Grief is a sacred journey

Did I Get Enough Love?

Vic and Elaine 1986

Vic and Elaine 1986

As soon as you begin to ask the question, Who loves me?
You are completely screwed, Because the next question is
How Much?…
~Tony Hoagland, “The Loneliest Job in the World

And after that, Does he love me still? and Does he love me even though he’s dead? And then, When do I stop feeling married to a person who is no longer here? and Why do I feel lonely in a room full of people because he’s not smiling from across the room?

Best to drop the questions. Best to go outside and pull onions before tonight’s rain. Best to take a walk with Willow and photograph butterflies and bugs. Best to watch the stream flow in August when it is usually dry. Better to notice the goldenrod yellowing and the earth ripening toward harvest.

Outdoors, I’m distracted from the lonely questions that pervade my indoor life. I pull weeds, photograph flowers, pick cucumbers, swat mosquitoes, and admire the glowing sunset sky.

Goldenrod and bees

Goldenrod and bees

Where did he go? That’s another good question. So many people feel sure about heaven or reincarnation or the lingering of souls somewhere in the neighborhood. I learned about reincarnation in the 1960s. I believed, because that’s what my teacher Anthony Damiani taught, and he had answers to the big questions. Then there were Ramana Maharshi, Paul Brunton, and the Dalai Lama, all teachers of reincarnation. Pema Chodron is in this camp, too. But if you force me to answer, I simply don’t know.

I only know Vic’s body and his loving eyes are gone. Yet he is here. Within me. In no hurry to leave.

Naomi Shihab Nye wrote these lines:

Vic, David, Anthony, and Elaine: last family portrait 2008

Vic, David, Anthony, and Elaine: last family portrait 2008

People do not
pass away.
They die
and then,
they stay.

My heart leaps in response. The words cycle through my head like a mantra. That’s it. That’s what I know. He has not passed away. He’s gone and yet he stays. I recoil when people say Vic “passed away.” I know they are trying to soothe me and avoid the D word. It doesn’t work. Death is the correct word. Absolute. No turning back. Passed away is gentle, like someone stepped out for a while, in another room, out for a drive, coming home soon.

Is there still an entity with the particular characteristics of Vic? Is there an individual consciousness that remains? Is there anything other than the memory carried by the living? I do not know for sure.

After five years, Vic still frequents my dreams, although less often now. It comforts me when I feel his dream arms around me, walk beside him down a busy street, or sense him in the passenger seat of my Subaru. I know he’s in the passenger seat of my psyche, constant companion in memory and feeling. But that particular lover and friend with soft skin and gentle hands who thought I was beautiful despite wrinkles and didn’t mind my tears? Gone.

Did I love him enough, and did he love me enough? Was our love worth the sorrow that follows attachment no matter how or when the story ends? The clear answers override all my other questions.

Our love was enough. Worth every tear.

***

Thank you, Naomi Shihab Nye, for permission to use your words and for the wisdom and comfort in these lines, in your poem “Kindness,” and in your other poems. For other posts about making peace with love and loss, see Gratitude and Grief and Creating a Grief Ritual.

32 Comments
  1. Tears flow from my eyes. I share this kind of grief, Elaine, and take great comfort in Naomi Shihab Nye’s lines of insight: “people do not pass away. they die, and then they stay.” But your words too offer me solace: “he’s in the passenger seat of my psyche.” The love of my life, though he’s been dead almost four years, still rides shotgun with me wherever I go.

    • I’m grateful for your response, Jill, and that you take comfort in Naomi’s lines and find solace in my words. I love your image of those we have lost riding shotgun. These departed people become inner guides and sources of strength and protection. Thank you for encouraging me in so many ways.

  2. This is beautiful and very helpful, Elaine. Thanks especially for your observations about the term, “passed away” and your affirmation of the use of the D word! I’ve never known which was more appropriate. Maybe it depends on individual sensibilities, but “passed on” has never felt quite right to me either. You’ve helped me understand why.

    • Jeanie, I didn’t understand why I felt irritated by “passed away” or “passed on” until Naomi sent her poem. As you know, powerful poetry cuts to the core of an issue. I realized that many people I love have died and yet they stay and this is true for everyone. I agree the words we use depend on individual sensibilities; some people can’t bear to consider death even when they’re in the dying process or can’t accept death’s finality even after witnessing it. Since Death is as much a reality as Birth, I find it helpful to remember that I am mortal.

  3. You have such a divine way with words. Anthony and I were in tears on our drive to the airport.

    • Thank you, Veronica. I hope sometime my writing will make you laugh, but this piece made me cry, too. I often cry when I write and think of Vic, not because my life is unhappy now, but because I miss him and the joy and love we shared. I also miss having someone to argue with!

  4. Gosh, this was beautiful, Elaine. It made me sigh.

    • Thank you, Mary Jane. Love is sweet and ends with sorrow. I guess if we remembered that, we’d all be sighing along with you. So appreciate it that you read my blog and respond.

      • “Love is sweet and ends with sorrow.”….this really resonates with me…are these your own words, i’d like to quote them properly, they’re powerful.
        thank you, I’m widowed, just 8 years, and your writing is helpful and comforting. I feel the same about the ‘passing’ words…but i also appreciate not getting hung up on ‘words’ as they have many meanings to different people. (my husband used to say that. ) i try to give people the benefit of the doubt that they are trying their best for me, and i make myself recall the times i’ve put MY foot in my mouth and said exactly the wrong thing! :-)) thanks! peggy

        • Dear Peggy,
          Yes, the phrase “love is sweet and ends with sorrow” is mine. I wouldn’t use another person’s words without attribution. I’m so glad you find my writing helpful and comforting. Thanks for telling me so. Are you a writer?
          I don’t get excited or take offense by the words people use when they’re trying to comfort me. I take in the love feelings and don’t get hung up on the details. It’s awkward for others as they don’t know what would help–and sometimes what they think helps doesn’t. I was and am just grateful when they reach out. I always noticed the term “passed away” brought a little catch to my heart and it’s used so frequently. I didn’t feel offended by it or get upset with the person using the term, I just noticed no reaction, even when my dad died when I was 14. Naomi’s little poem helped me understand my own feelings and encouraged this essay.
          Sending you the best, Peggy. I’m quite sure that I’ll still be feeling my loss acutely eight years after Vic’s death as I do at five years, and likely throughout my life. My father died when my mother was 44. She died at 92 the year before my husband died. In her last coherent months, she wanted to talk about my dad and her grief, even though she refused to speak about him after his death for 40 years and had remarried. Hidden away and unexpressed, the grief was still there and needed words. Thank you! Elaine

  5. Sweet One, your words are soul truth. psssttt-my secret that I am whispering is that I envy you your shot gun rider. My Husband is dead. My Web is beyond what I can touch or hear or sense and yet, I know that wherever he resides we are connected because the only thing that is real is the brilliance of love and that surpasses time or the physical body. YES we loved enough and YES it was worth this bone searing grief of re-imagining the moments of our lives. Thank you for your voice, your words, your tears and your love.

    • Kay Marie, I knew you would get it. Gone in body. Still connected and still here within. (For me, that’s the symbolism of Vic in the passenger seat of my vehicle. He feels so gone to my physical reality, but in my mind, I’m still loving, considering his point of view, and re-imagining our life together. (I have the joyful addition of dreams–he was in the passenger seat in last night’s dream and for some reason this image often shows up). When I interact with friends who never had that strong love, I realize how very lucky I am. I’m grateful you had this love, too. And thank you for telling me a little about it.

  6. Elaine,
    I somehow missed this yesterday. Thanks to Jill for pointing it out to me. While I’ve never met you in the flesh, I feel I know your spirit just by reading your words. And while I never knew your husband either, I feel in some way that I did. Or to put him in the present, I feel like I do actually know him as your words take the shape of people and places that seem as real to me as the rain falling softly outside my office window. BTW – Count me in as a new subscriber. 🙂

    • Thank you for finding my blog, Kathleen, and for giving me the gift of your response. Vic was a physics graduate student who raced a motorcycle when I first met him. He mellowed as he aged until he was nearly all about kindness. My book paints him through the last two years of his life when his most magnificent sides came forward to face demise and death, and my first 2 1/2 years after his death. I try to capture a wider time span in blogs. Thanks for telling me that my writing gives you a three-dimensional person–then I’ve succeeded. And thank you for subscribing. (When you receive a copy in email, click the title link to read a well-formatted version at my website. The email completely mangles my careful formatting–as you probably know–and I find this maddening since I like to make the blogs beautiful.)

  7. I agree, Elaine. Some part of my daughter remains. She filters in and out of my dreams and pokes into my days at unpredictable times. Stacking wood or hiking with friends distracts me from the sadness and loneliness but then cooking dinner for one completely breaks me apart.

    • Robin, I can only imagine what it’s like to have one of your children far away on this earth and the other gone from the earth. I’m sure they both remain in your constant thoughts. One can be phoned and emailed and the other can’t and yet you might be in more minute to minute contact with Marika. I sometimes dream that I’m trying to call Vic but don’t know his number. How true that is! And I age while he doesn’t. Thank you for own your beautiful work and words.

  8. Elaine, thank you for talking about this difficult topic. I have had a similar experience. Adrian died, but he is still with me. He visits me in my dreams.

    I want to take some comfort in the possibility of reincarnation, but like you, I don’t know. I read and meditate. I face each day.

    • Sounds like we’re in a similar place. I took comfort from Naomi’s poem since it articulated clearly what I feel. He died and yet he stayed. Feeling our sisterhood as we build new lives and carry on.

  9. Elaine and Robin,

    I just got tears in my eyes and goosebumps from head to toe as I finished reading both of your last two comments. And Robin, I am so very sorry for your loss.

    • Thank you, Kathleen. Robin and I met in the patient kitchen on the oncology ward at Strong Hospital in Rochester. Her daughter was in a crisis but would fight off cancer for a few more years. Vic was fading and in his last few weeks of life, but was still being treated. We both live near Ithaca and now are in a memoir group together. So death separates and death brings together. For a few months after Vic’s death, I wore a bracelet a friend made me that said, “Death: Honor its power to take and give.”

  10. Elaine, I can’t read this enough. I can’t thank you enough.

    Eternal Love is what it is: enough.

    • Thanks for your short and oh so sweet note. Yes, we don’t get to keep our bodies or the bodies of those we love, but we do get to keep eternal love. So appreciate your response and wish you well.

  11. Dear Elaine,
    Thanks for being so honest with your words, your love, your life, and your uncertainties! One thing, they say that’s certain, is death. And yet, we just can’t figure out just what that great mystery is all about. Something tells me that we also don’t come near to understanding what life is, and what each of us–ourselves and the Other–is. Yet, the LOVE, and the BEAUTY, and somehow also the extracted MEANING of our existence all seem quite real and possibly able to endure the passing away of our transient experiences and even of our loved ones. May these memories of your life, with and without Vic, always bless you. It seems you are actively distilling them and turning them into riches for the Soul.
    Much love, Myra

    • What a beautiful note, Myra. Yes, life’s love, beauty, and meaning. I’m digging for that gold through the rubble of Vic’s illness and death. I think many do the same with hard experiences. I feel compelled toward introspection and know that I have only a surface understanding of my own life and almost no understanding of death’s mystery. So, we live with the not knowing, and may I quote you? We distill them and turn them into riches for the Soul. You’ve given me much to ponder, and I’m grateful for your meaningful note and thank you for reading and responding to my post. Sending love back to you.

  12. Elaine! I love that poem. I also always feel a little rubbed the wrong way about the phrase “passed away.” My dad died. We all die. I like using the real word for it; it makes me feel more aware of life.

    But there is a song I sing whose chorus starts “We are passing away,” and I think I like it in that context because I take it to mean that we are *all* passing away. And I think the hauntingly beautiful melody might have something to do with it too.

    • Hi Anna, Thank you for reading the piece and commenting in such a meaningful way. We are in time. Yet there is also something that stays. I like the way you looked at the words and meaning.

      I wish my hearing weren’t shot so I could enjoy music. I sang to Martha Cohen at Hosipcare on Tuesday. I remembered a Buffy St. Marie Song from 1966: “This love of mine has no beginning, it has no end. I was an oak, now I’m a Willow, and I can bend. And if I never in my life see you again, here I’ll stay until it’s time for you to go.” I hear the melody in my head.

    • Anna, did you happen to see your Dad onstage back in the ’90’s when I directed him as the old Jewish peddler in Arthur Miller’s “The Price”. I’m thinking of doing it again for the new local theater group, and I think to myself that no one in the world including Hollywood could ever do the part as well as your Dad! He was dear to me and I miss him so.

      • Dennis, I’m going to forward your message to Anna via email. She’ll want to see it. I did not see “The Price.” Sounds like I missed a great play.

  13. Thanks as always E. A dear, sweet and tender posting. Again, where are the men?

    • Thank you, Dennis. You’ll have to unpack, “Where are the men?” Photos of my son in this one, a quote by a man, and male teachers, so they’re all over this post. You must have something else in mind. Best to you and thanks for being such a supportive friend.

  14. What a beautiful post, Elaine. Thank you for sharing it <3.

    I love feeling the presence of my loved ones, even when I can't see them.

    • Thank you, Rachel. I’m with you about feeling the presence. I’m always surprised by how strong that remains with my husband, especially in dreams.

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