Monday, April 19, 2010

Grief As Skill

Someone I interviewed once actually talked about this – grief as a true skill of life, “an equal of the ability to love.” Now I’m the sort of person who sits up and takes note when I hear this kind of talk. I am interested in how people deal with what they find difficult; what their attitude toward death is; how they respond to crisis or what they do with the dark undercurrent of their emotions. I have always felt that to be really alive or to live our lives fully we need to make peace with the things we find hellish. That there is a great deal to learn from that we find arduous. So I invited him back for another interview. I wanted to ask him what this “grief as skill” thing was all about. I wanted some insight that might help me in adjusting to the death of someone very close to me.

The man I refer to here is Stephen Jenkinson.

Turns out that the skill of grief and the skill of dying are pretty much in the same camp. It all has to do with living your life as if whatever it is won’t last; that “the cradle of your love of life is death – the fact that it ends.” Okay – so living as if today, or this moment, could be your last – I can dig it. But I think there’s more. I want in on this “grief as skill” business. So I ask him.

He’s happy to indulge me. He talks about “letting the grief be part of the story,” and “a moral intelligence; a willingness to know the fabric of life for what it is.” I am struck by the beauty of how this all sounds. But what really gets me is when he describes the skill of grief as a “the willingness to remember – an understanding of what a discipline of the heart it is to remember, even when it pains you to do so.”

Not the same as memory, he tells me. First, he starts by defining “to remember”. He says it actually means, “to gather back together again.” That when someone you love has died, “doing” grief means being willing to remember. Because the opposite to “remember” is “dismember”. Once you understand that, he tells me, you understand the full consequence of forgetting someone.


So I’ve been thinking a lot about this forgetting business. About how references to it can be found in music, art, literature and even social media. We “forget” about our troubles by drinking them away, or sing about “forgetting” someone who has hurt us. “Forget about it,” we say, as an expression of good will when someone we know feels guilty about their behavior. The examples are endless. And what about the daily routines of living in a fast-paced, western culture? Do we habitually “forget” about one thing in order to focus on the next? Put our family “out of mind” in order to bring our best to the job? Block out the disturbing exchange we just had with a friend, because it’s just too uncomfortable to allow it any room?

How much of our lives is a series of disjointed events, a stage play of multiple personalities acting through varying mindsets, never the twain shall meet?

Surely there has to be times that “forgetting” is a positive, constructive thing to do? The thing that helps us move on? Forgive? Come together? I don’t know anymore. But it did occur to me that when “forgetting” turns into a habit, it becomes pathological. To forget is to dismember. Shit – that’s heavy. How many body parts have I got strewn across my life – my psyche? Does my left hand even know what my right hand is doing?

It is in this vein that the love of my life – my beloved Mishka – saved my life. Her death continues to riddle me with anguish, but at 48, I now find myself thinking about what it might mean to not be leaving stuff behind anymore. To bring this part along with that part, and so on – to introduce all the bits and pieces.

To be “willing to remember” whatever I need to, regardless of how much it pains me, in order to learn “the deep skill of living.”

That sounds like a life’s work – one I welcome with an open heart. Because I will never forget her.


Daisy said...

Some wonderful books on this subject are out there. Joan Didion's ... The Year of Magical Thinking. Comfort: A Journey Through Grief by Ann Hood. On a related note, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser is also excellent. Eckhart Tolle's work (A New Earth, The Power of Now, etc.) covers the cycle of life_death in a way that can be quite enlightening, as well. Probably no easy way through a journey with grief, but remembering is one way to honor the person's memory and to remind ourselves of the value of life...even when someone we love is no longer here to share "mortal time" with us. As an observation, I'd just offer that most everyone needs help learning how to grieve and cope with loss. As a society, we don't do a very good job of bringing loss into the fabric of daily life in a meaningful, healthy way. Thanks, Jesse, for sharing your thoughts on this complicated subject. Unfortunately, we're a "conveniently forgetful" society, when some people are clearly meant to be remembered for as long as we choose. --DazyDayWriter @ Sunny Room Studio

Elizabeth Cunningham said...

I've just been pondering the subject of memory, re-membering. Couldn't remember something I had written about it, so asked a friend to find this passage from The Passion of Mary Magdalen: "The word mourn derives from a root that means remember. When Isis mourned Osiris, she re-membered him, literally. Maybe all memory has the same purpose, to restore what is lost, to make the unruly fragments of lived experience a coherent whole. Which is why memory is the mother of the muses. Memory is something we make, the primordial art form. But if a poem or a story or a memory is alive, it shapes us, too." from The Passion of Mary Magdalen by Elizabeth Cunningham

Jesse Mendes said...

Daisy, I enjoy your observations, and thank you for sharing these resources with readers. I appreciate your thoughtfulness tremendously.

Elizabeth, I did not know that "mourn" derives from a root that means "remember". Very interesting indeed. I am grateful for your thoughts. The only thing I might add is that Stephen said to me (in an interview I did with him, airing tomorrow and next week) that the kind of "memory" that happens when we (for example) look through photographs and these memories of past events come back to us....that this kind of memory, is "not something we can take credit for", he says. Being willing to remember is different.

Please, stay in touch, both of you. What a pleasure.


Pamela said...

This topic has brought to mind a scene from a favorite movie of mine, Out of Africa. It is where Karen von Blixen, Meryl Streep, is preparing to depart Africa and the love of her life, Denys Fitch Hatton, has come to call. She tells him that there is a little thing she has learned to do lately. She says that she makes herself recall all the special and good experiences she has had during her life in Africa. The first time that Denys took her flying and their friend Berkeley Cole and when it was all so good. She says that when she feels she cannot bear it she goes one minute longer and then she knows she can endure anything.
It is an exercise, of sorts, in grieving. She is mourning the loss of her beloved Africa and the life that meant so much to her. This is made a bit more poignant because it is based, albeit very loosely, on the life story of Karen Christenze Dinesen. Upon her returning to Denmark she became a writer and renowned storyteller. One of her most well known books was Out of Africa. She was a fascinating woman; in many ways ahead of her time and all at once a product of her time. I think she found strength and courage through her own unique grief process and it helped her keep the vivid characters of her treasured years in African real and alive in her mind and ultimately share them with the world. I believe it is possible to grieve for those we loved and lost and still hold dear and not become bogged down in the process. It is a way of weave together our past with our present for a sense of continuity in who we are. We are, after all, the products of nurture and nature; a mixture of hardwiring and cultural influence and those with the greatest impact on our lives will ever have a prominent place in our psyches . They helped to shape us in ways that we can’t even begin to know. With years of living comes an accumulation of experience and a certain amount of wisdom and too, a realization that each person living or dead that has played a part in our lives, for better or worse, has contributed to our character and helped us to become the person we are today. If we want to be fully developed and dimensional , it is necessary to recall all the elements that have added to our lives.
Perhaps this will be viewed as an overly simplistic observation. One might say that it is a plebeian prospective brought to the intellectual table for consideration.

Pamela said...

My apologies I, of course, meant "perspective". a classic case of the brain getting ahead of the ability of the fingers to transcribe. (ha)

Jesse Mendes said...

Dear Pamela

What a beautiful post. I had to read this several times to let the fullness of it penetrate me. I love your depth, and I share it. And I am now on a mission to pick up, and read, Out of Africa! Your description of it is compelling.

Your comment "I believe it is possible to grieve for those we loved and lost and still hold dear and not become bogged down in the process." I couldn't agree more. To the contrary, in fact. I believe that grieving (not in the traditional sense of the word, but as a "skill") is the thing that will keep us with our finger on the pulse of life: aware, rooted in what matters, willing to remember and to love, even when it pains us to do so, and feeling utterly alive in the process.

And yes, we meet people on our "path" in life who make their mark; help in some ways to shape our character, reflect back what is important, and teach us about ourselves in the process. It's too bad people didn't think of lover relationships this way. Mainstream thinking is that a relationship that "lasts" or endures is successful, and one that does not was a failure. Why is that? It seems so backward to me. Because it is possible to meet, fall in love with, honor and learn from someone you end up parting ways with -- a "success" in my books.


Pamela said...

I think conventional wisdom about lover relationships being failures when they don’t endure should be reexamined. That’s not to say that we don’t experience some pain when parting, but once you get on the other side of the relationship, and you always do, you are able to examine it with a clear eye and eventually realize that this person added dimension and even a bit of character to your life. I have known some very intelligent and gifted men in my life and I am all the better for having known them. I think it would be a far worse thing to go through life never having loved at all than to know what it feels like to truly love someone. I greatly admire people who are in loving and lasting relationships. For many this is the way life was meant to be. But for some of us a solo life rich in autonomy brings true peace and satisfaction. In order to embrace such a singular life choice one must feel extremely comfortable in the presence of one’s own company. It is quite possible to build a full and rich life as a single individual. Either way life is far too short to merely exist. In the end we all need and thrive on community and that may mean something different for each of us. For most of us it is having a circle of good friends and reaching out to others of like mind for stimulating discussions. What is even more welcoming is having those who bring a different perspective to the table join in our discussions and give us an opportunity to broaden our horizons.

Jesse Mendes said...

Pamela, your prose always resonate with me on a very deep level. In fact I just posted a new blog (Choreography of Soul) before reading this comment that touches on this very insight -- that a relationship that doesn't last is not necessarily a failure. I am absolutely perplexed by this line of thinking, as if the only point to life is making sure that whatever it is will last, when we all know that the only constant in life is change. It seems to me that true mastery is learning how to adapt to that.

Think about where the institute of marriage is right now. Increasing numbers of people are living common law. Not that I have anything against marriage -- it's a beautiful thing for some people, and a very right thing. But we get so stuck on imposing our agenda on our relationships -- trying to steer them toward a particular place -- that the relationship never really has a chance to develop organically, or to teach you what its greater purpose is in your life.

And I am encouraged by your thoughts that not all people are destined to find happiness in a primary relationship.

As always, my gratitude, Pam.