Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Skeleton Woman

Into this practice of grieving, of giving space pretty much daily to lost things, broken things, people gone, I am having quite the experience.
Our culture does not do a good job of honoring grief. How often have I heard, "get over it!" "just let go!" as if grief could be put into such a box, as if Loss itself were something to ignore. Yet ignore we do. There are so many things we do to keep us from feeling our pain and suffering, our loss and grief, the weight of our traumas. We skim over the quiet  that is needed to be present to ourselves, we get busy, "life goes on",we say.
"To be human is to live only a hairbreadth from the unbearable." (Trauma and Grace,Serene Jones, p. 18)
To keep us away from the unbearable, we numb through alcohol, drugs, food, lovers, work, busy-ness, control, arrogance, and the list goes on. We support numbing when we say,"get over it." But the big secret is, we don't get over it. Ever. Grief loosens its vice grip on our hearts and brains, but the loss is always felt, whether we acknowledge it or not.
I believe that dancing with the unbearable is what must be done, and it is not a nice, neat, linear, "take a year off." "what you need to do is..." (I cringe when people in pain are told what they need to do.)
No, what I know of grief, from years of living it, resisting it, not knowing what I was carrying, is that it is nowhere near linear. Instead, grief comes in cycles, in great waves of suffering followed by responsive attending to it (or avidly avoiding it) to sweet resolution. Then a song reminds us of someone, or we lose a friend, or a loved one dies, and back we go into the grieving. Yet our grieving is threaded through with life. We constantly hold polarities in our days and thoughts and imaginations. Life is surrounded by death even as death (and pain, and suffering) is surrounded by the juice of life.
To face the unbearable is just plain hard, for grieving sucks. I won't be specific about the losses I grieve during my commitment to grief, for that is personal, but I will honestly tell you that holding grief has driven me inward and into depression. At this time in my life, I trust the cycle and know I am doing the right thing: to practice coming out of numbness. I am also more in touch with visceral feelings and feel more in control of my feelings, not less. And I do hold many, many moments of pleasure and joy, for that is just me.
To face the alternative: living a half-life, numb and disconnected, isolated and not-knowing, to me is far worse than any time of grieving. I have lived it both ways.

One story that has always inspired me is "Skeleton Woman", as told in "Women Who Run With the Wolves." While the context of the story in her book is relational, the idea is the same. Grief herself could be my skeleton woman. And look what hope there is at the end...when one faces and cries over death and loss, when one feels one's own tenderness, there you are, fleshed out and new, over and over and over.

From the book:

One day a fisherman went fishing in a cove that the locals avoided saying it was haunted, his line caught and he started to reel it in thinking ‘ooh, I must have a really big one’, and he had his eye on all the mouths this great fish would feed and how he might be free for a while from the chore of hunting.

And as he struggled with the great weight on the end of his line, the sea started foaming a frothing as he had inadvertently caught the hook in the ribs of Skeleton Woman. Soon she rose above the surface of sea, for much as she struggled to free herself she just got more entangled in the line. When he turned from fiddling with his nets he saw her bony skull with little coral creatures glinting in her eye sockets. He screamed as his heart fell down into his feet and began paddling like a madman trying to escape, but the faster and harder he paddled the faster she seemed to chase him for she was inexorably entangled in his line.

He raced for the shore and jumped out running all the way up the cliff still clutching his fishing stick, and of course she kept up as she was being dragged behind. When he finally reached his snow house he scrambled inside and lay there panting, thinking he was finally free, giving thanks to all bountiful Sedna.

Imagine how surprised he was when he finally lit an oil lamp to discover this almost inhuman tangle of bones tumbled and entangled on his floor… in the fire light he felt some kindness come over him and worked to untangle skeleton woman and put all her bones in the order that any human’s should be, and finally dressing her in furs to keep her warm. He settled down to sleep for the night, and whilst he was asleep a tear fell from his eye, (they say that the dreamer is having a dream of sadness or longing when this happens) and as she watched this Skeleton Woman became suddenly soo thirsty she crawled over to him whilst he was sleeping and put her mouth to his tear, and drank and drank until ‘her many long years thirst was slaked’.

Whilst lying there beside him, she reached inside and took out the mighty drum of his heart, and sitting up banged on both sides of it, singing the flesh onto her bones. And when she had everything she needed she snuggled down into bed with him, and they awoke entangled together in each other’s arms in the morning, in a ‘good and lasting way’.

( the story of Skeleton Woman is taken from the Book Women who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes)

This story of the transformative nature, of the feminine cycle of life-death-life, so clearly illustrates the  nature of our own grief, the beauty of how we can be reduced to bare-bones, the essence of longing and suffering, and come out restored, resurrected, whole.
The other layer of the story, the relational, is important to our grief too. For we grieve people we love. We grieve acts of injury. We grieve separation. All grief is social grief, I would say, and you are welcome to debate that. I think it is true, though. We grieve because we are relational.
And the rest of the relational story I will save for another post.

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