A good grief
As I grow older, the inevitability of mortality shrugs its way increasingly into my thoughts – especially during this darker time of the year just before spring and rebirth. As we grow older we seem to come closer to death; and some pass on to Something Else, leaving me – so very temporarily – behind.
But I’m not thinking about the event threshold that bridges life and death. Instead my thoughts are of the constant intimacy of life and death. Boundaries connect what we like to think are separate – and a fully lived life will embrace many deaths, just as a complete death will embrace a complete life.
I remember once watching Bergman’s Seventh Seal as a young man, and seeing throughout the movie a medieval knight playing chess with a dark hooded figure. Death, I learned then, does not wait patiently at the end of life: it is present all along, and yet is only sometimes recognized.
And it’s something we all know. Light increases and decreases all about us – and within us – annually and daily, in almost imperceptible increments. Near death experiences occur frequently to every one of us, although often without our knowing except as they become recalled in troubled dreams.
Serious illnesses are occurring more frequently among my friends now, and though they may recover, they do not always recover all they have lost. And one by one, they have begun leaving a circle that seems inevitably closing in upon me. There is a certain melancholy – yet, with a poignant sort of gratitude, a certain contentment arises. A complete grief is how we do this.
Feeling something that resembles sadness, about what seems to menace those I’ve known so long and so well, I try to get my mind around decline and decay as a significant, though perhaps darker aspect of health and vitality. I tell myself we are already, always dying, even as we live. I want to reconsider and redefine the way we use these words “decay” and “grief”, and gain insight by removing the bias of fear.
I would like to think decay is the companion and not the adversary of growth, and that together they comprise vitality. Darkness and light are in constant rhythmic interplay as we walk forward through life, falling as we do from foot to foot. As Jung once said, where there is no shadow there is no substance – and symptoms of illness are best understood as demonstrations of a greater health.
Elizabeth Kbler-Ross is generally credited with defining the stages of grief, including the emotions of anger and sadness, interwoven with the mental effort of bargaining in order to achieve acceptance. I would say that a second and more proactive aspect of grief then could follow, with complementary emotional enzymes known as forgiveness and gratitude, and the introspective mental effort of sorting, culling, and affirming. All this will break down that loss we mourn into something more easily digested.
When acceptance has matured into affirmation, forgiveness will dismiss the burdens of resentment, in recognition that what has happened is neither right nor wrong but simply true. Then gratitude will see and appreciate the larger picture of what has taken place. As that great American philosopher Dr. Seuss once said, “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”
Me – I plan to continue living passionately, lustily, to the end of my days. This is a great life and a wonderful world to live it in, and I want the time and space to continue taking it all in and giving all I have back – not as long as possible, but as deeply as I can.
Especially, I want to carry this vitality, this sense of presence and fullness, even to the dying of myself each day, and even to that farther end which must inevitably come. And although the completion of my life may not be something that I choose, it will be something that I welcome – with gratitude for what I’ve had, and with curiosity about what next may possibly come.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist. He is also the director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. firstname.lastname@example.org, www.jimshere.com.