Grief: The Essence of What it Means to be Human
by Alexandra Whitney
I associate heat mirages and humidity with my father's death. I think of him every time I hear Frank Sinatra or a bird song in the night. I was sixteen years old when he died. I was sweet sixteen and it was everything but sweet, yet it was real. My father's cancer blew in like a cold wind and took him away in 6 short weeks.
It was July and my family and I were living in South Florida. From his hospital window I could see heat rising from the tar roof and stagnant white clouds hovering in a perfect blue sky. There was no sun. It was obscured by the blinding white clouds that held taught with ninety percent humidity. Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night," my parents' love song, was softly playing on the hospital's intercom. The events of that morning are indelibly fixed in my memory. I remember waking up that morning after having slept in a hospital chair beside my father's bed. Somehow, I slept through the routine disturbances that nurses make throughout the night, the constant checking of vital signs, changing drip bottles and taking blood pressure. On this particular night I slept through these aggravations as if I had been home in my own bed. The last thing my father ate that morning was a mango my brother had given him. This meant that the sweetness of mango was the last taste that touched my father's lips.
That morning I went home to take our German Shepard, Hilda, to the vet. We had neglected her over the past six weeks and for some reason my mother thought it imperative on that day for me to leave my post, beside my father's bed, to tend to the dog. I returned two hours later to find that my father had made his transition without me. What was and still remains most vivid for me are the physical sensations I experienced during those initial moments after I received the first images of my father's dead body. In his first hour of death he was but motionless and barely dead. He was lying in his hospital bed at peace, bathing in his own eternal calm. How could there be anything wrong, I thought. His energy was somewhere in the room with me. He, literally, was still warm. He still inhabited some part of himself. I could feel it. I touched his arm. I dared myself to squeeze deep into his flesh. I tried to call him back and awaken him. There was nothing. The slow return of his flesh to meet my squeeze was the most honest experience I had ever had. It was the most shocking one as well. The sensation that met my fingers while touching my father's lifeless arm initiated me into a realm of deep emotions and the unfathomable inevitability of death. During that brief moment when his arm refused to respond to my touch my entire being sunk. I felt a sickness in my stomach. A gulf of emptiness swept over me, bridled my youth and slowly guided me away from him. I walked backwards and was numb. I immediately felt I had violated his privacy by invading his experience with my clutching hand, selfishly trying to wake him up. Every cell in my body was spinning. My gaze was hooked somewhere between his tilted chin and neck. I got to the door and burst into tears. I whaled and thought of nothing but death and emptiness and how I would never hear his voice again. From that moment on for days and weeks life seemed to move forward in slow motion. I was out of sink with the steady stream of life around me. It was summer and all of my friends were alive and having fun.
I softened the blow of my father's death by believing that I was lucky that he died in six weeks rather than instantly. I was fortunate that we, as a family, had the opportunity to go through a dying process. We were unlike other families whose loved ones had died in a crash or by heart attack. We had the privilege of time. However, the process of my father's death was not idyllic or comforting. The tortured month and a half during which he struggled against cancer was filled with denial and as a result suffering.
Grief can be examined and detailed into stages, valid stages which are general to the experience of loss. But do these studies speak to how personal loss is and how impossible it is to rationalize emotions and give the experience of grief a timeline or a name? I have not researched grief extensively. I am not an expert. I have only witnessed it and through personal experience studied my own grief. What I discovered was that my personal loss was a universal experience. It appears that grief is a universal experience yet has particular qualities of the individual. I believe that how we handle our grief is a manifestation of our environment that lies within the context of our family and culture.
I have a suspicion that there is a direct link between our ability to deal with grief and that of our ancestors. What we learned from our parents is what they learned from theirs and their parents before that. The experience of grief is a complex myriad of emotions that filter through the mind and body at random intervals. Grief purveys uncomfortable and foreign territory. Grief is difficult and is a lifelong process. For the past fifteen years I feel as though I have been untangling the roots of my ancestors by charting a new course through grief and at the same time creating a new relationship with myself.
On my father's side of the family the best way to handle vulnerability was to lose oneself in alcohol and drink away sorrow and unpleasant feelings. Until recently, although I do not drink, I sought respite from my sadness. I searched for comfort and consolation. I struggled to erase the deep pain that lingered within me. I spent an enormous amount of energy rejecting my feelings. This basic sadness was a consequence of my father's death and took the forms of anxiety, depression, fear of commitment and general confusion about life and purpose. These pains have been my own quiet grief informing me and pushing me to grow within myself. The sadness, in its many manifestations, was always something I felt I had to get rid of and that I, myself, needed to change. I adopted this belief because of my family's propensity to deny feelings and because we are steeped in a culture that avoids pain and avoids aging and death.
Being a teenager at the time did not help these matters. By the virtue of youth it is counter-intuitive to dwell on morbid thoughts such as death. I realized since I was not able relate to anyone about the feelings that were coursing through me I could better manage alone. I mapped out a course for moving every 8 months and changing colleges three times. This appeared to be a perfect solution since my family claimed to not have unpleasant emotions but rather what we called the strength to move on. I forced myself to hide out from my grief and consequently (temporarily) denied myself an important rite of passage. Death is an incredible experience. We are designed to grieve and transform the deepest parts of our being. Although death is painful it can be, with awareness, equally enriching. It is a beautiful passage to witness with all of its unpleasant details. It is a transition in life that deserves complete attention and care.
I have spent 15 years looking for answers, sometimes without even knowing it. I have longed to be healed or changed by an external source. I have struggled to elude the physiology of grief and sadness. I tried to temper what is otherwise a natural process of the spirit and body. It wasn't until this past year while completing a yoga teachers training program in Camden, Maine with Patricia Brown that I found what I had been looking for. The focus of the yoga practice is to be in touch with where your body, mind and spirit are in the moment. Yoga means union, the union of body, mind and spirit. This means letting go of judgment and stepping out of expectation. It means staying present with oneself and abiding with kindness. Yoga is not only a physical practice it is a spiritual practice that encourages us to deepen our relationship with self. What I learned over the course of the year is to listen and honor. To be kind to myself and to listen to my inner voice and take care of that voice as if it were a small child. The journey inward I have had while cultivating my awareness through yoga practice has allowed me to sit patiently with my emotions. Over the course of the year I noticed that time had not diminished the immediacy of what I needed to feel, the freshness of my grief. Somehow giving myself permission to feel my way through grief rather than hastily snuffing it out or running away from it has allowed me to honor myself and in doing so I have honored my father. I have tasted the essence of what it is to be human.
Alexandra Whitney is a student at the Salt Institute in Portland, Maine where she is studying the process of grief in its many manifestations.
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