April 2018

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ritual of Loss and Celebration

Yesterday was a beautifully sunny, blue skies and cold winter day in Seattle. It was one of those days that brings to mind Perry Como’s cheerful song:

The bluest skies you've ever seen are in Seattle
And the hills the greenest green, in Seattle
Like a beautiful child, growing up, free an' wild
Full of hopes an' full of fears, full of laughter, full of tears 
Full of dreams to last the years, in Seattle 
. . . in Seattle.

Ann and I decided to do a ritual of loss and celebration on this day because part of the ritual involved going to the shore of Lake Washington and throwing stones in the water, something that seemed more pleasant on a sunny day (even if it was cold.)

Those of you who have been reading this blog know that I have been struggling with loss and grief over the past month or so. An activity in my Death and Dying class seems to have triggered my grief, but it has been hiding in some dark cavity of my body since my tumors were removed and I started learning to live my life with both losses and gifts of that experience.

As I've grieved this month, I've had the sensation of free-falling and whirling. My dear friend Ellen (a godsend) gave me a handout that her doctor had given her when Ellen’s sister died. According to this handout, some cultures allow someone a year to be insane when a person is grieving. Yes, I felt crazy. The handout also says that healing is not linear and is not even circular but instead moves in a spiral. Yes, that makes sense to me, too. Each time I’ve thought I had found solid ground and sanity again, the whirling would restart, though I didn't feel like I was returning to the beginning. 

My first yoga teacher Denise (another godsend), recommended that I read Jungian therapist Ginette Paris’s book Heartbreak: New Approaches to Healing—Recovering from Lost Love and Mourning. Though the book is written for people who have lost a partner to divorce or death, the book is essentially about mourning and has normalized some of my experience.

According to Paris, grief triggers the same sections in the brain as torture. That makes sense to me. She writes about the common sensation of free-fall. (Though I don’t generally like to be common, I was relieved at this.) She writes about manic emailing (ask my Death and Dying professor—another godsend, bless her heart—about this.) Paris shares a man’s story about grieving, and at the end of one section he writes, “I feel like a turtle dying in its shell.” Though I haven’t felt like I was dying, I have felt like a turtle pulling into my shell.

All of this was helpful, but I needed some one to help me particularize my experience, so I went to see my therapist. When I met when my therapist (yet another godsend) last week, we talked about grief and loss from my brain tumors and their treatments. 

Though I didn’t die during surgery and a lot of terrible things that could have happened didn’t happen, I did experience losses that have changed my life, and I have seen Prufrock’s “eternal footman hold my coat” (three times now, with the two tumors and the car accident).

My therapist described my personality in these situations with an accuracy that surprised me: she surmised that after surgery, I said, “Well, this is my life now. I’m going to get on with it and do the best I can.” She described me as edging towards stoic, but not stoic. She also theorized that I was angry after the death simulation in my class on death and dying because the activity exposed my vulnerability.  Yep.

My therapist asked me to talk about my losses, but all I wanted to talk about were the gifts.

She pointed out that in our culture, we don’t have rituals for such losses and such a near experience with death. We merely say, “Thank heavens I (or you) didn’t die,” and move on as if that’s it. She suggested that I create my own ritual to acknowledge both the losses and the celebrations.

I thought about this ritual on the bus ride home, and when I got home my partner Ann and I talked about it. Ann’s losses and celebrations are in some ways different from mine, but these experiences have rocked her world, too. That night I imagined a different ritual, and we performed it yesterday. Yesterday was busy, and today would be, too, but I need some time to rest with the ritual and my emotions around it, so I have skipped church today. Some days, I just have to.

Yesterday, Ann and I sat at our dining room table and each made a two column chart: on the left, we noted the things each of us have lost and on the right we noted our celebrations, things from our previous life that we continue to hold dear and gifts new to us since the tumors.

When we finished, we read our lost items to one another one at a time, and used a Sharpie to write the words on a river rock that we would later throw into Lake Washington. (Though because part of my assignment is to integrate those losses into my life, perhaps we should keep them in our lives. We have more river rock—lots more—so I’ll ask Ann what she thinks of this.)

Then we read our celebrations and wrote them on rocks that we would keep in a wide bottomed vase that Mom gave us.

There was a lot of overlap in the losses and celebrations, so we just combined our lists into one:

Reading any book
Adventure travel (El Salvador, Africa, Alaska…)
Financial ease
Taking two steps at a time
Identity as an athlete
Walking all over the city
Sharing chores
Single vision
Not thinking about my vulnerability
Ann and Mary
Family and friends
Connecting with new people and new communities
Sense of self
Using the bus
School of Social Work
Physical closeness
Travel in developed areas
Reading on a Kindle or a computer
Some independence
Identity as a thinker
Shared interest in social justice
Awareness of people with disabilities
Reading together
Quiet evenings
Slower pace
Biking and triking
Storm basketball
Travel where we can (Mt. Rainier, Hawaii…)
NC beach with family
Sense of humor

Now, I think my learning is how to integrate my losses with my gratitude, so that I embrace each as sacred. I think I understand that this is my next step, but it’s wholly theoretical to me right now. I have no idea how to do that. The thought of it, however, feels more gentle than the whirling I’ve been doing these last few weeks.

If you are whirling--whatever your whirling may be--please be gentle with yourself. I'll try to be gentle with myself, too. 

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