Healing My Grief with Creativity, Part 3
When Grief Generalizes
My emotional landscape seems like a slippery slope down into Depression Valley. Is that where I am headed?
January 24, 2019
From my journal:
I am here at La Chua Trail for a few hours because maintenance staff have to work inside my apartment today. I figured I could either go to the public library or I could come here. Today my heart directed me to my favorite natural place that holds deep memories.
Yesterday’s trip to the wetlands provided much comfort and perspective. Last night I spoke with Mike at length about how I am handling my friend, Judy’s, death. I realized this proximal stressor is triggering older grief about my late mother’s passing two and a half years ago. Judy was a friend, but she was also a few decades older than me; I experienced her as a supportive, motherly influence. So, my grief appears to be generalizing and I want to understand this. I have been crying much more. It would appear the floodgates have opened… sometimes when they open wide it’s hard to close them again.
These days, in the absence of my birth mother, I tend to think of Mother Earth as my mother. I imagine natural elements assuming a protective role. There is a huge Live Oak tree that sits at the head of this trail; I always stop to gaze at her. I imagine sitting at her base, under her expansive branches, protected from wind and rain. Or, sometimes I imagine a giant female snowy owl with a larger-than-life wing span enveloping me, comforting me; I imagine falling asleep against her warm breast feathers in a nest with her chicks. I wonder why I have not replaced my birth mother with some other human imagery, such as a Mother Earth goddess. I have no answers. In a sense, I am the human replacement. I am my own mother now, of course, caring for my inner artist. But even I cannot really replace my first mother.
From here I can see the Live Oak tree where I made a nature mandala for my mother a few weeks after she died. I remember it was a special day, too, because the passion flowers were blooming and I placed one on a bed of Spanish moss. About a year later, Hurricane Irma came and flooded the entire trail apart from the boardwalk (which was also nearly covered); the trail is still under water. I wonder how my mother would react if she knew I made that mandala for her. I imagine her smiling. She’d probably say, “Oh, that’s pretty, Terry.” I imagine her soft hands holding mine. I imagine squeezing her long, thin fingers. I imagine putting my head on her shoulder like I did countless times not thinking about a time when her shoulder would be gone from my sight… and now tears stream down my cheeks.
Sometimes I wonder if her spirit might visit me in the form of the birds I love so much. Sometimes when a cardinal alights nearby and stands looking quizzically at me, I wonder if that bird might be or occupy my mother’s spirit. Could she have been one of the bald eagles I saw at the wetlands yesterday? Is she trying to reach me in a way she knows I’ll notice? Does she have a message for me? My intellect resists this kind of imagining: “How silly, how superstitious. They’re just birds!” But my heart retorts, “Oh, Intellect, you’re smart but you don’t know everything about the world. Don’t dash my hopes for mystery.”
How are you doing? I miss you. Remember when I would drive you to this park after church on Sundays? You loved it when we drove into the entrance and under the oak tree canopy with all the Spanish moss swinging from the tree branches. I loved seeing your blue eyes widen with wonder. No matter how many times we visited, you always said the same thing: “Terry! Look at all that white stuff hanging from the trees! What is that?” I replied, “It’s Spanish moss, Mom. It doesn’t grow in Massachusetts; it’s a Southern thing.” Then I’d explain how it’s an air plant and although it looks pretty it’s actually like a parasite; too much of it becomes a danger to the tree branches in summer storms—it soaks up the water, adds weight to the branches, and they can break off more easily in strong winds. My mini science lesson didn’t matter much, though. You were still enchanted. And I didn’t mind that you didn’t remember what the white stuff was called from one week to the next. I just loved seeing you smile. I never brought you out here to the boardwalk—too much walking, but I know you would have loved seeing the birds and the alligators. I can’t help but think of you when I’m here.
In recent weeks, I have experienced much goal-direction, much forward motion. But toward what end? Seriously. Eventually, no matter what I accomplish, I will die, like my mother, like Judy, like everyone else. So, what is all my time on Earth for? Enjoyment? Leaving some legacy? I guess both… But more to the point, why is this recent loss shaking my equilibrium so intensely? I want to ride the air currents like the raptors, behave skillfully, handle challenges as they come. But right now, I’m overcome with sadness and all I want to do is curl up inside an empty snail shell and listen to the limpkins call all day. Today their grating vocalizations are strangely comforting. I feel the vibrations in my heart.
I am here with Mother Nature on a calm, sunny day. But I am never here during a tempest when her winds are knocking down trees limbs and destroying animal shelters. She is beautiful, yes, but she is also mercurial; she can also do a lot of damage to her inhabitants. And this, too, reminds me of my mother. When she felt well and life was stable, she was a nice person, very sweet, loving, and thoughtful. I miss that side of her. But her tempestuous side, well. I often felt scared of her during my youth and even in later years. Our relationship experienced more conflict towards the end of her life, but she loved me like no one else. With love we take it all, though, don’t we? We accept the beauty and the beastly of each other? Her absence from my life hurts my heart in a way that’s hard to describe… Maybe the loss is like a wound that never fully heals, a scab that keeps getting ripped off and exposing tender skin.
I gaze at the gently rippling water, the swaying trees, the foraging birds, and all of this fulfills my need to connect to beauty. But none of these elements has soft arms to wrap around me, to hold me close, and provide some contact comfort… a basic human need. None of these natural elements can whisper that everything will be okay, the emotional storm will pass like it always does… Just wait it out, dear. Practice patience. As much as I invent and personify comforting voices of a tree or an owl, I know they will never materialize into real-life beings. I’m creative, not delusional. And so, I sit here and cry. That is all there is. Tears. More tears. The painful reality of loss and longing for comfort. I cry tears I have already shed for my mother. I cry new ones for my departed friend. In the absence of human arms to wrap around me and offer reassurance, my emotional landscape seems like a slippery slope down into the depths of where? Depression Valley? But I have not felt depressed for quite a long time, not since my mother died. Is that where I am headed? Back into the past?
Other trail visitors are approaching this end of the boardwalk. I just used my last tissue. I will take some calming breaths, compose myself, prepare to re-integrate with other humans. Then what? I’ve been staring out across Alachua Sink for a good half hour now, using it as a focus of meditation. I’d like to remember this scene, this calm. As I walk out, I will practice mindfulness… I will mindfully capture some video footage of the scenery. Walk. Stop. Record. Breathe. Repeat. Perhaps I can compile some nature videos into a visual meditation I can use on days when I can’t come out here. Yes, that sounds like a nourishing thing to do. And after that? Rest.
On my way out of the park, I experience three curious encounters with wildlife. First, a tiny spotted insect lands on my phone while I am taking video, and crawls onto my finger. Second, a lady bug lands on my forearm and visits for a while. Third, on the sunny sidewalk to the parking lot, I notice what first appears to be a rock but on second glance has a keeled carapace: A tiny turtle. How remarkable! It is as if Mother Nature is reaching out, touching me in her own way to say, “Don’t give up on me. I’m here for you.” The insects fly off me of their own accord, but the little reptile, so vulnerable in my hands, just looks at me intently. I’m the mother now. I move him out of harm’s way onto a warm patch of grass in the direction he seemed to be heading. I smile at this serendipitous return to a sense of community. I anticipate even more connection, human connection, tomorrow when I attend my weekly meditation group.