Passing through Nature to Eternity.

To be alive is to be vulnerable, but to be human is to be sensitive in ways undreamt of by other creatures. All life forms are prey to death, loss, illness, and injury. But people also fear disappointment, ill-repute, and injustice. As was touched on last time, our values make us susceptible to considerable pain.

The most obvious and universal value is love, and it inevitably brings grief. No one we love will be with us forever, and except for those rare cases of simultaneous death, one lover always passes from this life before the other. The result is grief. No one who lives beyond youth escapes it, and many children suffer it too.

When I was five years old my grandfather died, and a beloved dog was stolen, never to return. I learned two flavors of bereavement that year. In the first case, I felt remorse. My father’s father seemed to me a frightening and humorless man. He often yelled at me and my cousin and never played with us. We made fun of him behind his back. When he died after a bad car crash, I couldn’t forgive myself for my disrespect. If only I could have gone back and behaved better, learned to love him more and tried to understand him.

The loss of the dog was tragedy tainted with guilt. My mother had received threatening notes about our pet, saying we would lose Inky if he continued barking and escaping into the neighborhood. After he disappeared, I never saw him again despite multiple trips to the police station and dog pound. I felt miserable, inconsolable. I also felt at fault; I might have forgotten to latch the gate. I should have been more careful.

These early losses were preludes to the major bereavement the following year. My mother had been suffering with severe depression after a painful divorce, cycling in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and openly wishing for death. Then one day she failed to return from her confinement for shock treatments. Her parents told everyone she died of natural causes, but suicide seemed a more likely cause of death given her oft-stated desire to die and her otherwise good health at age thirty-seven. It seemed obvious that she had taken her own life, a fact I understood even at age six.

That grief was unspeakable, shameful and untouchable. I felt crushed and utterly without hope. When our family moved to another town, I pretended my stepmother was my real mother until the woman’s cruelty toward me in front of my friends forced me to admit my mom had died. But even then I never named a cause of death. It was an awful, lonely secret. And as I hid the facts, it seemed as if I were betraying the only person who ever truly loved me.

There’ve been many losses since, of course. Three more grandparents (two of whom were almost like parents to me), a father, a beloved uncle, a remarkable cousin, a stepmother (whom I both loved and hated), two of my best friends (one to suicide), a number of other relatives, and then (just last year) my sister and only sibling. Each time there has been pain, regret, guilt, questioning, lost dreams, and hopelessness in varying combinations.

Grief is universal, as is the fallout from it.

Each loss feels different. If it comes with advance warning the death seems easier to bear than if sudden. If the person led a joyous life one feels less regret than if they were unhappy. If the relationship was harmonious there is less guilt than if otherwise. If nothing could have saved the loved one, there are fewer questions than if things could have gone better. If the person died elderly and frail, near the end of life with little opportunity for joyful experience, there is less sense of tragedy. And if the person was someone we spoke with rarely, someone with whom we only occasionally shared hopes and dreams, there is less sense loneliness and isolation.

Each grief is different because each relationship is unique, with its own special meanings. To lose a mother to suicide at age six is different from losing a sister to alcoholism at age fifty-three. Both losses are painful, but they are not the same. Death baffles a young child, and to be motherless is to be cut adrift in an unfriendly world. But one feels torment watching a loved one choose to continue a deadly habit despite constant warnings from her own body and protestations of love from those nearby.

To lose a child, they say, is the worst bereavement of all. Myriad hopes and dreams get crushed. The wish that one could have protected the son or daughter must forever haunt. I don’t know the experience of losing offspring, but just watching my pomeranian get killed by a large dog on the beach gave me a taste for how wrenching it can be to see a being you’ve nurtured from birth die while you are powerless to protect. I can’t imagine the far greater pain of losing a human child.

My father died suddenly, robbing me of the chance to offer the many apologies and praises he was owed. I would have loved to forgive him, too. So much regret. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t wish he were here for one last conversation. How many of us share such remorse?

And on and on.

My aunt lost her husband of six decades about two years ago. Talk about an unspeakable loss. I’ve been with my wife but twenty years and already feel so bonded that life without her is inconceivable. To overcome such a separation must be one of the greatest challenges of human existence.

But people move on after even the most painful losses. How do we overcome grief? By filling in some of the holes in our lives and making peace with those that remain. By forgiving ourselves and others. By recognizing the universality of suffering and bereavement. By finding faith in something greater than daily life with its bills, chores, and frustrations. By learning who we are without the beloved by our side.

I can offer very little here. Through the losses I’ve endured I’ve learned only one certain thing: grief lessens with time. It never ceases, but its horrible early sting dulls a bit, and one is left with a gnawing ache rather than a gaping wound. People regularly go forward after even terrible bereavement. What choice do we have?

Values bring vulnerability, and love brings the greatest vulnerability of all. Animals have been known to grieve; elephants in particular are recognized for behavior that looks like mourning. But it is unlikely that elephants imagine what life might have been like had the beloved survived. I doubt they feel regret for past acts or wish they had acted more protectively. I doubt they wonder if life is worth pursuing anymore.

All the questions and recriminations with which we torment ourselves after the death of a loved one are products of language. They are human constructs without counterpart in nature. Perhaps we would be happier if we experienced life and death like the animals who, while capable of genuine love, live mostly in the moment without vivid and unstoppable imagination of past, future, and better outcomes.


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Passing through Nature to Eternity. — 14 Comments

  1. Great post. My only suggestion to the problem of “vivid and unstoppable imagination of past, future, and better outcomes” is to get out from man-made four walls+ceiling and into nature.
    “Green spaces ‘improve health”

  2. I posted my comment about the loss of my cousin on your previous post, before I read this post.

    Now, I feel empty of words. All I can think of to say is that I am so sorry for your many losses, and I’m sorry most of all for the loss of your mother to suicide when you were only 6 years old. That is an unthinkable tragedy, unspeakable, unbearable. And yet you had to bear it. You had no choice.

  3. Mark ps2–

    Yes, green spaces help, provided they are experienced mindfully. Living in the moment is the key, and nature is our truest and oldest path to life outside the trap of language. Thanks for the comment.


  4. Elaina–

    I replied to your other comment at length. Here I just want to say that despite the pain that my mother’s death caused, the overcoming of that grief made me into who I am today. Although I still have some doubts about my value, I am largely proud of who I’ve become. So I can’t honestly say that the early loss did me nothing but harm. In many ways it made me a person of broader mind and greater compassion than I might have been otherwise. But I do appreciate your understanding and concern.


  5. Hi Will,
    Loss is difficult. I can’t even imagine losing my mother at such an early age, especially to suicide. That must have been very tough to go through and to get over.
    Because life is fragile and we never know when we might lose a loved one, I say send flowers while they’re alive, tell them you love them, forgive, and be kind and compassionate to all. There may not be a tomorrow.

  6. Brenda–

    Well, we get through our lives no matter what it takes. By this point in my own journey, I see everything as leading to a certain level of understanding that might not have been achievable any other way. Not that I wouldn’t have preferred to have had a happy, long-lived mother, but the early loss became such a formative part of me that I can’t honestly imagine myself without that tragedy in my history. As for appreciating those who still live, I wrote a post once entitled “Funerals for the Living,” in which I suggested that we take time to celebrate the ones we love before they’re gone, rather than afterward. Then I went on to Google my own title and found out there’s an entire movement promoting such funerals. Usually they are directed at those with terminal illness, but the idea would be a good one for us all.

    Thanks for the comment and positive thoughts.


  7. “Funerals for the Living.” I love that idea.

    I count it a great blessing that I told my cousin, the night before she drowned, how much I love her. I had never told her before. During our last-ever phone conversation, I said “I love you four ways. One, I love you for you. Two, I love you because you are my cousin. Three, I love you because I love your mom, my favorite aunt. And four, I love you because I loved your dad, my favorite uncle.” I am so grateful that I didn’t have the regret of never having told her how much she meant to me, before it was too late.

    Will, I understand exactly what you mean about the good that has come to you, out of your worst sorrows. My mother also became suicidal after her marriage to my dad ended. My mother was 30, I was 12, and my 4 siblings were all preschoolers. When my mother decided that the solution to her misery was to end her life, she also decided to take her children with her.

    The tragedy of almost being murdered by my mother is something that I still have not “gotten over.” I don’t know if I ever will get over it. I don’t know if I can.

    But this I do know: I am a far deeper, more compassionate, and insightful person, because of the tragedies of my life.


  8. Elaina–

    Your ordeal sounds absolutely horrible. I am so sorry to hear of it. No doubt it has enlarged you, but I am so very sorry that you suffered such trauma. Thank you for sharing your experience.


  9. Thank you. From what I’ve read of your childhood, your stepmother’s personality was very much like my mother’s.

    My 50-year-old brother called me this evening. My brother was damaged even more than I was, by our insane childhood. Tonight he was talking very irrationally. He was manic, paranoid, delusional, telling me about people and events that are apparently real to him, but they have to be either dreams, or hallucinations, or a combination of the two, because, for example, I am fairly certain that the “Queen of Denmark” did not visit him today, nor did a US Senator stop by his group home looking for Communists.

    I live 700 miles away and don’t have the means to be with him right now. My husband is going to have surgery in a few days.. when it rains it pours. Still, I feel bad for not being there with my brother.

    As I listened to his wild ravings, I asked myself, “What is UNDERNEATH all of his agitation?” Then it came to me, as I tried to listen between the lines, and piece together the subtext of what he was saying: underneath all that wild surface turmoil, deep down inside, my brother was feeling alone, unloved, and UNWORTHY. So, I waited until he had run down enough to listen, and then I told him how good he is… because he IS good. I told him how much I love him and how thankful I am that he’s my brother. I told him how proud I am of him, for surviving all the hell that he has survived. I told him that no one is perfect, that every human being makes mistakes, and it’s ok to not be perfect, it’s ok to make mistakes. I told him that the one thing I know about him, above all else, is that he has a great, kind, and deeply caring heart. He has always done the very best he could with what he had, I said, and I am so proud of him for that! I also told him that anyone who puts him down or doesn’t like him or shuns him, just doesn’t know how truly good-hearted, he is. Most of all, I assured him that no matter what happens, I will never stop loving him. “No matter what you may ever do or say, and no matter what anyone may ever say about you, I will never stop loving you. I will always be proud of you, and grateful to have you as my brother.”

    When I said that, it was like magic, like someone saying “Peace, be still.” The storm instantly STOPPED.

    My brother told me that he felt so much better! And then he told me that he had just been talking to our MOTHER… THAT was what had triggered him so badly…. whew. Yes, unbelievably, our mother is still alive, and still wrecking havoc in our lives. The older she gets, the worse she gets. I don’t understand it. I guess there’s some truth in the saying that only the good die young.

    As the Big Sister of the family, I have never lost that bone deep maternal feeling that I am responsible to save my sisters and brothers and… everyone. Which is why I feel I let my much-younger cousin down, when she drowned after a week of crying to me over the phone about all the pain and turmoil in her life. Her mother, my aunt, has told everyone that my cousin’s drowning was determined to be “accidental.” But, was it, when just 4 days before she died, my cousin cried to me on the phone that if she only had the strength to do it, she would kill herself? Oh.. God..

    I feel guilty for not being with my cousin last June, and I feel guilty for not being with my brother, right now. But I really can’t be there, not now. I am only one person, I can only do so much. I am limitied by time and space and finances and my own physical and mental limitations.

    Such as I have, give I thee.. I hope that this time, it will be enough.

  10. PS~ Sorry to be going on and on. I hope you don’t mind if I share one thing more. Last June, a few days after my cousin drowned, I wrote a poem, which I titled Lady Quixote. Here is part of that poem, the part I like best:
    Lady Quixote
    As the autumn of my life
    draws to a close
    and early winter
    touches my hair
    with snow
    I seek to right the wrongs
    before it is too late
    and I, too, am gone…
    But I am sometimes weak and unsure
    I know not where to begin, nor how to end
    Tenderly I soothe our worried dog
    with soft words and a gentle touch
    wishing I could soothe the worried world
    just as easily~
    Lady Quixote, righting all the wrongs
    armed with kind words, a cuddle
    and biscuits
    I am light and life and love
    I am darkness, pain
    and rage
    I am….
    dust in the wind.

  11. Elaina–

    Thank you for sending your lovely poem. Although I write a lot of prose, I often find that poetry tells the mores spiritual, deeper story. That is what I read in your piece.


  12. Elaina–

    By the time I read your message about your brother, I had already written my post for today. You’ll see that it talks a lot about worthiness. Those of us from highly traumatic backgrounds need that sense of personal worth more than most. You obviously helped your brother by providing that to him. He is fortunate to have you in his life. Even if you can’t travel to him, you gave him what he required. Likewise for your niece. We can’t always protect the ones we love, but we can tell them how much they mean to us. Often that’s the most we can accomplish, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. Life and love are built on such messages. Your niece left this world knowing she was important to you. Although her life was tragically cut short, at least she knew the depth of your love.


  13. regarding Elaina’s writing”I feel guilty for not being with my cousin last June”.
    Do not feel guilty. People are supposed to have freewill, you and I can not force (adult) people to choose to live.
    What did you do wrong to feel guilty for? You are supposed to feed, cloth and shelter them?

  14. Thank you, Will.

    As you said, “Those of us from highly traumatic backgrounds need that sense of personal worth more than most.” I have certainly found this to be true in my own life. I have lived through an extraordinary amount of trauma. As a result, I have been diagnosed with Complex PTSD, and since 2007 I have been on SSDI because of the severity of my PTSD. Every day is a struggle for me, and also for my husband, who has PTSD from combat in Vietnam.
    Of all the traumas, losses, and pain that I have lived through, the one thing that has hurt me far more than any other wound, has been the pain of Not Liking Myself, believing myself to be unworthy. The battle to believe in my own right to BE, is a daily struggle for me.
    Intellectually, I believe that I was born with equal value to every other human baby who has ever been born. But, on an emotional level, I often struggle with that concept. Just as not feeling guilty for things that I “shouldn’t” feel guilty about, is a recurring struggle.

    I have lately reached the conclusion that there are no “shoulds” when it comes to emotions. I KNOW, intellectually, that my actions or inactions did not cause my adult cousin to die. But my emotions feel guilty, regardless of my “knowing.” I suppose I am going to go on feeling guilty, until I am finished with that emotion. As I am learning from the concepts of ACT, labeling any of my emotions as “wrong” and “irrational,” and trying to push them away, just simply does not work. All I end up with is feeling bad, for feeling bad. So right now, I am just going to go ahead and feel what I feel, until I am done feeling it.