Grief is a sacred journey

Letting Go of Fear

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Virgin_and_Child_with_Ss_Anne_and_John_the_Baptist

Leonardo, Virgin Mary on lap of her mother, St. Anne (~1499)

I lie in darkness under warm blankets. Willow snoozes on her bed on the floor. It’s 4 a.m. My heart pounds as though I’m being chased.

No one here except me and this demon.

Each breath comes knotted and shallow. My pulse pounds in my ears. I try my favorite exercise at moments like this. Breathe and imagine sitting on the lap of the Great Mother, leaning into Her soft breasts and protective thighs.

It doesn’t help.

I throw the covers off. Willow stretches and curls back into slumber. I sit in meditation posture with Pema Chodron’s instructions to let terror in.

Pema Chodron (wikipedia)

Pema Chodron (wikipedia)

Be with fear. Witness it since I can’t keep it out.

I’m safe. No one breaks into my house or tries to hurt me. No bombs fall on the roof. No one steals my car or my computer. I’m OK, but my body doesn’t know that. I watch fear, breathe it in and breathe it out. I remember millions of others breathing in and breathing out their fear. We breathe together in a circle of helplessness and hope.

Last night, before bed, I sent an “I’m thinking of you” message to a friend. She’d had a biopsy that day. Doctors were sure it was nothing. Results would take time. For now we could rest on the threshold of not knowing.

Her partner texted back: “Fast-growing tumor. MRI tomorrow. We’ll know more then.”

Cancer? Cancer! More cancer.

I can’t swallow. It’s the evil illness that tore my husband from this life—and from me. And my brother and many friends. Many people you love, too.

We throw zillions of dollars at this scourge, but we’ve hardly made a dent. Cancer isn’t reasonable. The treatments feel like a new disease. My mind darts from water pollution to air pollution to pesticides, from hormones to computer screens to chemotherapy. What can I do to save my friend? My sons? Myself?

Willow follows me downstairs and curls into a relaxed ball near my desk. I write a while because that often helps, but I can’t sit still.

Brugmansia

Angel’s Trumpets (Brugmansia) on my back porch

I open the kitchen door and inhale the sweetness of Angel’s Trumpets. Pink dawn tints the morning sky. A blue jay perches on the “blue jay proof” birdfeeder and nabs a sunflower seed. The feeder swings and creaks as another thief watches to learn the trick.

Oak

DSC02383Despite the burst of morning sun, doom clings to my belly and chest. I’m scared to lose another friend. I’m scared to walk another person through cancer. I’m scared for all of us. I remember how tuberculosis frightened the grown-ups when I was a child. They whispered the word, almost with reverence. Something bigger than they were. Nowhere to hide.

I lace my hiking boots and walk toward the forest with rhythmic, determined steps. Willow runs in celebratory circles. I hear cackling crows and one loud lonely goose.

Under the tall oaks, I look up and fill my eyes with green. I walk on young acorn promises of life, gather them as an offering, and put some in my pocket. I cry my sorrow to the Tree Mothers with small shuddering sobs. “Help her. Help all of us. Please help.”

Then I turn and walk faster, faster, up a steep hill, forcing my lungs to fill with air. Pumping the bellows and welcoming everything in. Even cancer. Even death.

DSC02332

***

Where do you turn for solace when you can’t find inner peace? The initial diagnosis looked bad for my friend, but turned out to be less horrifying than we feared. She’s fine, and so am I. For other posts about Pema Chodron on letting in fear and being with it, see The Wounds We Carry. For a post about my Sacred Forest, see Give Thanks for the Teaching of Trees.

 

31 Comments
    • Thank you, dear Marty.

    • My heart goes out to you, and wish I could do something to ease pain. I always knew you were a strong woman and you have proved it time and again. The book you wrote has helped more people than you can even imagine deal with a loss of a love one. I am glad we rekindled our friendship, as always, Pam

      • Thanks, Pam, and thanks for finding me on Facebook. The good news is my friend is OK, at least for now. I’m OK, too, although I feel te than usual. The world is in a tense place. It touches all of us.

  1. I’m so sorry. My heart is with you too.

    • Thank you. Jeanie, at the bottom of this piece, I reported that my friend’s situation wasn’t as dire as it first looked. We think she’s going to be fine, although there will be lots of medical monitoring and watching which is nerve-wracking. My fear reaction was real and strong, so I wrote about how I try to open to these experiences. I’m always grateful to Pema Chodron for her guidance.

  2. Oh, dear Elaine. I know your fears. I too am a woman alone in the night. Sometimes waking up in a panic. Sometimes waking up in the dark, alone and in shock to all that has happened to me. I too have walked with friends and family through cancer to death. I held my sister in law in my arms as she took her last breath. Her dear friend, and her brother my husband holding her too. The family I married into are now all dead. My father, mother, sister in law, and now my husband. My dearest friend dying of cancer just two months before my husband was killed instantly in an accident.

    I think I am afraid all of the time. I walk with fear, I sleep with fear, I sit with fear, I eat with fear, fear is in me. But I have learned to live with fear, my new companion. We exist together. Sometimes fear takes over my whole being, just like you describe. But more often now I am in control. We have learned to live together, fear and I. Because if we don’t, I will be extinguished. And I’m not ready to be extinguished yet. Not yet.

    I will think of you when I’m alone in the dark with fear. My heart goes out to you.

    • Debra, you’ve been through hard experiences. Lots of them. My experience settled into something less frightening than we first thought, but these experiences are part of life–at least part of my life and community. After Vic’s death, I had a long period of sadness and exhaustion, but the worst had happened and I was not afraid. When I experience fear now, I know it can be a teacher. I know I have to deal with it, but I also trust it will change and soften. If I let fear wash through me, I find calm and acceptance on the other side. Fear feels like another force asking me to wake up and understand my world and what life is like on a daily and hourly basis for so many. I’m glad that most mornings, I awaken in a locally peaceful world. Thank you for thinking of me. We’ll think of each other and feel our human frailty together.

  3. Oh Elaine, I’m glad there was a better ending to your friend’s story. That ‘C’ word is one of the most scary words in our vocabularies. Sadly, I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t had a loved one affected by it. I can’t say what I do because I haven’t mastered letting go. I’m a professional worrier. <3

    • Fear and worry seem to be human, Debby. They’re also teachers and heart-openers, especially when we remember we’re part of a huge sea of people who are afraid or threatened. I’ve learned a huge amount from facing worry and articulating the issues. As you know so well, that’s what writer’s do.

  4. I’m up early this morning here in S.A. Elaine, unable to go back to sleep after fruitless attempts of turning this way and that. I got up and watched the dawn arise. It was strange how cold it got. I felt even colder reading about your friend but so pleased to hear that all is not so bad after all… I agree fear must be faced, hard to embrace, but even that. Pema Chodron’s writings are so wise.

    • Susan, there you were on the other side of the globe feeling similar oh-so-human feelings. Sometimes there is a vague dis-ease permeating my body. Occasionally outright heart-pounding panic. I’m thankful for many wise teachers including Pema Chodron, one I’ve never met in person but have read and heard through the wonders of modern communication. It helps me to know I’m not alone in these feelings. It’s also good to experience the release that comes from letting them in.

  5. Your honesty is always refreshing. I know the feelings you talk about as I’m sure many do.
    There is something about Willow in your story that gives such comfort. She does not understand all we humans have to deal with. She can relax. The way you describe her allows me to feel warm and soft with her while the anxiety reels at the same time. You packed a lot into such a short piece.
    Your Angel’s Trumpets look fabulous this year. O how your porch must smell. I am happy to hear that the cancer alarm was not so alarming. May it stay that way.
    I cannot sleep either with my mother dying in the room next door. I would love a Willow right now for comfort. Dying is so uncomfortable even in the best of circumstances. Fortunately she is not very afraid of death. Nor am I afraid to be there with her. We are blessed.

    • Thank you, Lauren. I think of you and your mom every day–not with fear because she’s ready. I don’t think death is so frightening, but cancer can be brutal as you know. I don’t know just why I had such a fear reaction that night and morning, except that my friend is young and was very afraid. It felt overwhelming–until it didn’t.

      Sweet Willow waiting at my side for a walk as I type this. I wonder if my human emotional rollercoaster upsets her. It didn’t seem to that morning, although she didn’t let me out of her sight in the house or outside. I need the steady influence of a calm animal presence close by. She’s a live-in therapy animal for me and a calm influence two days a week on my mother-in-law.

      I wish you could sleep. I remember sleeplessness when Vic was dying and how you and Steve stayed up two straight nights with me. Little catnaps here and there, but none of us had deep sleep. Your mom’s dying is taking longer. I wonder if you would sleep soundly if you had your husband or a hired nurse sit with your mom while you sleep in the next room for just one night. I’m not sure that would help, but maybe. And, yes, bottom line is we are blessed.

  6. I have been deploying angel’s trumpets to send prayers heavenward for you and your friend. Life is a complete mystery and often I find myself resting (or fretting) on “the threshold of not knowing.”

    Sometimes I think healing can happen even when there is no cure. I pray for peace of mind for both you and your friend. For now, may you feel comfort in the empathy that surrounds you here. “Bear ye one another’s burdens,”says scripture. I’ll hold you in my heart now and in the days ahead, dear friend. ((( )))

    • “Life is a complete mystery.” I agree.

      “The threshold of not knowing.” My usual spot.

      I agree fully that healing can happen and often happens without a cure. Healing on the level of Soul. Once I face my angst, a little space opens for peace. I love the quote, Marian. Thanks for sharing my load.

  7. I have to learn this – this telling fear, to its face, that you recognize it and acknowledge it, even welcome it. Alone in the dark, being frightened by noises, and unable to breathe in a terrified state, I wonder if I will be able to say, “Fear, stay with me and let me get to know you better.” Would make my life (and sleep) easier if I can learn to master this.
    I’m rooting for your friend. Cancer – bah! Don’t know if I could ever welcome cancer in. Cheers!

  8. I’m glad that the prognosis for your friend has improved. This is an good piece and sharing your own thoughts when dealing with a situation which is far more common than it should be will help others deal with it.

    • Thank you, India. What initially looked alarming turned out to be less and less of a problem. No treatment needed. Even if it were otherwise, I would have gathered myself and supported my friend all the way. I’ve done this many times. My first ego response is always “No, not this.” And then, “Yes, this, and I will be at your side.” We got a break this time. Only another lesson in how to handle anticipatory fear that won’t let go.

  9. Our unconsciousness doesn’t allow us to ignore our feelings! Whether through dreams or waking fear, it is there for a reason, for us to listen and have compassion for ourselves. It is instinctual to fully feel and yet so often in our civilized culture we can’t rip open when we need to. I remember your saying you are the weeper. That is a start.

    But I bet your body wanted to get up and wail and pound and rail at Death. Your brother, a sibling, what can bring you closer to death? It is only natural for your body to need to react, to fight for its life, to demand attention. I think walking under the trees and wailing to them in dawn’s light was the best thing you could do. We are often too civilized about our primal nature.

    The Tree Leaf and Eternal Life

    Consider this beautiful commentary from Thich Nhat Hanh reflecting on a tree leaf:

    “I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don’t worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’

    … That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from the leaf because it is not afraid-it knew nothing can be born and nothing can die.”

    Here is a link://www.pachamama.org/blog/people-and-trees-intimately-connected-through-the-ages

    Blessings, my friend. We are all in this together and just as vulnerable to trying to manage our feelings, so thank you for your deep share _/|\_

    • Thank you, Sarah. Yes, I feel I am held and also holding others in the circle of life. My dreams can be trusted to let me know if I’m repressing something. Yes, I’m a weeper and also a howler and yelper. The forest always receives and reveals my feelings. I love to lean into those huge oak trees that have witnessed so much.

      I’m not sure where I am with my brother’s death. It’s been a surprisingly quiet grief other than a strong dream soon after his death. In it, I needed to have my own memorial service for him–and he wanted to come to it. Two friends who knew him and I had a personal and tender memorial service for him. Lots of flowers. Lots of tears.

      I love the Thich Nhat Hanh quote. I love many of his teachings, including this one and the piece he wrote about his mother’s death. One of the songs I love to sing to myself has these lyrics: “When I rise, let me rise, like a bird, joyfully. And when I fall, let me fall, like a leaf, gracefully, without regret.”

      Yes, we’re all in this together. I never doubt that. Thank you again, Sarah.

  10. When we have been torn apart, each new potential loss stands in a circle of pain from the past. I’m so glad this alarm turned out not to be as bad as you feared. But the lesson learned is one we all need. Thank you, as always, for being our teacher, Elaine.

    • Thank you, Shirley, for all you teach me.
      Yes, the lesson learned. If I want to be with others in their struggles, I also have to be with myself in mine. The social workers in the stem cell transplant unit said I was the calmest family member they’d ever seen during this harrowing procedure. Whether that was exaggeration or not, I had many kinds of support. Each day while Vic slept, I walked an hour under the big trees of Mount Hope Cemetery near the hospital. The other twenty-three hours, I had meditation and prayer, poetry, mythological teachings about journeys to the underworld, daily journaling, a network of friends I could call even in the middle of the night, Vic’s sweetness, and, if all else failed, howling at the moon.

  11. This was such a wonderful post, Elaine. You really pulled us into your mindset in that moment. It must have been very difficult to sit and wait to see what your friend’s prognosis was. I’m so glad that she seems to be doing so much better now!

    • Thank you, Lydia. I wrote the first draft that morning. Therapeutic writing. I didn’t edit or add the good news until a month later. My friend is fine, but we were all scared, partly because of her health history. Fortunately, a false alarm, but a strong reminder to keep trying until I/we find a way to let the feelings move.

  12. I read these previuos posts as if i am a soul hacker.I feel you speaking and I know these things are posted with love to help heal and to help love grow.Wherever it finds itself. However private the sorrow and devastation surrounding it.It occurs to me to see the light from my own suffering as a way to walk into myself as you have done and just share it when I can.The Wisdom of Crones can no longer be negated

    • There are so many good quotes out there about not being stopped by fear. It feels universally human to protect ourselves from possible criticism or from putting our energy into something with no guarantees. I struggle with this all the time. As you know by now, I’m a big fan of digging through the dark stuff until we find the light–and sharing any treasures I find. Here’s to the wisdom of Crones.

  13. Thank you for sharing my article at Suntouched Massage Therapy (https://katherinemahonholmes.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/letting-go-of-fear/). With gratitude, Elaine

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