By Elizabeth Flynn Campbell
I recently spent some time with a friend whose world came crashing down in the worst way possible through her child’s sudden tragic death. My friend is, as any parent would be, besieged daily with successive tsunamis of despair, rage, and almost unbearable sorrow. I hadn’t seen her since the funeral and as intense as it was to be so close to her raw pain, it also felt better somehow to sit with her and absorb a small part of her journey of loss, rather than helplessly imagine it from a distance.
One thing is certain: the longer we live, the more losses we will have to absorb, including the terrible things we read in the paper and hear on the news, the heart wrenching losses of those close to us, and, of course, our own inevitable sorrows. How to deal with the cumulative heartbreak that comes with living a long, full life is an ongoing spiritual challenge.
After my friend left I was sitting on my back porch staring at the wind ruffling the cedar trees, contemplating how a person goes on in the face of such a loss as hers, when I remembered a strange and powerful experience I had several years ago, shortly after my mother’s unexpected death from what we thought was a run-of-the-mill bout of the flu.
A week or so after my mother’s funeral, I went to my Pilates class. At the end of the hour-long workout, the instructor played some sacred Indian music and had us sit quietly for a few minutes with our eyes closed, as she always did when we finished running through the exercises.
Normally this quasi-meditation time didn’t do much more for me other than provide respite from the rigorous stretching, but this day was different. The music felt exquisitely haunting–sad and beautiful at the same time–and I sunk into a kind of reverie. As the melancholy music played, an ancient, rounded peasant woman appeared in my consciousness, slowly sweeping the deserted streets in her village and making her way up a dusty hill, which I sensed she had been doing since the start of time.
I knew with the deepest part of me that she was some kind of primordial mother, bearing witness to the world’s relentless cycle of birth, suffering, and loss, as all of the village sons and daughters were off facing yet another war.
Like parents everywhere, she was trying to keep up with all that had to be done, while bearing the staggering weight of loving children who, despite her best efforts, will inevitably leave home and struggle. In my vision, she moved deliberately and steadily, sweeping streets that would soon need to be swept again and again and again. Despite the seeming futility of the task, she kept at it with the bearing of a weary saint and awaited the return of those she loved.
This woman was as familiar to me as if she were my own mother or part of myself. She is the one who suffers because she loves, and yet whose heart and soul remain open. This capacity to bear great suffering with grace, while continuing to do the work that is ours to do, is a profound spiritual accomplishment.
It’s about learning to bear loss long enough to get through to the other side, where a love that supersedes failure and devastation awaits. My dear friend has just begun this heroic and mournful journey, which is the only way great love survives this gorgeous and brutal world of ours. So take good care of your heart and of your broom, as you do the work you alone are meant to do–no matter what happens.
“To mourn is to touch directly the substance of divine compassion. And just as ice must melt before it can flow, we, too, must become liquid before we can flow into the larger mind. Tears have been a classic way of doing this.” –Cynthia Bourgeault
Elizabeth Flynn Campbell lives in Shelburne and is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Burlington.