At the end of our fantastic CMN conference, I was saddened to learn that David and Jenny Heitler-Klevens had been hosting and executing it full throttle when they got the news that David’s father had died. How can we acknowledge and care for these members of our community in an appropriate way during a time of such personal loss? I have been asking myself questions about grief all summer.
One month ago, a parent who has attended my classes since her son was an infant PM’ed me on Facebook. “Do you have any thoughts on talking about death with young ones?” The family was offering palliative care at home to their cat, Spencer, who was in a late stage of kidney disease. This mother, Emily, was concerned that three-year-old Francis would need help processing the loss. “He is very sensitive and very verbally communicative,” she shared.
I passed on a few links I found with a quick search and suggested a few tips I had learned from my teaching experience. I told her to look for books she could read to Francis (she found When a Pet Dies, by Fred Rogers) and suggested she introduce him to the idea of the life cycle. I had discovered when teaching a gardening education program that this concept reflects the natural truth for children. “All plants and animals have a cycle of birth and death. And at least with plants, you can see that they come back again after they go to seed,” I said hopefully. I also shared what I had observed in my students over the years, that young children may not cognitively process death like we adults do, but they will feel the feelings surrounding the death. “Especially,” I wanted her to know, “Francis will be feeling how you are feeling.”
As Emily told me more of the story, it became clear that it might not be Francis, but Mama who needed help in holding the grief she was feeling. Spencer, the cat, had been with her for over ten years, and they shared a significant connection going back to a very vulnerable time in her life. “I was twenty-four or twenty-five and seriously ill. He sat on my lap for nine months of daily IVs. He’s the most affectionate pet I’ve ever had . . . I will be the most upset adult,” she admitted. “I already am.”
Searching for words that might comfort her, I said “It’s OK to be sad. Just acknowledge that and do some kind of ritual to say goodbye. I know you will get through this, but I know it will be hard. You have loved Spencer for so long.”
I related to Emily’s pain. I had been “midwifing death,” as she called it, all summer, in my own way. The collision of the pandemic with the Black Lives Matter movement felt like it had pulled the rug out from under me. My work, my family, and my community had all been shaken by changes and losses beyond my control, and I was struggling hard to find my place of groundedness and stability. Sometimes it felt illogically deep and vast, like I was feeling the pain of something much bigger than my personal life’s story.
I was blessed to stumble across two thought leaders who helped to bring me comfort and make sense of myself during this time. One was Thomas Hübl, whose online Collective Trauma Summit 2020 I happened to catch in late September. Hübl, a spiritual activist who has helped thousands of Germans and Israelis to face and heal the cultural shadow left by the Holocaust, reminded me that we are exposed to news 24/7 that shows in vivid detail that our entire planet is suffering. How can we be alive in these times and not feel traumatized? Deep down in our spiritual being, he assured me, we know that we are all connected, and that our well-being depends on staying connected to each other. Yet we live in a world that denies this and creates so much suffering as a result.
What impact does this have on a human being? When our innate sense of wholeness becomes fractured, Hübl explains, we cut ourselves off from feeling (our emotions, our body sensations) in order to survive the pain. Unfortunately, when we cut off from our pain, we cut off from our joy, and when we cut off from ourselves, we inevitably cut off from each other. Our own humanity becomes victim to our pain. This pattern goes back centuries, and has been passed on by generations, in a perpetuating cycle of compounding losses and abuses (Hübl 2018).
What do we do? The cutting edge of grief work says that in order to feel whole again, we have to face the broken-heartedness that we so desperately do not want to feel. Francis Weller, a psychotherapist and author and another wise soul I have been blessed to discover in these times, says, “When we fully honor our many losses, our lives become more fully able to embody the wild joy that aches to leap from our hearts into the shimmering world. . . . Grief is essential to finding and maintaining a feeling of emotional intimacy with life, with one another, and with our own soul” (Weller 2015, xxii). He suggests that, like indigenous societies, we use meaningful rituals, a community of friends, and time in “benevolent solitude” to navigate our losses.
Most of us think of grief as the loss of a loved one who dies or leaves, but Weller outlines other losses that we must mourn. They might be the loss of a part of ourselves, the loss of our world, the loss of our dreams. Grief can also be felt in the deep remembrance in our bones that once upon a time, our ancestors did know a life of tribal connectedness, before it was robbed from them/us by patriarchy, colonialism, and slavery.
Can we dare to feel the anguish of the moment we are in and still be open to the beauty of our life and ourselves? With each other? It is not an easy prescription for healing, but it is a process that can bring us back in touch with our humanity if we allow the grief to take us there.
Weller says, “A mature person knows how to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. When those two are together, we are in the prayer of life. . . . We need both to sustain this life” (Weller 2013).
Emily seems to have known this intuitively. She messaged me two days after her request for advice with this story, which showed me what a profound difference it can make to stay open through grief:
Our cat Spencer died this morning—a natural death at home. I was stroking his face when he took his final breaths, and my hand felt his final faint heartbeats. . . . Francis has been remarkable. He said, “Goodbye. I love you. I’m sorry,” as he patted him right after he died. He looked at me and explained, “I used to be the sun before I came to Earth.”
Francis “helped” dig the grave and put dirt on the body. We sang songs. Francis gave Spencer a hug, said, “Ba-bye. I know you’ll be home soon.” Then Francis came inside and composed three different songs about the cat dying while playing his guitar. He asked lots of questions, some hard. (“Will Daddy die?” “Is Sophie, our dog, dead?”) We have reassured him that only the cat died because the cat had kidney disease.
I was with Spencer all night and this morning. The natural, unaided death of my beloved Spencer was profoundly devastating and profoundly beautiful. I’m tired. It’s a whole new element, guiding a young child through loss while also traversing it myself.
No doubt, to share the reality of loss with an open heart is hard work. To pretend it did not matter much would be so much easier. But what Emily has taught her son Francis is that love is worth the hard work. There is profound beauty to be found when the heart keeps feeling, even through loss. Emily modeled for Francis how to be grateful for Spencer’s life, even as she was letting go of it. She also showed her son that she can feel pain and still stay connected to him. In fact, sharing her grief deepened her connection to him. And Francis’s love for his mama (“He gave me lots of hugs!”) was a deep comfort to her, one more thing to take in and be grateful for.
In dark times, maybe this is the only way to remain fully alive: openheartedly, vulnerably, and together. If we can hold each other in our fear, our sorrow, and our loss, we can knit back together the sacred fabric of our relatedness. We may not regain our losses, but we may open our hearts to the fullness of life, and in that intimacy, feel grateful for all that we had and all that is still here. Praying, pressing hard at our hearts, the one hand of grief to the other hand of gratitude, I welcome us as a CMN community to offer this to each other, and to the world. David and Jenny, I hope you can feel us loving you. We care that you are hurting, and you are not alone.
Kari’s song “On and On,” a song for children about the cycle of life and death, can be found here (CD): https://www.heartofthechildmusic.com and here (digital download): https://www.songsforteaching.com/store/on-and-on-song-download-with-lyrics-pr-62260.html and here (in PIO!): https://childrensmusic.org/pass-it-on/songs/on-and-on.aspx.
Busccalia, Leo. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages.
Hübl, Thomas. https://thomashuebl.com/about. 2018.
Rogers, Fred. When a Pet Dies. Puffin, 1998.
Weller, Francis. https://www.francisweller.net. “Francis Weller on Grief.” YouTube, 2013.
Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow. North Atlantic Books, 2015.