible pain for the loss of Don, and that “relationship” had lasted several dates, as many as three of four maybe, wow!  and I wrote about it in my journal and talked about it with Patty and finally was able to come free of that relationship.  Then what.  Lots of failures.  Fred was the longest relationship and I ended that one with a sense of dull aching misery and failure.  Jim, David, Darrell — they ended it and I had to deal with major upsets due to being rejected.  It all seems like another lifetime now.

Sorrow.  How is it possible to write about sorrow?  I can write about the facts that surround it.  What does it feel like in my body?  Like heavy rocks dripping with water, a dark cave, ice melting.  Cold and dark, but also a sense of things letting go, dissolving, slipping away into the dark.  Relinquish.  The line of poetry quoted by Eliz Goudge, the sense of voluntarily, gently, opening one’s hand and letting some treasured object free to float away on the river of time, never to be seen again.  “To live is to have relinquished beauty to the sequestration of the dark.”  The music has become suddenly very joyous.  I think of Etty in the concentration camp, all worldly striving for beauty or comfort or success torn away, and her profound conviction that life is good and beautiful.  I had those feelings too in the aftermath of Fiona’s death, even while I was pierced with sorrow.  But I don’t know how to get there again, how to voluntarily let go.  “Sanctus, Sanctus.”

Again into the body.  A heaviness around the stomach, like a heavy weight, a great lump of cold, hard, congealed greyness.  Stay with it.  congealed. like wax, or something that would flow if it were warmer, but it’s frozen.  A sense of stirring and pressure, almost a lump in the throat, but no relief in tears.  Yes it comes up into the throat as an ache. as magma rising in a volcano, as vomit rising from a sick stomach. it rises and sinks back down.  What do you want to say o congealed one? what words would…

burdens stuck to me I cannot drop.  Conflict and confusion.  To speak or not to speak.  If I speak will I cause pain, be rejected, be ignored so totally that my words fly out into the painful void and are lost (like Virginia Woolf describing her book in the language of the planes going out to bomb Germany) I send them out and they do not return.  No dove, quaking with tiredness, bearing an olive branch.  No dove at all, she’s lost out there, my words are lost out there, better I should keep them here inside, with me, where I can keep them safe, know what happens to them.  Too awful to send them out into the void, to be lost, and I never know what happened to them.  “never know what happened to them.”  Such resonance with that phrase, like a mother in wartime, separated from her children, are they OK, what is happening to them, how can she stop searching for them, it would be better to know that they were dead.

That is why “Journey into Courage” is so healing, my words fly out and land, they land in people’s hearts, they start a burning or a melting, they make contact, something happens, someone responds, they are not lost.

And my writing here? with whom does it make contact?  O great beings of the universe, please help my friend Eleanor … and my dear Magee … and my Mom …  (I hold them each up for 9 seconds — 9 seconds is the time you had to live from when the plane turned toward you, said Walter, unless you gunned it down.)  And O great beings, receive my words that are flying outward into the void, let them not be lost, let them move you to help me, to help us, for we need it so badly, we poor stumbling wretched blind humans.  Here is my sorrow, offered to you, because I have nothing else, no joy or gaiety or beauty, only sorrow and a sense of failure, please accept it as prayer. 

“Great Beings of the Universe” were possible to pray to, unlike the “capricious, malicious and willful” God of my childhood.  Walter was someone I met in a workshop at Kripalu.  He had grown up in England, told me about walking up the aisle of the Cathedral at Coventry singing “In the bleak midwinter” the last year before the war.  That Cathedral was destroyed in the bombing.

Still the dull ache in the chest, not so heavy or congealed, but grey and thin like the mist that hides the mountains.

Comment written later: I see now that I have no sense of my words “landing”, of them being received and responded to, because of my childhood experience of the flat impenetrable surface of my mother’s narcissism.  My joy, my love, my sorrow that I was unable to assuage her pain, all went unperceived by her.  Feb93

Music ends.  Timer rings.  I go to make a cup of tea, put out some seed for the chickadees.  I feel tempted to define what I’ve been doing as “wallowing”, to distract myself by outward focus, instead I stay aware of grief like a heavy stone in my belly as I perform these activities.  If the grief were for a beloved person, would I invalidate it?  But practical things do have to be done.  So I’m trying to strike a balance.  Also I do believe that if I stay with this thing it will change or grow or heal, but if I deny it, it will go back into its frozen grave to stay until the next opportunity.

I’m really interested in the work I’m doing to pay attention to my body, and that I have already got the idea that I have to stay with these things.  I think I’m learning these important skills for healing from Karen Collins, who I had just started seeing.  Her background is in bioenergetics — “A system of alternative psychotherapy based on the belief that emotional healing can be aided through resolution of bodily tension.”  She was the one who said “What if you let your mom’s pain be your mom’s?”

I also notice that Mom’s narcissism kept her from seeing who I was, but I had no idea how much damage that did.  She not only didn’t know who I was, she mis-represented me to myself, mirrored back someone I wasn’t.

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