On Grieving


I am somehow both pan-religious and nonreligious, both Catholic and pagan. I don’t really know how all of that exists simultaneously in my heart and mind, but somehow it does. For a long time I thought that was an untenable state, and expected that sooner or later I would have to commit to being and believing one thing or another, and not all things and none all at once. But I’ve lived in this state for many years now, and truthfully it shows no sign of coming to some cataclysmic end. Somehow this all-encompassing, tolerant nonbelief system of mine works just fine.

Most of the time.

When terrible things happen, though, there’s no rulebook for me to turn to. All the various religious answers about death and dying, loss, and grief fall flat. The feel-better remarks and there-theres don’t work for me. All I know is that I have to feel my feelings all the way through them, for as long as I need to, until I release them (or until they release me—I’m not sure which it really is). I don’t know if that’s healthy or not healthy. It’s just how I am.

I found this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I understand this.

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay

We all have to navigate life’s injustices and sorrows in our own way. There is no script that fits all actors in this play. We have our rites and rituals, our traditions of marking difficult passages. They are useful and good for many. But they are not perfect. And no funeral or day of mourning or flag at half-mast brings an end to the grief. Grieving continues and passes through many stages. We are not resigned.

A long time ago I worked at a funeral home. I spent my workdays with grieving people and people whose job was to help grieving people. A co-worker, Barbara, who had lost her husband many years before, once said to me something I’ll never forget. “After the funeral, all the people go home. The funeral was closure for them. But the grieving goes on for the loved ones, the spouse, the parent. For them, the grief stays.”

Just as our happy moments, our loves, and our triumphs build together and become part of who we are, so do our sorrows knit themselves into our bones.

So how do we cope and what is normal? All of it. Normal is preparing for Christmas with tears falling down one’s cheeks. Normal is gathering with friends and loved ones, smiling and laughing even with a broken heart. Normal is putting one weary foot in front of the other, making breakfast, enforcing room-cleaning, and cuddling precious children to sleep even while you hear the imaginary wolves scratching at the door. All of this depth of feeling and contradiction can exist simultaneously, too. Life is mucky and confusing. It is never as neat as a greeting card.

We say our prayers—or not. We light our candles and weep and gather together. We look to our heroes, spiritual leaders, and poets. We make sandwiches and feed chickens and watch movies for relief. Our hearts break, and we gradually put them back together—with wise compassion and great waves of Love.

We are changed. And that is normal.

Needle-Felted Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick’s Day is coming and I have to admit, it’s a holiday that I quite like. I just always have liked it; don’t really know why. I have always made sure not to be pinched by wearing plenty of green on Saint Patrick’s Day.

I was inspired to needle-felt a Saint Patrick, mainly to see if I could make a doll this big. He’s almost 12 inches tall and made entirely out of wool roving, two pipe cleaners, and some sort of silky fiber that Parnasus gave me a long time ago, which was perfect for his soft beard and hair. I don’t really know what it is. His bishop’s hat sports a jaunty shamrock, which is kind of like a cross, too, and it gives a nature connection that I appreciate. I felted little green snakes onto Patrick’s robes. I’m happy with how he turned out! (Now I know I can make a similar Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, or seasonal doll like Queen Summer or King Winter, or whatever.)

Saint Patrick’s Day isn’t a big holiday in the Waldorf school, which could be because it falls just before the spring equinox and Easter. Since Lucas is in second grade this year and the curriculum has focused on lots of stories about saints, I figured we would bring Saint Patrick into our home.

Some very brief online research reveals that the legend of Saint Patrick is that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland, which may be a metaphor of Christianity conquering the indigenous, pagan (snaky) religion. I also found plenty of sites that claimed this story and its interpretation was nonsense. Probably Ireland never had snakes. It’s known that Patrick was the son of a wealthy Roman-British family who was captured, taken to Ireland, and enslaved for six years. Later he escaped and returned to Britain, entered the priesthood and studied for years, and then became a missionary in Ireland again, where he converted people to Christianity for twenty years. An angel told him in a dream to convert the Irish. He may have used the three-lobed shamrock to teach the Irish people about the Holy Trinity. Who knows?

The Dear Little Shamrock

There’s a dear little plant that grows in Ireland.
‘Twas Saint Patrick himself sure that set it.
And the sun on his labor with pleasure did smile.
And a tear from his eyes oft-times wet it.
It grows thro’ the bog, thro’ the brake, and the mireland,
And it’s called the dear little Shamrock of Ireland.

That dear little plant still grows in our land,
Fresh and fair as the daughters of Erin,
Whose smiles can bewitch, and whose eyes can command,
In each climate they ever appear in:
For they shine thro’ the bog, thro’ the brake, and the mireland,
Just like their own dear little Shamrock of Ireland.

That dear little plant that springs from our soil,
When its three little leaves are extended,
Denotes from the stalk we together should toil,
And ourselves by ourselves be befriended.
And still thro’ the bog, thro’ the brake, and the mireland,
From one root should branch, like the Shamrock of Ireland.

—Andrew Cherry

Happy Solstice! Advent and Other Spiritual Musings

Last year, I managed to throw together a tiny Solstice celebration. At the last minute, I invited Theresa and Greg and Phoebe over for dinner. I decorated the table with a gold lamé and served only yellow foods (butternut squash soup, oranges, summer squashes cut into disks and sautéed, chicken with a lemon sauce, sparkling cider, and probably other stuff I don’t remember). We had a lovely, silly time, subtly worshipping the sun and its return.

Today I don’t have any such thing planned, but maybe I’ll go to the grocery store for some oranges or something.

Over the course of this month, we’ve been observing Advent, à la Waldorf schools and Anthroposophists rather than Catholics/Christians. The difference is slight, however. We have an Advent Wreath (a real evergreen wreath) and in the center we placed a Celtic-style candleholder that was a gift from Flonkbob (and Chilipantz?) many years ago. Although the candleholder is not a ring, per se, it features three outer candles with a place for one elevated candle in the center. It’s beautiful and works nicely as the symbolic equivalent of the four weeks leading up to Solstice/Christmas, with the fourth being the prominent one signifying the birth of the Sun/Christ. (The Advent wreath we had when I was growing up was a ring, but in the Catholic tradition, we used 3 purple candles and 1 pink candle signifying the climax. Pink/purple are the traditional colors of Advent in the church.) This year, I’ve stuffed it with golden beeswax candles made by lovely dakini_grl.

Each night, we’ve been reciting the following poem, which I believe is traditional for the Anthroposophists:

The first light of Advent,
It is the light of Stones,
Stones that live in crystals, seashells,
And our bones.

The second light of Advent
It is the light of plants,
Plants that reach up to the sun,
And in the breezes dance.

The third light of Advent,
It is the light of Beasts,
The light of hope that we may see
In greatest and in least

The fourth light of Advent,
It is the light of man,
The light of love, the light of thought,
To give and understand.

I like this verse because it’s earth- and human-centered. It’s pagan-sounding to me. But that pagan stuff isn’t quite so important to me as it used to be. I’ve become like Joseph Campbell in my old age. I’ve been meditating on the meaning of Christmas to me and how well I see the lines that connect this holiday with other, older holidays. My need to step apart and define myself as a pagan, as something entirely other than a Christian, is much diminished. I’m finding that this is making me really happy, and is allowing me to enjoy all the religiosity of the season more. Somehow there’s less of a reason to be uptight.

At one point last year sometime, Ian’s mother expressed concern that Lucas must be educated about the Christian faith so that he can live in our God-fearing, Christian society.  I hardly fear that Lucas will somehow escape learning a basic knowledge of Christianity, just because we don’t define ourselves as Christians. She worried because we were attending the Unitarian Universalist Society services: “Do they even talk about Christ?!”

Anyway, we have been singing the Advent song that mentions the Christ child along with our candle-lighting ritual. Lucas’s face always lights up when we sing “Then comes the Christ child at the door.” I think that he is really captivated by the image of a child being the inspiration of the season.

The other morning, all by myself, I sat down on the couch in my living room with some Christmas carol sheet music and sang my wondering Christian heart out.

  • About Sara

    Thanks for visiting! I’m Sara, editor and writer, wife to Ian, and mother of two precious boys. I am living each day to the fullest and with as much grace, creativity, and patience as I can muster. This is where I write about living, loving, and engaging fully in family life and the world around me. I let my hair down here. I learn new skills here. I strive to be a better human being here. And I tell the truth.

    Our children attend Waldorf school and we are enriching our home and family life with plenty of Waldorf-inspired festivals, crafts, and stories.

    © 2003–2018 Please do not use my photographs or text without my permission.

    “Love doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.” —Ursula K. LeGuinn

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