Creative grief

mementos left at a common grave for stillborn babies

I have become an intimate friend of grief.

As a young child, watching my grandfather die on the front lawn, I first came to know grief as the jagged, breathless song on my grandmother’s lips.

I have carried death in my womb and laboured with great sobs of agony while I birthed a child named Matthew and his siamese twin named Grief.

I have raced frantically across the prairies, a newly fatherless daughter, holding fresh grief like a dagger in my chest.

In the ditch where a storm washed away the blood of my father, I have fallen to my knees and cried out to a distant God who came to me only as Grief incarnate.

I have worn grief as my garment to three funerals in as many months – father, grandmother, uncle.

I have thrown rocks at grief when it threatened to suffocate me both times my beloved’s life hung on the thread he’d attempted to sever.

Grief has come to me as anger, as agony, as fear, as guilt, as a tender companion, as the milk in my unsuckled breasts, as colours on a canvas, as a poem, and as a collection of story threads in my overflowing basket. Grief is both wildly unpredictable and comfortably reliable. Grief pokes its head into my life when I least expect it or when it’s the most inconvenient and then goes into hiding when I’m sure it will be present.

Grief is not one emotion or one experience but many, many emotions, experiences, thoughts, waves, daggers, and physical manifestations.

Grief has been my enemy, my compass, my friend, my lover, my teacher, my poem, my muse, my dance partner, my task-master, and my spiritual director.

Grief is also my paintbrush, my pen, and my musical accompaniment. I have painted my grief, danced my grief, walked with my grief, made mandalas of my grief, painted grief on my body, photographed my grief, made collages out of the things that brought grief to my life, and found almost every creative way possible to metabolize and give shape and form to my grief. Grief is always near at hand when I am most honest in whatever art form I engage in.

Grief does not give us easy journeys. Grief throws rocks in our paths and takes away all the guideposts and maps. It refuses to show up in well-ordered stages along a straight path. Instead, it welcomes us to a tumultuous, chaotic dance.

Without a roadmap for our grief, sometimes the best thing we can reach for is a trusted guide… someone who understands the dance of grief and knows that no two dance partners are the same. Someone who will help us find the practices that will best strengthen and encourage us along our own unique paths.

This past year, I have had many conversations about grief with my trusted friend, Cath Duncan. She is a student of grief, in the best possible way. She understands it on a deep cellular level and has walked the path of it as a true and honest pilgrim. She has studied it like a grief archeologist and scholar, determined to find meaning in what she unearths.

The same can be said about Kara Jones, whose creative work around grief is both breath-taking and challenging.

Together, Kara and Cath have developed a beautiful new program called Creative Grief Coaching Certification, where people in helping professions can learn more about how to support people in grief. I believe in this program wholeheartedly and am thrilled to be one of the guest lecturers who will help participants learn more about how to equip people with creative processes to engage with along the grief journey.

Cath and Kara understand the complexity and nuances of grief. They also understand the importance of seeing grief as a creative process that will transform us if we invite it in. I believe they are just the right people to be offering this beautiful gift to the world.

If you want to learn more about grief, and you believe you have a gift for serving as a creative grief coach, please check it out.

Jump, and I’ll break your fall

(a poem inspired by this news story)

You, in the second story window,
look not to the concrete beneath you,
look not to the fire behind you,
look not to the impossibility around you.
Jump, and I’ll break your fall.
Your past is burning,
and the next step will cause you pain, but
you must choose, this moment, to live.
Jump, and I’ll break your fall.
Look to my eyes for courage.
Look to my body for softening.
Look to my arms for kindness.
Jump, and I’ll break your fall.
Commit to this moment
and my body will commit with you.
Commit to your future
and I won’t let you start alone.
Commit to this choice
and I’ll absorb some of your pain.
Jump, and I’ll break your fall.

Eleven years

Tonight we’ll take our children to the graveyard, we’ll talk about what might have been, perhaps shed a tear or two, and then we’ll go out for ice cream to celebrate a life that changed us.

It’s what we do every year on this day. Every year for eleven years.

Today is the eleventh anniversary of the day my son died.

I woke up that morning, eleven years ago, to find out that his heart had stopped during the night. Hours later, he was born. Lifeless. Still. But so very real.

Today is the day that changed my definition of motherhood. Today is the day that I birthed pain and lived to tell the story. Today is the day my breasts filled with the milk of anticipation only to dry out days later when there was no-one to suckle them.

Today is the day I shook my fist at God, and yet turned in the same direction when I needed comfort.

Eleven years in, pain has become my companion, my friend. It doesn’t stab me with raw and brittle edges like it once did. Instead it curls up in a smooth and familiar ball inside my chest, tightening my throat now and then, but mostly gently reminding me that I am alive, that I am well, and that I have a story to share with other wanderers along this path.

Pain is my teacher, guiding me along the path, deepening my experiences and enriching my relationships.

Pain is my gift. It helps me paint the world with richer colours and more honest shapes. It helps me write with truth and courage.

Pain is my story. It frames the world for me and urges me to enjoy the depths of beauty and joy within the frame.

I am forever grateful for the gift that is my son, Matthew. Never let it be said that he did not live a full life.

Turning pain into music: More reflections on our 100 km. walk

kidney march finish line

just a few steps away from the finish line

“Are you sure you don’t want a ride to the camp? You can just skip the rest of the kilometres for the day, rest up, stay off your blisters for awhile, and start fresh tomorrow.”

We heard that often along the 100 km. walk. Well-meaning organizers, volunteers, and medics wanted to help us avoid some of the pain we were experiencing. They wanted to give us short-cuts, assuring us there was no shame in missing a few kilometres.

Every offer only set our resolve deeper, though. It even made us reluctant to visit the medics when the blisters got particularly ugly. We weren’t there to do 87 km – we were there to do 100.

Yes, it was painful. Yes, there were toes on our feet that were hardly recognizable as toes anymore. Yes, there were moments when there didn’t seem to be a single muscle in our body that was exempt from the overwhelming ache.

But we were there to complete the journey. We were there to test the limits of our endurance. We were there to be present in every painful step.

We live in a culture that likes shortcuts, especially when it comes to pain. We try to rush through grief, thinking that we’ll be better off if we can just put a bandaid on it and get back to real life. We over-medicate, thinking a dulling of the pain will help us feel “normal”. We short-circuit the birthing process (both literal and figurative), with unnecessary c-sections and inductions. We over-consume, thinking that shopping therapy will dull the ache of loneliness or heartbreak. We clamour over quick fixes and fill our lives with cheap throw-away solutions to our problems.

We prefer ten easy steps to one thousand painful ones.

But it’s the thousand painful steps that will change us. It takes those thousand painful steps for us to grow into what we’re meant to be at the end of the journey.

In ten easy steps, we can build little more than a house of cards, not the rich, beautiful temple we are meant to become. A strong wind blows away the house of cards, but the temple withstands the storm.

A fascinating thing happened at the end of our three day journey. We three women, walking together every step of the way, always within about 100 steps of each other, all began to menstruate before the end of the day. In just three days, our cycles aligned (though I wasn’t expecting mine for another week and a half and I’m not sure about the others). Interestingly enough, the next day was the full moon.

I’ve lived with enough roommates, daughters, and sisters to know that it is not unusual for women living in community to end up with cycles that are in sync. I’ve never seen it happen in such a short time, though. Three days of sharing an intense, painful experience, and our bodies were in tune with each other.

Extrapolate that story forward, and you have three women, living in community, whose bodies are preparing to go through the pain and glory of childbirth together. It’s a beautiful, poignant story. Expose three women’s bodies to shared pain and they find a way to support each other that goes much deeper than words.

Women, we are amazing vessels. We birth children and carry each other’s pain. Every month, we shed blood – our little painful sacrifice for the beauty we bear within us.

As an added element to this story, it was pain and childbirth that brought these three women together in the first place. Cath’s loss of Juggernaut led her to a place where walking helped her live through the pain. Christina’s deep compassion for her story and sharing of her pain made her want to support Cath on the journey. My own story of the loss of Matthew bonded me to Cath and made me want to be with her for the journey as well. It was pain that bonded us, pain that we journeyed through together, and pain that caused our bodies to align themselves with each other so that we could most fully support each other.

Our bodies carry wisdom that our minds know nothing about.

Our bodies understand the value of pain.

Without the pain, we don’t have the beauty. Without the blood, we don’t have the birth. Without the sacrifice, we don’t have the growth. Without the sharing of agony, we don’t have community.

We can’t shortcut through the pain. It’s not serving any of us. Shortcutting through our own pain makes us careless of other people’s pain. It makes us careless of the pain we cause Mother Earth.

Mark Nepo talks about pain as the tool that carves the holes in our bodies to make us the instruments through which breath blows and beautiful music is made. When we are present in the pain – when we don’t try to take shortcuts through it – our holes are seasoned and polished and the music comes out sweet and rich.

Imagine an orchestra playing on half-finished instruments, with holes that had never been polished and strings that had never been pulled tight. The music would be dull, lifeless, and out of tune.

Pain begets beauty. 

Pain shines the edges of the holes through which God breathes.

The next step may be painful, but it must be taken nonetheless.

I only hope that your next painful step will be taken in community and that you will be supported in your pain.

And when the pain subsides and you can stand up straight again, let God breath through you and make your music beautiful.

“In stories and in life, pain is our friend. It’s an unwelcome friend, but a friend nonetheless. The good news is if we make friends with our pain, it won’t stay long and it will leave us with a gift. But if we avoid pain, it will chase us down until we finally accept the gift it has to offer.” – Donald Miller


Note: Full disclosure – I did take a few painkillers along the way, so I don’t want to paint myself as some kind of martyr. AND I do not want to stand in judgement of anyone who accepted a ride – we each must choose our own thresholds for pain and our own values and reasons for completing a particular journey. There is no shame in being supported through the roughest parts of your journey.

Another note: Cath has created a beautiful offering to help you walk through your pain, called Remembering for Good. She is letting her pain be turned into music.

The instrument I am becoming

Sometimes the right words show up at just the right time.  This is what showed up this morning:

Suffering makes an instrument of each of us, so that standing naked, holes and all, the unseen vitalities can be heard through our simplified lives.

…In every space opened when what we want gets away, a deeper place is cleared in which the mysteries can sing. If we can only survive that pain of being emptied, we might yet know the joy of being sung through. Strangely and beautifully, each soul is a living flute being carved by life on Earth to sound deeper and deeper song.

– Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Imagine that. These deep gashes in my soul from broken relationships, a son who died before he was born, a father who died before I was ready to let him go, a mom fighting cancer, a husband whose demons have nearly killed him twice, a rape before I knew what sexual intimacy was… these are all holes that make the instrument that is me sound beautiful and sweet.

With time and healing, they let me sing a deep, rich song that may be just the soothing ointment needed for someone else’s fresh wounds.

Often we get caught up in identifying our strengths and our giftedness and we spend all our time trying to figure out how those things can uniquely impact the world.

We forget that it may very well be our pain that will let us sing the sweetest songs and soothe the greatest hurts.

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