Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Content warning: grief, death, dying, mention of suicide
“Stop trying to wrench control from chaos.”
- Elizabeth Gilbert on the podcast “Everything Happens, with Kate Bowler”
My older brother Daniel had been gone, lost to suicide, more than two decades by the time I heard Elizabeth Gilbert call my entire life’s work into question. Since his death, I’ve wanted little else than to heal, move on, get back to normal. Control the chaos. But as Kate Bowler so often reminds us in her work, there is before and there is after; there is no “back” to get to, only whatever is now, in the “after.” I know very few things for sure, but I know this in my bones: grief stays. We mend as we tend to grief, and yet grief abides. Recently, I decided to hear my grief, give it the space it’s been aching for, and see if maybe that’s what’s been missing all along.
Once I committed to grief, to trusting that death and loss are worth looking at and learning to live with, I realized how ill-equipped I was for that reckoning. Having lived without my brother’s bodily presence for more years than I lived with it, I thought grief and I knew each other well. But you cannot know something you do not name. So I begin there: I light a candle, I say my grief out loud, and then I write. With the question, “What do you want to say about grief today?” at the top of the page in my notebook, I respond with whatever grief has to say in this moment. (This ritual is informed by “writing practice,” an approach developed by Natalie Goldberg and so lovingly introduced to me by Katie through her exquisite workshops). Here’s an excerpt from something I wrote back in November:
Ever since Daniel died, I’ve had this painful urgency; in any situation where I haven’t heard from or seen someone like I expect, my mind intrusively asks me, “If they’re dead now, what would you wish you were doing?” But it’s not in the spirit of Mary Oliver’s invocation about our one wild and precious life, it’s more terror and clenching– ”Why are you just sitting back and waiting while they could be dying. Call some hospitals!” Grief can feel like that, too. Terror. At what’s already been lost and how you can possibly keep living each day–in and out, in and out again–with that loss. And also terror at what’s next: the absolute inevitability of loss baked into the bargain of getting to be alive.
So if you, like me, are carrying grief this holiday season, can I be so bold as to offer some advice? Light a candle, name the loss out loud, and write. Take as much time as you have, but even five minutes can mend your heart for the moment.
In this lifetime, many of us will face unbearable losses that we somehow bear: loved ones we cannot possibly live without perish, our health fades, our mobility is lost, careers and callings get spent up or go unanswered until it’s too late, relationships become marred beyond recognition or redemption. We must honor our losses through the ongoing act of grief; it’s the only way back to ourselves and into whatever the now of “after” looks like.
The world needs your tears, too.
Claire Brakel Packer
For those interested in an ongoing conversation around grief as well as to learn about grief-centered offerings, visit Claire's website at: www.clairebrakelpacker.com