The strongest oak tree of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It’s the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for its existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun.”
– Napoleon Hill, 1883-1970, Author
Sometimes life’s challenges feel too difficult to bear. Loss. Violence. Tragedy. Circumstance. Local and global events that defy comprehension. What do we do with it all? How can we make sense of things that defy rational understanding? What do we do with emotions that threaten to capsize us completely? How do we respond? Where do we even begin to bear the unbearable?
Some people choose to lash out in anger or anguish. Some of us retreat. Some become numb, anesthetizing emotions and senses. Each of these reactions has its place. While I have no corner on grief-wisdom, I personally believe in the extraordinary power of tears as a healthy place to start, offering a bit of release and clearing. As the waves (or tsunami) of emotion build, I am a big fan of the big, hot, messy, wailing cry. If nothing else, I sure feel better when it’s over.
Kate Brastrup provides sage wisdom about tears in her lovely book, Here If You Need Me. As a chaplain to search-and-rescue workers, her work involved being present as family members were notified of the untimely passing of their loved ones due to accident or mishap. With great wisdom she encourages the following (and I paraphrase):
- There will very likely be tears. You need not fix this. This is human and natural and important and healing.
- Move with the individual as gently and quickly as possible to the floor. There they will be safe as there is nowhere else to fall.
- Know that even the deepest initial wave of tears will pass in about 20 minutes. To be sure, other waves will come, but know they will come up for air after about 20 minutes. This is where you begin.
When faced with the incomprehensible, our emotions often feel foreign, in combinations unrecognizable. For me, allowing the tears to flow as they arise clears a mental and physical space to begin to unravel the tangle or simply be in the jumble for a bit.
For much of my life, I held my tears inside with a stiff upper lip. Then, one day I was faced with news that uncapped the well. As I received the raw clarity about what awaited me in my future, I learned the value of a hot, messy cry and what I call the Wild Kingdom Wail. Blessedly, I discovered this unparalleled, human, healthy form of self-care.
Right now, many of us have very heavy hearts. The unimaginable news of the world and, for some, events within our own corner of the world, leaves us reaching blindly for a response. I humbly offer this possibility for a place to start. May it land softly with you. ~ E
SHOUT IT OUT (an excerpt from Wednesdays at the Fluff ‘n’ Fold)
A friend of mine died almost exactly 5 months before Charles died. He’d been sick for quite some time and most recently in the hospital. He seemed to be rallying, just like so many times before. But it all snuck up on him. It was simply too much. Scotty was thirty-nine years old. His partner, Rob, had been my best friend for over nineteen years. The four of us were close, linked in many ways but most keenly by a common experience of living with serious illness. Scotty’s death hit so very close to home.
Charles brought me the news as I was standing in my garden, dirty, dusty, blissful, and sweaty. As the words began to sink into my blue-sky afternoon, I began to ask myself, “What do I do with this news? Can this possibly be true?” Scotty’s death just didn’t figure into my thinking. You see, if Scotty could die then Charles could too, an option I was unwilling to accept despite the likelihood.
It made no sense. How was I supposed to deal with the emotions that wanted to gobble me up and spit me out? How was I supposed to respond to a situation that no words could change and, in all probability, awaited me at some unknown future date? In the midst of it all, I was aching for Rob. I wanted to be with him, comfort him, listen to and help him. I wanted to be a friend to him and be there for support. Yet, I am not proud to say that Scotty’s death became more about Charles and me than about Rob and Scott.
As I stood there in the garden, with Charles watching closely, I wondered where to turn when I didn’t even know who or what I needed. Normally I would turn to Charles as I had done for our entire marriage. Yet, in this situation, I was hesitant to show him my utter devastation. I wanted to show him that I could be strong. That’s what I wanted him to see, but not what I showed him.
My response? I got in the car, rolled up all the windows, and drove nearby country roads, screaming, wailing and hollering. I was shocked by the sounds that emanated from within me, Wild Kingdom fans would have been impressed. For miles I continued to shout, weep and wail.
I recall feeling grateful for the motion of the car, so I drove and drove. I surrendered to my grief and embraced the freedom of release. I hollered and wept until my eyes ached, my head hurt and my throat was sore. I was spent. Empty. Raw. Twenty-five miles later I was finally at peace.
This was the first time I got a taste of unbounded grief. I wasn’t crying just for Scott and for Rob, I was crying for me and for Charles. I experienced a taste of what was to come. Scotty’s death opened within me a well of emotion that I had held at bay thus far. It cracked the seal and my insides poured out with astonishing force threatening to carry me away.
In my spent state, however, I glimpsed the ebb and flow of even the most intense storms of emotion. This was somehow soothing. It was reassuring to know that I could go into my darkest places and trust I would come out, perhaps battered but intact.
I carry this hard-won lesson with me today as a valuable tool and wise instructor.
‘Shout It Out’. Artwork by Patricia Dambowy