“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Grief has never been easy for me. I am fortunate enough to have not lost someone I am close to suddenly or out of turn, with the exception of my first dog. When confronted with another’s grief I stumble through apologies, condolences, overwhelmed by the knowing that I, too, will lose those I love most. We all do. It is the nature of being alive.
If we are lucky, we slowly lose all that we love, possessions dropped or left behind, people passing away or just passing out of our lives, activities and abilities that we hold dear- we think we cannot live without- and find one day we are unable to do.
My grandmother is 100 years old. She gave up skiing long ago, and more recently her garden plot, her car. She gave up cooking for herself, travel. Soon she will no longer be able to go to the grocery store on her own. And yet when I tell people my grandmother is 100, it is congratulatory, the way they say longevity runs in my family. As though seeing the state she is in, relatively healthy for her age, makes me want to live forever. As though holding on at any cost is better than letting go.
“We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Letting go is something we do daily: exhaling, defecating, shedding skin, forgetting names, leaving jobs and homes, letting go of relationships that no longer serve us. These leavings are natural, part of moving forward, part of moving. They keep us from being stagnant and falling into monotony, repetition, depression.
To make room for growth, to welcome newness, we must leave things behind. But also it is okay to grieve the significance of what we let go. We must acknowledge the impact of walking away from what we care about, even if walking away is the right thing to do. We must be willing to make room for pain so there is also room for joy, pleasure, love, enlightenment, a full range of feelings. We don’t get to pick and choose what we are numb to when numbness is the path we have chosen.
“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
The Metal Element
The autumn season, in the Chinese philosophy of the five elements, corresponds with the metal element, as does grief. It is the season of letting go summer’s extraverted abandon, watching things that were vibrant and green give a last joyful shout before withering away. It is about shifting the gaze internally, constricting and quieting as the weather turns cold, nurturing the roots of our inspirations. It is about letting go, focusing inward and conserving resources to get us through the dark, still season.
The Lungs and Large Intestine are the organ systems associated with grief and the metal element and they are experts at letting go.
The Lungs let go breath many times a minute. The Large Intestine lets go food waste that is no longer serving us. When these organ systems are well regulated and strong, we do not notice these functions, they just happen. I always say that a person has to be breathing well, eating well, sleeping well and eliminating well to have a shot at comfort and health. If any of those systems are not functioning right, it doesn’t take long to be in extreme discomfort. Two of those four systems are related to the metal element, which signifies its importance.
When emotions and life experiences are not processed efficiently, it aggravates these systems. When grief is not acknowledged it can linger in the lungs, causing respiratory problems. When we hold on to experiences and emotions, often bowel troubles will occur, constipation being the physical manifestation of holding what is no longer serving us.
Not One More Article About Grief (Yes, one more article about grief)
“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I resisted writing this article for a long time, thinking “not one more article about grief!” Not one more thing telling people how to feel when they’ve lost, when there are others more qualified to report on such feelings. And then I remembered something. A story I could offer. In place of telling anyone how to feel, I can tell you how I felt, the absolute strangeness, the gift, of the loss of my first dog, Sasha.
She was hit by a car one night, a dog who was never on a leash, who ran on the sidewalk while I rode my bike through the streets of New Orleans, always stopping at each curb until I checked for cars and gave her the okay. A dog who had a healthy fear of cars. It’s the last way I would have expected her to go. But go she did, darting out when I wasn't looking, with just one flicker of a glance at me after she was hit, as I arrived at her side. One last gaze of love and then nothing. She looked perfect, like she was sleeping, but when I carried her body the few blocks home, it was broken inside. I put her on her bed, surrounded her with flowers and candles. I sat vigil for her.
If any of you have lost a dog or other animal you are close to, you know it is like losing your shadow. Or a limb. Something that has been an unspoken part of your body, your identity, the loyal extension of yourself, the unquestioning love and acceptance that most of us can’t feel for ourselves.
I mourned Sasha for a year. I still mourn her. Through tumultuous years of my life, she was my home. But in the days that followed her death I found something else beside the mourning I would have expected. Her last great gift to me.
Every morning had started with a jar of maté, and when I stirred a spoonful of honey into the jar, Sasha would hear the clinking of metal on glass and know it was time for her walk. She would gracefully pull herself from a nest of pillows and come join me in the kitchen. The neighborhood was quiet on those early morning walks and I held the warm jar to my chest between sips as Sasha trotted several yards ahead of me exploring the smells of the snaking, overgrown streets.
When Sasha died it blew everything wide open. There was no Sasha to be roused by the clinking so why stir the honey into the maté? Why drink the maté? It made me let go of every detail of the life I had lived with a steady and rigorously ignored routine. It made me wonder at the small things, only letting back in what felt right. Curiosity is a powerful emotion. It is coupled so closely with wonder, and they together can pull us into the moment, into a state of openness, non-judgment.
I understood how grief can unravel what you think you know about the world and force your heart open. For weeks I floated in a place of light. Sasha felt close, like she was with me, but without her gentle reminders of the rituals of the day, everything was rewired. She left me raw and open and filled with such sorrow that I was actually able to feel how huge my heart was. The great capacity it has.
“It is our grief
us, however resistant,
to the decaying and rotten
bottom of things:
our grief bringing
-Alice Walker “Turning Madness into Flowers”
The question of whether or not emotion is pathological comes up a lot in my acupuncture practice. Patients often come in observing themselves in a state of depression and/or anxiety and it is my job to suss out whether these feelings are appropriate, circumstantial reactions to life events, or if it is a matter of physiological imbalance in the brain chemistry.
Oftentimes one leads to another. A lifestyle of not sleeping enough, eating an imbalanced diet and experiencing chronic stress creates an environment for depression and anxiety to flourish.
It’s impossible not to feel the effects of an unjust system, a precarious political situation and a capitalist society that values money over human rights, health and safety. Depression and anxiety caused by this is not pathological. It means you are paying attention.
Sadness and grief experienced after a loss are not pathological. There is no logic or reason behind how we all feel sadness. There is no appropriate or inappropriate way to grieve. There is no course to navigate. We are all running blind. We are crashing into things. We are picking ourselves up again.
Even though these feelings aren’t pathological, they can become so if we don’t move through them. Not to a logical conclusion, but in the ever churning waters of transformation, we can allow ourselves to be altered by our grief, to move forward anew.
Supportive community, therapy, acupuncture and self-compassion are tools. Books, poems, words, ideas, music, are all reminders that grief is part of the human experience. Uncertainty is our human prediction. To quote Francis Weller, a grief counselor, in his incredible interview with The Sun magazine, “Poetry and music can play a significant role in grief. I think poets are more in touch with sorrow because they pay better attention to the psyche. Blues music is an American tradition that can help us find our way through suffering. And the choral music in churches: the requiems, the songs of lamentation — these were all designed to assist us in dealing with grief.”
Grief can exhaust our systems and so it is important to take care of the body while it is grieving. Eat simple foods like congee and broth. Prioritize time outside and sleeping. Studies have found grief to affect blood pressure, pain levels, and white blood cell counts that impact immunity. Grief can increase the likelihood of a heart attack by 21 times. For more on this: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/understanding-how-grief-weakens-the-body/380006/
More pathological than expressed grief is unexpressed grief. In Chinese medical thinking, unexpressed grief impacts Lung health, leading to excess fluid in the lungs (unshed tears), Lung qi deficiency, shortness of breath, trouble deeply inhaling (taking in the current world and reality), trouble exhaling (letting go), a feeling of weight on the chest, trouble focusing. It impacts the Heart, and this we know from western and Chinese medical systems of understanding. We even know it in our language. Heart sick. Heart ache. Heart broken.
“Dolphins, I learned from J. Worden of the Harvard Child Bereavement Study at Massachusetts General Hospital, had been observed refusing to eat after the death of a mate. Geese had been observed reacting to such a death by flying and calling, searching until they themselves became disoriented and lost.”
― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Animal behaviorists and enthusiasts alike have observed animals grieving. Wolves, chimpanzees, magpies, crows, elephants, dolphins, otters, geese and sea lions are among many animals with grief rituals. Grief is part of our animal nature. It is part of the life cycle.
Chimpanzees sulk, cry and lie still for long periods of time. Baby elephants whose mothers have died wake up screaming. Wolves howl and hang their heads. A goose’s eyes will sink deep into the sockets.
I once witnessed a crow death ritual. Walking my dog on a busy Seattle street, meandering slowly as the dog sniffed and explored, at first I paid little attention to the bustle and noise. There are always crows cawing in my neighborhood so at first it seemed insignificant. Then the enormity of the sound struck me.
There weren’t a few crows calling. There were close to 100, filling the telephone wires and surrounding trees, beaks open to issue a magnificent discord. I looked up in wonder, confused until I noticed a dead crow in the middle of the street, its body flattened, feathers waving in the wind. Crows gathered on the sidewalks, hopping, restless, unable to reach their companion through the cars.
The crows gathered like that until a woman braved the intersection to scoop up the dead crow’s body in a newspaper. The mourners stayed as their cacophony faded. Every person on the street was silent with awe.
Grieving is necessary to move forward. As Alice Walker reminds us, the way forward is with a broken heart. The truth is that we lose everything anyway, including ourselves. Fear of loss cannot protect us, and when it stops us from loving, committing and being willing to feel deeply, it harms us greatly. Grief is something to move through. It is something to take with us. It is something to make us different, to differentiate our present from our past, to carve from us the very essence of life. The Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing broken pottery with gold and other precious metals, is my favorite metaphor for moving forward with a broken heart. It is the art of embracing damage. The art of believing something is more beautiful, more precious because it has been broken.
Jessmyn Ward, Men We Reaped
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Mark Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals
“The Funny thing about endings is, whether we feel we’re victims of fate or whether we’ve consciously decided on our own that it’s time to move on, there’s still a void that forms between the ending of the old circumstance and the beginning of the new. We’re highly programmed in our society to fill that void as fast as possible. But the void is not actually empty, but silent. The void is, in fact, the home of all the possibilities in the universe.”
-DK Brainard, Words for the People
Nine Kopfer, Cristian Newman, JJ Thompson, Sam Burriss, Gus Moretta. Bowl paintings: Alexandra Ceulen