The Ecology of Grief
Weaving Beauty into Death and Loss
by Jennifer J. Wilhoit
In this warm reflection, Jennifer offers us three compasses that can help us navigate death and grief, showing us that the elements that make up a peaceful death are the same ones that make for a meaningful life.
Listen to this story narrated by the author
We are dying. An unseeable but mighty virus has visited itself upon us. We did not ask for, or want, this Guest Coronavirus. We certainly did not choose to be the host for it.
As a result, right now grief and bereavement are part of us every day; even if we or our loved ones have not gotten the virus, we know people who have and our hearts break. Too, our very social structure has shifted: giving and receiving hugs—what some of us imagine as the highest form of interpersonal connection and affection—is now the very thing we avoid in order to demonstrate our care for someone. Covering smiles with masks; avoiding an elbow touch, handshake, or close proximity; refraining from large gatherings, washing hands as if lives depend on it (which they do) are just some of the alterations in social engagement that safe co-habitation with the invisible virus demands. These are losses, even if just for a while. And some of us mourn what we took for granted until just two seasons ago.
But grief, too, can contain lovely facets: a glint of rainbow emerging from a prism, a new green bud, the light through an agate.
This time of grief, like all bereavements, is also—naturally—a transition time. Grief is a response to loss; it is a response to love. The grieving process helps us honor what was, who someone was. It offers us a break from the everyday so that we can be crafted anew into a shape that takes on the hole from our loss. Perhaps we become a gold, shiny ring or an unexpected late-bloomer bud on the orchid.
Transitions—holy space, liminal time—give us a chance to adjust from what was, to what is, to what can be.
But we don’t really like transitions, those of us who feel more comfortable in the known. We become cougar-like, clawing, biting, gouging to get to more solid ground. We tend to be more comfortable with what is familiar.
Like us, this organism we call “COVID-19” is alive; we are, together, parts of the web of all life: Nature. How do we cope with the strain of something so destructive, threatening to take our friends and families?
I believe that part of our response to this rests in nurturing compassion, gratefulness, and beauty. In greater measure than the virus lies a wealth of possibility for peace. But this is not just a message for these COVID-19 times. This is a message for all times. It is about our mortality. Right now is an opportunity to open ourselves to death in a new and unambiguous manner.
But I must pause before going on in order to clarify precisely what type of “death” I am speaking about and what types of death I am not discussing here.
I am not referring in this article to deaths that are borne from violence, sudden accidents, greed, polarized viewpoints, inherently inequitable systems of social oppression, and the rest. Deaths that result prematurely due to these are ugly. They are inconceivable in a world that has so much potential for justice, equity, and love. Like many, I feel repulsed by them and I seek ever harder to transform my resulting dismay into kind, good, loving, just acts on behalf of those who suffer in the world.
What I am referring to in this article when I reference deaths that are natural are those passings that result from physical aging or disease progression, endings that occur in the natural world in balance with predator-prey relationships and that are not from human impositions, and the kind of deaths that are part of our human experience—like the death of dreams we have held or endings of relationships.
Natural deaths are just that: of nature.
Dying can be an exquisitely beautiful experience.
As uplifting as the evening breeze of a sweltering hot day.
It mostly can be so when we have aligned ourselves with our fleeting presence here on Earth.
The human condition is that we are never surer of anything than that of our eventual passing. Moving into deep, even radical, acceptance that we will one day die is the frankest way to engage life.
When we choose (and it is a choice) to incorporate our mortality into our living, we are free to pursue the glories of life more fully.
I have seen this repeatedly over the twenty years that I have served as a hospice volunteer, a community service endeavor that arose for me out of the ashes of a series of deaths in my closest circles and a then-recent terminal diagnosis in my family. I did not want to be in denial of death any longer and I wanted a way to move into my own form of acceptance. What I did not know is how profoundly this decision would impact my daily life and my personal (and deeply spiritual) quest to live more compellingly through each additional day, hour, breath that I am granted on this miraculously floating orb of fire and rock. The hospice patients and their loved ones whom I have had the great honor of companioning as they near a known transition (prognosis of death) have taught me about this preciousness of a moment.
I have witnessed such sacred moments as:
The expression of irrepressible joy on the face of a dying woman as she lifted her nose from the first perfumy rose blossom in her garden that year;
The closed-eyes, smooth-browed look as a man a few days shy of passing away swam in the melodies of his favorite Brahms violin concerto;
The loud sigh of relief as the beloved daughter arrived to her parent’s bedside after a tumultuous night;
The tears streaming down the cheeks of the older woman whose childhood friends smoothed lotion on her dying body as they recalled stories of their shared youth.
I have also found how compatible the bringing in of beauty to the bedside can be for people who are passing. The aesthetic is not just in the quality and depth of relationship, the showing of love and speaking of final testaments to our kin. There is also an outer beauty that can benefit both the dying and their families. Nature objects, photographs, lightly-scented items, cozy blankets or comfortable clothing, music, favorite treats, and so many other things can be specially-curated and offered to family, friends, and a person who is on hospice. Of course, the idea is not to overwhelm or to introduce novel things when what seems to most matter at the end of life is connection with the familiar and a focus on the needs and desires of the moment. But tiny and appropriate-to-the-person tokens and gestures of prettiness can engage, soothe, and please.
In addition to the actual lost lives, the vast numbers of coronavirus sufferers who have died in hospitals without family or friends at their bedside might be the worst aspect of this pandemic. My heart aches for those I know and those I don’t know who are separated from their beloveds at this end-of-life juncture.
My hospice service work looks different this year. For now, we are prohibited from going into the homes or care facilities of our patients. For people in residential care who cannot be in-person with their families due to COVID-based restrictions on visitors, the loneliness of end of life is as pronounced as it is for the virus patients dying alone in hospitals.
Instead, I have been offered the chance to tend from a distance to people who are dying. One recent patient was too weary for any type of conversation, so I created and mailed greeting cards with simple, uplifting messages to her several times a week; all of these cards had painted or photographed ecological images on them. Nature seems to be the universal language of those who are aware of their imminent death.
Another hospice patient I have been serving in recent months delights in phone calls. Though I have never met in-person this particular patient—never entered her room, seen the family photos on her walls, held her hand, witnessed her inability to freely walk—we have developed a lovely rapport over the course of many telephone visits. I have listened carefully to her stories, learned the names of her family members, memorized her daily schedule. With great detail, I can recall to mind her ready ability to laugh, the quality of her voice, the phrases and anecdotes she especially favors and repeats. We begin and end each conversation with a discussion about the weather, literally: It is a blustery autumn day today. Have you seen the leaves turning red outside your window? I stepped outside this morning and there was frost on the ground. It’s getting chilly. Her physical dying is a natural process, so there is consistency and coherence in making an explicit reference to the body of Earth. In an almost inexplicable way, this makes sense.
When I am actually able to visit people who are dying, I bring in a few items from the natural world as a tangible orientation: pine cones, fall leaves, shells, flowers. These evoke something, touch a part of us inside, reminding us how connected we are to Nature—that we are members of this broader community of living beings. That evocation, in turn, is soothing; it normalizes dying in a powerful way.
Autumn is the threshold that I feel most mirrors the experience of dying. The fiery foliage reminds us one crimson by three marigold by fourteen titian leaves at a time that things outside are about to shift. Winds come, grasses yellow, and humans flock to indoor hearths as birds migrate to warmer climes. We feel Winter’s bone around the corner and we prepare for the more-indoor season time. Closing down the activities of summer, preparing yard and home for stasis, autumn reminds us that things pass away; and we prepare for that eventuality. But the glorious deciduous offerings as trees let loose their food factories in such a visually appealing manner, are not that different from humans doing the tasks of preparing to die in the autumn of their lives. They harvest what they can of Life’s final bounty, seek love and interconnection, close out affairs, secure the wellbeing of their loved ones the best they can. In the literature on those end-of-life tasks considered most significant for a peaceful death, asking and receiving forgiveness, saying words of thankfulness, and expressing love are the hallmark practices of bidding farewell. Like our arboreal kin, these letting-loose gestures are utterly stunning in their brilliance. One by one, we release our hold on life and loves, as our bodies wind down naturally.
So how can we live more fully every day, even (or especially) knowing that everything and everyone eventually will pass away? How do we focus on life when sickness and death are just so present?
In my own darkest times of grief—those months just prior to, during, and after my mother’s passing; the oppressive few and empty years during the transition from grad school to steady, passionate vocation; even now, more subtly, but nonetheless present in this COVID-era—I have turned to love, thanks, and aesthetics. These are also common threads in the lives of the bereaved whom I have supported. The mourners turn to the life-giving goodness of compassion, gratitude, and beauty; in these, they somehow manage to sustain their inner lives while they adjust to the losses. During times when grief is not present, these same three orientations allow us to thrive.
How similar the touted end-of-life tasks are to the very ones that I have seen heal us when we are bereaved, and the very ones that can help us thrive as we live life! In other words, what hospice and grief experts consider tantamount to a good death in our relations with kin are equivalent to what spiritual gurus and social scientists consider keystones to individual wellbeing and cultural wellness.
The dying ask their loved ones for forgiveness, and grant it in return. They thank their family and friends for the gifts of kinship, presence, love. They express their love. In order to live as fully and as connectedly as we can (to “develop well or vigorously”) with our human and nonhuman neighbors throughout our lives, we can rely on these same three practices.
These practices for thriving—being and offering love to others, giving thanks for the small and large things in life, creating acts of beauty in even the most mundane times and places—can save us during the hard times. They can also be our deliberate choice to blossom, and to help others flourish. For it is not enough that just one of us should thrive—we are all interbound and, as such, we would do well to seek the betterment of all.
Jennifer J. Wilhoit, Ph.D
2020. Washington, United States
Published in November, 2020
Volume 4, Issue 4