My journey with grief.
Images, symbols and colour have been important to me on my journey through grief. There were times in the first few weeks and months following my husband’s death that a symbol would give me solace and resonate with my soul.
I found an artwork of a vast expansive ancient tree that I hung in my bedroom not long after my husband died.It reminded me that majestic trees weather many storms but they continue to grow and form new branches and connections year after year. I hung it over my bed to provide me with shelter, wisdom, strength and also inspiration to keep on living. Yet although I found some photos and symbols such as this one to soothe me I kept searching for and seeking to understand models of grief that I might relate to because grief is not a linear experience. It took me three years to develop my own interpretation of my journey with grief when I found a photo of a labyrinth and started to study them.
Labyrinths have been used as a method for meditation, contemplation and reflection throughout the ages. You can trace a path from an entry point, round and round, backwards and forwards until you reach the heart or the centre and then you follow another circuitous, winding path to the exit.
At last I had found a model that started to make sense to me. It felt like after the brain cancer carer roller coaster ride stopped, I entered a labyrinth of grief. A labyrinth that contained many dimensions of loss and felt like a storm with many waves and phases.
I could only spend pockets of time in my labyrinth because I had two little human beings that I needed to support and love and be present for during every waking hour (unless they were in the care of grandparents, an occasional friend or at daycare).
I entered my labyrinth whenever I had a moment to myself. Sometimes I chose to enter and sometimes I was pulled in without warning and with force. Sometimes I knew that a severe weather front was advancing if it was getting close to a specific milestone such as my son’s first day at school, Christmas, a birthday or the anniversary of my husband’s death. At other times I was unsure of the weather forecast, and was relieved if I encountered a lull in the storm, to have a chance to rest and regroup.
C.S. Lewis describes grief as a spiral.
“For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?
How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment”? The same leg is cut off time after time.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
When I first read this description I related to the spiral but I was unsettled at the thought that there would be no end to re-visiting emotions and traumatic memories. I found I was often shocked, frustrated and dismayed to find myself re-visiting an emotion or traumatic moment that I thought I had already accepted or honoured. I learnt that there are often deeper layers of insight to be discovered. The structure of a labyrinth provided me with solace that at some point even though you return to memories and moments over and over again – at some point you do reach peace or acceptance.
Spiritually a labyrinth can symbolise an inward journey to the centre of your heart and your truth. While the outward journey is a slow and steady return back into the world.
This has been my experience. I entered my labyrinth and followed the winding circuitous path to the centre where I found rejuvenation, centred in my heart and reconnected with my truth.
If you study the image of the Labyrinth associated with this post you will see that the path wanders from quadrant to quadrant and from the outside to the inside. All these different zones of the Labyrinth represent to me different layers and aspects of loss such as:
- Grief for the loss of my husband, lover, partner, best friend and companion.
- Deep emotions that I had put on hold as I passed through each traumatic moment of the roller coaster. For example – how difficult it had been to witness the deterioration of my husband’s cognitive and physical abilities. And the disbelief, anger and frustration at our circumstances
- The loss of my dream of co-parenting as part of a team with my husband.
- The physical manifestation of grief in my body.
- Pain, fear and sadness on behalf of my children – for the layers of grief that lay ahead for them. They were so young when their father died and would probably never have their own memories of him.
- Grief for my independent egocentric lifestyle before becoming a mother. (I had only been a mother for twelve months when my husband first became ill.)
- Grief for the loss of my sense of self. I had lost my dreams, my plans, my identity and the framework of my life. The roles that I was familiar with of career woman and wife were no longer.
To navigate and support myself through my Labyrinth, I used several tools including yoga, meditation, journalling and acupuncture. I sought solitude and rest. In child-free windows I spent hour upon hour sitting on the sand or walking at my local beach watching the sea and the sky. It felt like the beach was my office and I had to report to it every day for solace and insight. I listened to my intuition. I asked for help from family and friends. And some friends just appeared like guardian angels at poignant moments with love and compassion. I researched and consulted theories and models of grief. I read stories of other people’s experiences. I sought guidance, compassion and independent listening from my grief counsellor. I developed rituals and symbols for the kids and I to commemorate and celebrate anniversaries and feel connected to my husband. I searched for meaning and questioned my faith in life and the mystery of the universe.
I have emerged from the labyrinth with energy and love. I am now reconnecting with the world every day. I have my groove back, feel wiser and more present in every moment.
I still re-enter my Labyrinth sometimes triggered by memories, milestones and little things like changes in the weather. When I do, I draw on the tools I have found, the skills I have learnt and the wisdom I have discovered.
I am relieved that I have emerged. I knew I would and I told worried friends and family that when I was ready, I would return with vigour. Thank goodness I have.
There were days which were particularly hard and confronting. Days when I was angry or shocked at how trying and unfair the trials of life can seem. Days when I had someinsight into how challenging it must be to live with depression. I know how important it is to exercise and move the body, however there were days when my body would ache with grief and I would struggle to walk a few blocks. Ironically, when my husband was undergoing treatment, I also developed bald spots on my scalp. Stress and anxiety took its toll on my body in several other forms too, ranging from severe eczema to dizziness. Yet now that I have rested and reevaluated how I live my life, I feel as physically fit and well as I was when I was 16.
There were days when I found it painful to talk to anyone including – a shopkeeper or a quick “hello” at the school gate. I felt too raw and emotional. I craved solitude and wanted to withdraw from the world . This was shocking because it was usually second nature to me interact with people of all walks of life and chat. Now I am back to my animated self again, comfortable with chit chat and I no longer rely on my hat and dark sunglasses as a shield.
From the outset I have felt supported by a deep inner strength and wisdom. But on those particularly dark days it was hard to feel any connection to my inner self. However when I stopped and listened to my heart through meditation, rest, or conversation with close friends and my counsellor – I found just enough faith and connection to sustain me until a better day.
A few weeks before my 40th birthday and two and half years after my husband died, I arranged some professional photos of the kids and I to capture the joy, love and trust that three of us share. To show our concerned friends and family that we are doing okay. To capture that we are fit and well and that we laugh despite the loss that we feel every day.
To remind me in dark moments ahead that I have emerged from the labyrinth, that the kids are engaged with life despite our circumstances.
The photos remind me how lucky we are to have each other. They remind me what a gift children are because they live in the moment and they love to play. But most of all the photos remind me to keep listening, loving and laughing.
My future blog posts will be much shorter! and delve further into of the aspects of grief I have mentioned above and the tools and resources that have given me strength.
You might also like to read this stream of consciousness post about navigating through my labyrinth of grief. Listening within