Over the past few months, I’ve been in email contact with writer, storyteller and polymath Leslie van Gelder. She lost her husband to cancer in 2008 and generously got in touch to share some of her experience of living with grief. It wouldn’t be appropriate to divulge our correspondence, which is private. But I can say that I’ve found it enormously comforting to be reminded that although every grief is different, we don’t have to navigate this territory alone.
What she writes on her website (www.leslievangelder.com) is in the public domain, and I want to recommend a piece called Letters to a Young Widow in which she writes to an imaginary recently bereaved friend. The fundamental question for the bereaved to address, she says, is as profound and simple as this:
Do I want to feel alive again or don’t I?
In the numb aftershock of loss, the question doesn’t even make sense. But she’s right. It’s taken me 12 months to realise that this is a real choice and that my answer (my deeply felt and embodied response) will determine every other choice I make.
Later in the same piece she speaks of well-meaning friends who – with misplaced sensitivity – would skate awkwardly over the surface of a conversation trying to avoid exacerbating her pain. It was a widowed friend of hers who knew exactly what to ask:
How are you getting by without touch? Have you found someone whose hand you can hold? Have you come to terms with the realization that you are now no one’s ‘first thought’?
My answers to those same questions would be that I physically ache to touch and be touched, that I yearn to hold and be held, skin to skin; that I don’t quite know how my hand would fit anyone else’s; and that I’ve never felt more lonely in my life, despite the comfort of my children, Teddy, and a multitude of loving friends.
And yet I do know that I want to feel alive again.
Two days ago, at the end of the Five Realms Course, we co-created a ritual space in which to explore something of the wisdom of the somatic, personal, systemic, archetypal, and divine realms. At one point, I lit a new candle for myself from the flame of a memorial candle I’d used to mark the anniversary of Chris’s death.
I did it without thinking, but in my mind I could see Chris’s smiling face, and the symbolism of the moment struck me as a powerful affirmation of a renewed openness to life and love. On the way home I wrote these lines:
Today I lit a candle
from the one I lit for you
to mark the one-year passing
of your passing into night.
I wonder what the meaning is
and suddenly I see
you’re trying hard to tell me that
this candle burns for me.
You’re giving me your blessing
to spark another flame
and, knowing that I love you still,
you bid me love again.
I promise you I’ll welcome love
as long as I’m alive,
for life and love are conjoined twins
and both or neither thrive.
The candle that I lit for you
will always stay alight,
but I will kindle this new fire
and let myself burn bright.