By Elizabeth Flynn Campbell
The holidays were tough this year. Maggie, our beloved two-year-old red-haired poodle, died five days before Christmas. One day she was my hearty running companion and a few days later she was dead from the sepsis that followed the surgery to remove the small black sock lodged in her abdomen. Her sudden and tragic departure from our lives has been palpably heartrending. She was “only” a dog, and yet love is love and so death is brutal.
What struck me most amid the Christmas preparations, houseguests, and holiday socializing that immediately followed Maggie’s death was the sheer loneliness of loss. Of course, I talked about Maggie’s death briefly with family and friends but didn’t feel I could share the magnitude of sorrow that enveloped my heart. So I did what we all tend to do when our souls are deeply wounded and kept most of my sorrow to myself.
Once New Year’s came and went and things started to settle down, I realized that what I deeply needed was someone with whom I could be completely honest and whom I didn’t have to protect from the magnitude of my grief. Someone who had the time and presence of mind to just listen to the whole sad story, including my guilt and helplessness in failing to protect a being I so loved, my hope that death is not the end of this story, and my lamenting about how brutal life feels sometimes.
And that’s when I knew I had to spend some time with Sylvia, a wise and exceptionally spiritually mature 90-year-old friend who knows a thing or two about loss, and who listened quietly while I told her the whole truth about how Maggie’s death had knocked the ground out from under me. Sylvia’s great gift to me was nothing she said; rather it was the generous, quiet, and receptive space she allowed between us.
In patiently letting me fully and slowly unfurl my crumpled-up heart, in bearing with me the pain that comes from love and loss, I began to recover a peace that had eluded me since Maggie’s death.
We are just not built to bear by ourselves all that life throws at us. We really do need each other to help keep our hearts from shrinking and retracting from the wounds that find their way into every living soul. But the soul is shy and waits to reveal its soulful depths only under certain conditions. And those conditions seem to be in short supply in our current anxious and distracted age.
I knew from prior experience that Sylvia had spent much of her adult life honing the kind of presence that elicits the soul’s trust; she meditates daily and pursues wisdom relentlessly. I knew she wouldn’t offer advice or try to minimize what I was feeling due to her own discomfort with sorrow.
She just listened quietly and allowed me to bear my wounded soul to her, which made all the difference. As the Irish proverb states, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
Perhaps the great spiritual crisis of our distracted age is lack of presence, which leaves a lot of lonely souls in its wake. Presence is not easy to describe, but I think most people recognize when they encounter it. It’s that experience in relationship to someone else that leaves you somehow feeling more fully yourself and thus more peaceful and open.
If you are wondering how you can be of help in this groaning, troubled world of ours, consider finding a spiritual path or daily practice that brings you into the presence of something larger than yourself. A walk in nature, a silent time gazing out at the wind blowing through the trees, a daily reading of scripture or wisdom literature will do the trick. And slowly and incrementally you will become more like Sylvia – a healing presence the world cannot do without.
Elizabeth Flynn Campbell lives in Shelburne and is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Burlington. Soul Food is a monthly column about the things that matter most.