We have everything we need to know, right here in our hearts.
More musings on the grief writing workshop I teach at Home Healthcare and Community Services here in Keene, NH….
For each week of the class, there’s a central topic for our journaling or free writing exercise. Some topics allow us to talk about who we were, and where we are now after the death of a loved one. Some encourage us to remember them in a different way. Some acknowledge the difficult nature of our relationship with them. Some “point us toward home, so we can go there…” (A quote from DEAN SPANLEY, a remarkable, gentle and sweetly funny movie about death, grieving, and redemption.)
There’s one particularly powerful exercise we do in the writing workshop. It’s so powerful, I’m afraid I’ll give away the punchline. But it’s also so healing, it would be a sin not to share it with a wider audience….
It’s something I structured, sort of aim the sessions toward, so we get there at just the right time. Last week was the proper time.
I ask everyone to imagine the deceased in a place–it could be heaven, it could be nirvana, it could be in an alternate universe, it could even be in our dreams. It’s a place where they are safe, and loved, and happy. A place where they are fully healed, in mind, body and soul. A place where they are at their highest, most evolved self. A place where no matter what their faults or failings were, no matter how much they’ve already suffered or given, or loved, they are the best person we’ve always dreamed they could be.
“Write a letter,” I say to the class. “From them, to you.”
This always draws a lot of confusion and questions. I usually have to repeat it a few times. There are frowns, and pursed lips, and sighs.
Then the writing begins.
And then come the tears.
I am always astonished, when we finally share what we’ve written. It’s as if people have really stepped outside themselves, and delved into the heart of that person. The things we see, and recognize, and understand and finally accept, are incredible.
It’s a letting go of what could have been. It’s accepting what it was, and is. It allows hope to sprout the tiniest, most delicate green leaves.
And it lets the healing begin.
It’s never failed me, this exercise. I wrote about this the first time I did it, with a complicated death that had haunted me for decades.
I did it again last week with my beautiful cat Gomez.
It was a funny night to begin with. Three of us selected animals to write about. It felt a little disrespectful at first–People before animals, right? Except we were also accepting that the loss of a beloved pet can be just as rattling, especially since they are often the very thing that soothes us during other, larger losses.
In my case, I always wrote my own letters with the group. I believe we can learn just as much as they do when we join in the assignments. And eventually, I ran out of dead people to write about. (Update: I have plenty more now. Yep, as we get older….) And Gomez’s death still haunted me.
And so the three of us wrote a letter from our pets, to us.
In my opening sentence, I immediately saw how empathic this exercise really is. I wrote, “Dear kind lady….” Because, of course, Gomez would have no idea what my name was. And being a cat, he probably wouldn’t care.
Here’s the small miracle: All three of us did the same. Realized our pets don’t “know” our names. But they know who we are to them. One writer started her letter with “Dear Mom”, because that’s who her dog would think she was.
Here’s my letter from Gomez:
Dear kind lady,
When I saw you at the shelter with your child, I knew I was going home with you. I saw you go to each cage, check out each cat. I saw you trying to connect with each one.
“I want an older cat,” you said to the shelter person. “I want a cat who really really really needs a home.”
But none of those cats would play with you. They knew I was meant for you. They wouldn’t give you the time of day–they knew it was my turn.
Finally, after coming to me 3 times–and every time I tried to tell you, I tried to show you–“Me! I’m the one! It’s me you want!”….
And finally, though you said I was too beautiful, and too young, you said I was the one.
I charmed everyone, didn’t I? Even Chai. Even Tuck. Even Nick.
I brought you mice, and birds, and I slept on your bed. You gave me a good home.
Yes, there was a bad man, and yes, it hurt. It hurt so much.
But that pain is gone. It is no more.
The only pain I feel now is the pain in your heart, the part of you that blames yourself for what happened.
It’s not your fault, kind lady. It’s not your fault. Be at peace.
My time with you was lovely. You cared for me, and loved me, and kept me safe. You gave me a good home.
Someday there will come another cat, a cat that needs a good home. Open your heart again, your kind and loving heart. Give that cat a home, a hearth, a sofa to sleep on, dogs to tease and torment, food to eat and saucy mice to chase.
Don’t grieve for me, kind lady. I don’t regret a thing.
Everything we need to know, is already in our hearts.
All we have to do is be silent. And listen. Truly listen.