Grief is a sacred journey

Three Lessons about Loss from my TEDx Talk

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TEDx Chemung River speakers & organizers

“Yes,” I said in May 2014 when I received a red-lettered invitation from TEDx Chemung River I had applied the month before. “Sure, I’ll figure out how to give a TEDx talk. November 8 is five months away. Plenty of time. I’ll get help. I can do this.”

The next morning, I wasn’t so sure. What could I say about grief in under eighteen minutes with no notes or prompts? What could I say that mattered? I wrote, rewrote, deleted, erased, tossed, started over, and wrote again. I talked with friends and dug deeply into the experience of my husband Vic’s death.DSC09053

“No more changes in this message,” I pleaded with the perfectionist writer within, but changes kept coming.  I caught the intuitions, articulated them, and integrated them into the presentation.

“Sure, I can give a talk on stage at the Corning Museum of Glass auditorium. It’s still months away, so I’ll figure it out.” And I did, but I had to keep my cool in a highly amplified and microphoned world with my hearing aids sending me sound distortion and high pitched feedback. All this in the context of emotional ideas and images that made me feel naked and vulnerable. To make my message powerful for the audience, it had to be powerful for me.

Instructions at dress rehearsal

Instructions at dress rehearsal

As the talk developed, I distilled three lessons from grief.

I am not in charge. 

Of course, none of us is, but we’re constantly told our experience is created by our attitude and perspective. Be positive. Make life what you want it to be. It’s up to you. It’s true from a limited perspective, but not when it comes to life and death.

I can control some of my reactions and surrender gracefully to what is even if I prayed for a different outcome, but there isn’t much wiggle room when it comes to natural disasters, catastrophic accidents, or DNA errors. In many of life’s twists and turns, I would create a different plan if I were the planner. No, I’m not in charge.

Love and grief are a package deal

Love and grief are a package deal

Love and grief are a package deal.

I’ve always known this, haven’t you? I learned this listening to opera: Tristan and Isolde,  La Boheme, La Traviata. My first meditation teacher Anthony Damiani loved opera and played the same arias over and over again. Listening to the love songs and death scenes, I understood the yearning that comes with first love, the agony of waiting for a response, the ecstasy of union, and the longing and despair of separation.

How could I forget, even for a moment, that love ends in loss for the ones left behind?

Ritual helps more than I ever could have imagined.

I first learned about the power of ritual in the 1960s. We lit incense and lowered the lights. We were fascinated with the yin-yang symbol, mandalas, and chanting. I was influenced by the cultural influx of Buddhism, yoga, Hinduism, and meditation. When Vic and I traveled, we experienced ancient Buddhist and Hindu rituals. It was an awakening for a Midwestern girl whose family didn’t discuss spiritual issues. I soon learned how ritual could change my attitude or soothe my agitated mind.

Arriving on the big day

Arriving on the big day

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Waiting to go on stage with Amy Bush

Waiting to go on stage with Amy Bush

These three lessons came in the context of this particular talk, but there are many possibilities. I hope you’ll watch “Good Grief: What I Learned from Loss” and consider the lessons you’ve learned from small and large losses. Let me know what you discover. You might find surprises as I did.

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For other posts about love and grief coming together and the power of ritual, see Bookends of a Marriage or A Personal Grief Ritual of Remembrance and Release. Wishing all in the northern hemisphere a joyful celebration of the Return of the Light.

10 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, what an honor to have been selected to do a TEDx talk! Thank you for sharing these valuable lessons about stepping out of your comfort zone and onto the stage. Your message about love and loss is universal and poignant. I’m excited about featuring you as my guest in 2015. Sending blessings, Kathy

    • Hi Kathy, TEDx organizers didn’t know me or my work and my proposal was a little vague because I didn’t know just what I wanted to say. I was invited for tea with one of the team and we talked an hour. She said later, “I believed you had a TEDx talk in you.” I had to coax it along for many months, and as I say in this post, it kept changing with new ideas, intuitions, and late night ah-ha’s. It settled down a week before I gave it. An excellent lesson in trusting myself to come through and listening within for what I truly want to say. Grateful to TEDx organizers who had faith in me and didn’t flinch at my hearing loss.

      I look forward to being your guest and digging into this a little deeper. Blessed Solstice, Elaine

  2. You set a high bar for yourself from proposal to performance and cleared it with aplomb. So proud of you – who know what comes next for you!

    For me, your most striking point, love and grief are a package deal. I have recently experienced it with my mother, and if I live long enough, with others too. But Tennyson is still right: “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

    • I’m with you 100% on the Tennyson quote, Marian. At the worst of times, I never forgot and still don’t forget the magnificent gift of deep love in any form.

      Thanks for your encouragement and support. I have no idea what comes next for me. I’ve been so busy supporting Leaning into Love that there has been no space for what happens next. I begin attending a new 10 week writing class in January with Ellen Schmidt, and that’s always a good place for me to stir up new topics and surprising directions. We’ll see what happens next.

  3. You are a pillar Elaine! You certainly are brave, on many fronts. The thought of public speaking terrifies me, yet words come easy when writing. Your speech was captivating and so natural, nobody could have known the angst you went through before you delivered. Congratulations again. 🙂

    • Debby, hearing angst is just part of life for me, especially in the last couple of years since my hearing grew worse. I’ve written about it in blogs and it would be good to write about it more, but something in me doesn’t want to write about another personal loss and focus all my attention on what I lack. It’s a roadblock I have to maneuver around and so far I’m able to do it. I’m not a cochlear implant candidate, but I’m getting closer. Blessed Solstice to you.

  4. I loved listening to your physical voice in the TEDx talk after reading so many of your words and enjoying your writing voice, Elaine. Every new love that has entered my life has made me more vulnerable. I try to turn my fear into gratitude, but some day that will become harder. The only ones who escape, I suppose, are those who die very young.

    Yes to ritual and to the returning of the Light. One more time.

    • Shirley, I cheer for love every time, including the vulnerability and inevitable separation. I want my kids to enjoy committed love, and my friends, and everyone. It’s one of life’s most blessed experiences. Maybe we need to be naive to keep falling in love and raising children.

      Yes to one more winter Solstice. Fracking just banned in NY State, so I already have the best Christmas present of all.

  5. I am so proud of you, and proud to be your friend. You were magnificent. OMG what an incredible amount of work you must have done to get this to be the polished professional presentation that it is. What’s next, Elaine? Because you are hot! Be well and have good holidays. Thanks for inspiring me to create my own holiday rituals.

    • Robin, I love your recent blog. I am proud to be your friend, too, and you are hatching a powerful book. I have many small things lined up for January and February, mostly local events or grief radio broadcasts with one bigger radio interview on Wisconsin Public Radio. Nothing will be as demanding as that TEDx talk. Everything else feels manageable.

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