In flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
Rainer Maria Rilke
My sister Carla died.
No matter how many times I speak them, I can’t make that combination of words make sense. I know she is gone. It’s been over a month since she slipped into a coma, finally letting go three days later while surrounded by loved ones. I understand what the words mean. I said goodbye over Skype knowing that a few hours later she would be gone, I sat through the memorial when we all said and sang our goodbyes, I wandered through her house after most of the furniture had been moved out and only a few piles of things sat in the corners of the empty rooms. I know that it is true. My sister Carla died. Still, something in me just can’t comprehend…
Grief comes like a punch in the gut. "I thought I was prepared for this," my father said, fighting through his tears to tell me the news, barely five minutes old. I sat on the other side of the phone line, on the other side of the country, feeling the wind being knocked out of me, even though I had known the reason for this call the moment the phone rang. Even though I, too, thought I'd prepared for this. For two and a half years and one of the longest weekends of my life I prepared. And then came my father's call...
Rilke's image for grief is "pushing through solid rock," as though one were deep in the earth's core trying to push up into the light. It is a place where there is "no space" and "everything is close to my face." Claustrophobic. Immobile. Stuck. For me, grief is more like a fog or a cloud. I can't shake the feeling that I'm forgetting something or missing something. Like Rilke, "I am such a long way in I see no way through."
. . .
I wrote the above paragraphs a month ago. They took weeks to write. I could only manage a few sentences at a time and then I'd have to stop. It's been almost two months now since Carla died. That's the equivalent of about five minutes in grief time. The feelings are not so raw as they were a few weeks ago, but the pain is still very new. My feelings have hardened somewhat, less like a fog now, more like Rilke's stone.
I understand Rilke's cry to God when he says, "You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in." I have always found comfort and pleasure in the practice of prayer and meditation. For me, religion has been a source of vitality. Like art, it is a way of making sense of the world, of being more alive to the world. And, like art, it is a discipline. It is hard work. In the face of grief, it is even harder. I still continue my regular practice of prayer, but it seems like I am simply going through the motions. I feel like a guy holding someone else's place in a long supermarket line that isn't moving. I'm just waiting and waiting, hoping to move forward soon. And so, like Rilke, I long for God to make his presence known. I need God to do all the heavy lifting right now. I need to know that there is meaning in the world, despite all the pain and sadness.
After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote a book called A Grief Observed. In that book he says, "Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand." The easy pieties of "She's in a better place" just won't do. I don't want to feel okay that Carla is gone. I don't want to "get back to normal" and "feel good." Religion as an easy consolation would only be another form of repression. If anything, I believe that the hard work of religion means to feel more, not less. It means to look directly at difficult and painful realities and be transformed by them. Even so, I wish it didn't have to hurt so goddamn much.
Somewhere inside me I can sense that I am being changed by this grief. It has to be so. After Carla's death, how could I ever be the same? I imagine that grief is God's way of working some mysterious alchemy in me. I can feel that that is true as I write it, and yet I'm not sure I believe it. Does that sound like a contradiction? Everything about grief is contradictory. This makes sense considering that the pain I feel at Carla's passing is in direct proportion to the love I had, and have, for her. And so I find I need God, but at the same time, I want nothing to do with him. I feel empty and desolate, and yet grief is the one place right now where I feel most fully alive. I want this pain to end, but it feels awful when I do feel better, like a kind of betrayal. I know that Carla is gone, but something in me will not believe it and acts and reacts as if she is still alive. "Like a phantom limb," my therapist said. "Like a phantom limb," I agreed.
The question, of course, is, if I am being changed, what kind of change will it be? Will I shut down, repress my feelings, become colder, encased in the rock? Or will I find a new way into life, a new aliveness somehow birthed by this time of darkness? I honestly can't say right now how things will go -- I feel both of these possibilities within me everyday. But if I am going to get through this, even if I don't yet believe it, I have to have faith that new life can come out of this painful experience. I have always believed that we must be transformed by life, but you have to live through what is and not wish only for what you'd prefer life to be. And so all I can do right now is trust that by not resisting or denying this pain I can, by living through it, return to life renewed.
Shortly before her death, Carla received a package of homemade butterflies made by the children of the playgroup that Allison leads, and that my kids attend. Carla wrote this thank you note to the children, which they received the day after she died:
I was so excited to receive all of the butterflies you made me. I have a picture of them hanging in a fig tree in my backyard. I love butterflies because they are beautiful, but it takes a long time for them to change and a lot of hard work. It makes me feel like anybody can be beautiful if they work hard and are patient and kind, like butterflies. I have a bed in my backyard and I lie under an umbrella and look at your pretty presents. Thank you so much First Parish Playgroup.
Love, Carla (Annabel and Atticus' Auntie Carla)
I hope that through all this I may become a butterfly. I know that is what Carla would want. But she is right, becoming a butterfly is hard work. Right now, I am in the chrysalis stage -- hardly moving, dissolving, all the old forms breaking down, not sure if I'll ever emerge.
At the memorial, towards the end, Atticus said, "Why is this such a long funeral?" At the time, I didn't know what to say beyond, "It'll be over soon." Afterwards, I told Carla's good friend, Gina, about Atticus' remark. Her answer was brilliant and quick. Carla quick. "That's a great question," she said, "because the answer is: It was so long because Carla was loved so much!"
I know that because of the love I have for Carla, and because I miss her so damn much, working through the chrysalis of grief will be a long, hard process. My answer to Atticus was wrong -- it won't be over soon. I hope that I can honor this process, stay open even through the pain, the dislocation, and the uncertainty about where this all leads. I hope that I can return to the fullness of life, embracing it with the kind of joy and delight that Carla always did.
And I hope that with hard work and patience, one day I, too, can be beautiful.
Like Carla was beautiful.
Like she knew we all could be.