Here is a piece of prose I spoke at the recently heldSwan Song Festival on Zoom yesterday October 17th, 2020 @ 7:00pm. Six others also spoke passionately about the need to redefine grief….
To A Fellow Student
By the Late Great Leonard Cohen
I thought about you a lot.
I still do.
You sat still,
your hands clasped on your lap
like a school child.
you were allowed to cry
because you have been true
to your grief.
I saw you today
sitting the same way,
the same tears on your checks,
as if you had not moved
in all these years –
the same bad headache
in your right eye,
the same housefly
trying to fertilize your lips.
you’re a mess
by every measure
except the ladder of love.
My sweet sister Jody died in 1988, May the 5th, a Thursday evening at 6:32pm to be exact. It ought to have been me her older brother I thought privately to myself. It shook my family to its very foundation. It made no sense to me, my parents, nor my siblings. It just seemed very wrong.
Days later as one of her pallbearers I helped carry her casket from the church to the limousine and then to the gravesite. We lowered her lifeless body into a cemetery plot six feet into the ground. The casket thumped loudly as it hit bottom. The disturbing finality of that thumping sound awakened in me an uncomfortable friend I had hidden under the blankets of misunderstanding, ignorance, and fear; a companion I had long avoided.
That ally was Grief.
The next day and very angry with God I took my grief to the beach on the shores of Lake Ontario. There in nature I bargained with God to return my sister to life. I offered my sports car, my ping golf clubs, my stock options and my RRSPs for her safe and immediate return. I offered up my own life yet God was having nothing to do with my deal making and lovingly said, “Jody is dead, deal with it, embrace it, and grow because of it.”
That was not the answer I wanted. Yet, oddly on some level, I knew it was right somehow.
Led by my heart mostly, I allowed the grief to disturb me; and move me it did. I let it have its way with me. I let it fully embrace me. It brought out in me all manner of emotions from profound sadness to a sweet sorrow. It did so at the oddest of times and usually when I least expected it. Sometimes a song stirred me deeply, sometimes a color or a smell. This grief of mine informed me, it taught me as a dear grandparent would. Magically it ended up inspiring me in ways I would have never imagined or dreamed of.
My surrender to grief, my willingness to feel it and to express it, turned out to be the key to my personal awakening. I hadn’t until this point realized how fast asleep in the American Dream I was.
Jody’s death actually breathed life into me and on the first anniversary of her death I moved west to Garden Bay, BC, leaving Toronto, Ontario in my rear view mirror. I changed careers and began my life anew. From a corporate banker I grew into a social worker; from city dweller I morphed into country hick; from chasing the almighty dollars I fell in love with serving others. I built my own home. My personal growth and evolution as a human being was fertilized by the very grief of my sweet sister’s death.
Over the years my understanding of grief has evolved from the dark realms of the grim reaper to how I now view grief as an inspiring, breath taking, teacher. I am able to see the gift of Jody’s death and though I miss her deeply to this very day I have found a sense of gratitude and grace in it all. I know now that life and death are strange yet compatible bedfellows that can co-exist in graceful human harmony. I know that grief is love turned inside out; the deeper the love the more profound the grief. I realized that dying, death, and grief can inspire us all to live a life full of passion, vitality, and authenticity. Embracing death was critical to my embracing life.
Though grief can be messy we do not need to remain a mess ourselves; over the years wearing our grief as an emblem of our love as Leonard Cohen so aptly noticed.
We can instead allow grief to inspire us to live more fully in our own passionate and authentic way, letting our re-energized living become the symbol of our love.
Yes grief is indeed a breath-taking teacher.