Grief is a sacred journey

When Heartbreak Becomes A Second Chance

with Vic, 1970

I didn’t want a second chance. I liked my first option, the married life I’d worked on and loved for forty years. My husband Vic and I called our relationship “the Path of Marriage.”

In 1967, it had been easy to walk away from graduate school and return to Ithaca where Vic was a graduate student. Love mattered more than career. I never regretted that decision, but after our sons left home, I faced the choice I’d made.

For years, I’d pulled back from the world and ridden on Vic’s achievements. He was a physicist who wrote about science and Jungian Psychology, philosophy, Buddhism, and mysticism. Other than physics, he wrote about interests we shared and studied together. I was the first copy and content editor for his books. As a non-scientist, I helped him make scientific intuitions accessible.

“I don’t get this, Vic.” Or, “This is too abstract and heady. Can you include an example I’ll understand?” Because I wanted his success, he always listened and rewrote. He always thanked me, privately and publicly.

I wrote about women’s health, but I longed to share my inner spiritual and psychological work. I didn’t have the confidence to try. I let Vic take the risks, submit articles and books, and endure rejections along with the acceptances. I was proud to be his wife.

I was also jealous.

With Marion Woodman, 2005

Jealousy flared when he taught with my Jungian teacher Marion Woodman at the University of Toronto while I sat in the audience. Why is he on that stage when I’m the one who studied her work for many years? I knew. I didn’t have a Ph.D. or Jungian certification. I hadn’t written a book called Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making. Instead, I’d taken the cautious path and bandaged the wounds he endured from sticking his neck out.

Jealousy was the fruit of my own unrealized longing.

Watching Vic with Marion, there was no doubt. It was time to find my own way.

Three years later, when Vic was diagnosed with incurable cancer, I devoted my life to caring for him. From the beginning, I understood that losing this man I loved might force a second chance. A chance I didn’t want.

Altar photo at Marion Woodman workshop, 2007

“I hope it doesn’t take your death for me to have the courage to share my own work.” I said just months before he died. Our relationship was unflinchingly honest. We trusted each other.

“I just want you to be all right,” he said. He looked up at me from his bed with sorrowful brown eyes. Could I say I’d be all right? I wrestled with the idea that night.

“Vic, I’ll be OK,” I said the next morning. “I’ll find a way to live well without you. I don’t want a life without you, but I promise I’ll find a way to make it work.”

“I’m relieved,” he said. His eyes were sad and wet as he hugged me.

My promise felt impossible in the years after his death. I could only weep, walk in the forest, and write. I didn’t know writing was the beginning of my new trail.

Jung in the Heartland presentation (photo: Donna Leone)

Last weekend at the Jung in the Heartland conference, I remembered the many times I’d accompanied Vic when he gave lectures and workshops for Jungian or Buddhist groups. Now it was my turn.

I’d submitted an article for the competition, “Memories, Dreams, and Sensualities,” before details of the conference content were public. I celebrated when my article “Wild Nights: Grief Dreams, Mythology, and the Inner Marriage” won first prize and an invitation to present the paper at Jung in the Heartland. My presentation was the last of the conference, weaving together ideas that had unfolded for three day. A perfect fit. Vic would have loved the synchronicity. I loved the synchronicity.

Despite deafness, despite vertigo, despite fear, despite self-doubt, I hadn’t given up after Vic’s death in 2008. I’d published a book, given a TEDx talk, won a Jungian writing contest, and presented at Jung in the Heartland. I’d also co-led a workshop with Jean Raffa at the C.G. Jung Society of Sarasota in 2016.

riding the Wall Street Bull, 1992

“Hey, Vic. I’d choose to be with you any day, but I took my second chance and found my work and a new path. I kept my promise to both of us.”

Vic teaching with the Dalai Lama at Colgate University, 6 weeks before Vic’s death

I imagined him beaming at me.

***

I’ll share “Wild Nights” and the video of the presentation after it’s published in the C.G. Jung Society of St. Louis newsletter. I loved the conference, the environment, and the featured presenters Lionel Corbet (Jungian analyst and author of many books, including The Soul in Anguish: Psychotherapeutic Approaches to Suffering) and Chelsea Wakefield (therapist and author of In Search of Aphrodite).

For an article about transforming jealousy into longing, see Falling in Love with Marion Woodman. For a recent article about why I decided to attend the conference, see A Dog, A Dream, and A Prize: Jung in the Heartland. For more about Vic’s work (with many photos), see his website.

49 Comments
  1. I’m so moved by your story Elaine—you describe so beautifully the grief and loss, and also the sense of being blessed to go on and realize your own work, as if the torch had been passed from Vic to you… Nothing we accomplish in this world is ever a solitary achievement. All of our relationships, and especially the profoundly interwoven ones, contribute to creating us and what we have to offer the world. I’m astonished and blessed by my partner’s work as she begins to realize some of her deepest gifts (and I’m sometimes jealous, too)—and so aware of all the ways she has contributed to my work, and I have contributed to hers. Thank you for you wisdom.

    • Thank you, Kirsten. I love what you’ve said. Thanks for sharing that you are jealous sometimes, too. I had to think my piece through many times because I didn’t want to be a braggart, but I also needed to say to myself and the world, “I did it and it hasn’t been easy.” It was wonderful contributing to and supporting Vic’s work (I even wrote a synchronicity story that was published in his first book), but the goals I had as a girl hung around waiting for me to remember them. They nagged a little from time to time while I did other good things such as become a nutritionist and exercise counselor. My jealousy was the result of not following my own soul longing. I knew in some ways I was enough just as I was, but no matter what, I desperately wanted to be and offer my inner work. Thanks again.

  2. I’m smiling, Elaine. Here’s to the late bloomers!

    • I’m glad you’re smiling, Mark. I said to myself, “Can I post that?” and did it despite doubt. Yes, here’s to late bloomers.

  3. Dear Elaine, From your inspirational title to your very last word, I absolutely love this article! And the family photos you happily share, thank you. I found myself nodding throughout as I remembered how much I too wanted to write yet couldn’t find (or allow myself!) the time to do so, while my daughters were growing up and I was out working. At best, I would tip toe away for an hour or so every few months to “birth” another poem. It took me until I was fifty years old (yay! another late bloomer here!) to finally gather those poems up and self-publish yet entirely worth the wait!

    Elaine, you were born to write and I’m overjoyed that you take up the challenge to explore yourself, life and the Soul’s evolution with words. I see that the “writer within” (much like my own!) patiently waited while you were editing, tinkering or expanding Vic’s work but not your own. Oh my Goddess, how the soul sits and waits! I love what you say about jealousy, so bloody true! Nonetheless what you learnt in the subsequent years was all about the language of the heart. You write like a true poet, your words drip with milk, honey and heart! The weeping, walking and writing, beautiful!

    I love, love, love that yours was the very last presentation at the Jung in the Heartland conference! Your face appears radiant with love and happiness! Oh see how the writer / soul stands proud! Shines, when it comes into view! Slowly, step by step I see you taking your second chance, dancing in delightful words, sharing your wild nights … and in doing so encouraging us all to do the same! What a joy it’s been to read your beautiful, healing words this morning my dear friend. I can’t wait to watch the video! Love and light, Deborah.

    • Deborah, your beautiful book of poems A Liberated Sheep in a Post Shepherd World was entirely worth the late. I didn’t write about the fact that we were raising two sons together in those early years, because my longing was quiet in the mothering years. Thank you for saying, “you were born to write.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I was born to work hard at creating something and, thankfully due to my deafness, it was writing and not becoming a musician.

      In retrospect, I can see that studying the things I studied with Vic and on my own (he didn’t study mythology, but was interested in hearing about it from me) didn’t go to waste. And the poetry we read together bound us together. Also, teaching women’s health classes gave me confidence to teach and talk in front of a group, besides motivating me toward my own body care. I love the photo of me at Jung in the Heartland, too. I handed my camera to a woman I’d seen taking photos at the conference and asked her to take many. She did, and this was the most alive. Thank you for encouraging and supporting me as I feel my way into this new life. When I have numinous dreams and I had one at the conference which I’m unpacking, I think of you. I can’t wait for your next book of poetry. Yes, here’s to love and light.

  4. So looking forward to the video Elaine! Thank heavens you saw the second chance that was there and that you were open to it. Sometimes it seems that all is lost – It reminds me of the lotus arising from the muddy depths to flower in all its glory and beauty. An extraordinary paradox …

    • Thank you, Susan. Yes, it seemed all was lost and in many ways it was. Along with grieving for a person who dies, we grieve for our old lost life. Vic and I imagined old age together. Not to be. After his death, there was so much disbelief, emptiness, and exhaustion. Then walking and waiting before new things begin to emerge out of the mud. Painting and writing worked from the beginning, but I’m a word person and not a painter. It took patience and lots of trust. Life demands those things from all of us.

  5. What an accomplishment Elaine!
    So wonderful you reached out and found yourself. Yes, Vic is beaming.

    • Thank you, Janice. I can say for sure that the “Vic within me” is beaming. My mother who died in 2007 is also saying, “About time.” My dad died when she was 44 and she had to create a new life then. Her choices weren’t always good for her children, but when Vic died, I understood my mother HAD to act and was desperate to find that new life. She was young and had been a caregiver for a sick man for 12 years.

  6. In nine years time, you have moved mountains, Elaine! I am so proud of you as are scores of others, including Vic. The text as always is lively and lovely, but I two photos stand out: You and Vic riding the Wall Street bull and then the one on Vic’s website of you, he and the boys on your tractor. I had not seen either of these photos before nor clicked on Vic’s website.

    Your post reminds me of my choosing to take the subservient role early in our life together. Cliff and I have a marriage of equals and I never felt choked or stifled in my choices. When we were young though, I introduced myself as Cliff’s wife and decided to be his secretary when he was launching his art career.

    All of this worked well because our children were small and I felt no ambition for furthering my own career. After all, I had the credentials to teach. What else was there? One day I looked up at the framed diploma of a woman I shared tutoring space in her reading clinic. “I am at least as smart as she is. I could earn a master’s degree too.” That one incident led to my going back to graduate school in the 1980s, finding a fulfilling career in academia and now discovering my passion – writing!

    Once again, kudos for your accomplishments. You deserve a Lifetime Achievement Award too! Life is full of second chances. We are proof of that!

    • Marian, I love the photo of us on the bull, too. As usual, Vic was the daring one and set that photo up asking another tourist to snap it with Vic’s camera will pushing me up on that bull. Of course, there was a big sign saying not to climb on the bull, but never mind the rules. I also love the one a friend took of the family when the youngest son was about 6 months old. We had inherited that old tractor with the house and Vic used it for about 30 years–tinkering with it to make it go as much as using it to haul wood and garden stuff.

      I didn’t feel choked by Vic either, Marian. He would have supported anything in the world I wanted to do. Our partnership was honest and equal on all levels, but in any relationship, sacrifices are made on each side. I was held back by not knowing where I wanted to go while his direction was clear. It was also good to have someone in the family with a solid job while I stayed home with the babies. I love that you saw that diploma and it gave you an opening. And that you took the leap. I went back to school in my 30s and got a second degree in nutrition. I loved taking classes and working as a nutritionist. Later I became a personal trainer, too, so I was certified to teach exercise. The women’s health work was wonderful and good for my body, but it didn’t touch the deeper soul work I was doing within.

      Thank you for your cheers and encouragement. I love watching your work as you watch mine. Yes, life is full of second, third, and fourth chances. We just have to dust ourselves off and try again.

  7. Elaine,
    I started to message you yesterday to ask if you’d yet spoken at this conference and how it had gone, deafness and all. I got interrupted and here is my answer today! It’s a powerful story of how death can open new parts of ourselves, which I know about firsthand, because of the book I wrote after my daughter’s death. I’m so glad the conference went well and that you’ve shared its story with us.

    • Thanks for your comment, Annie. There will be more about the conference presentation after it’s posted at the Jung Society website. I also have a video of the presentation to share. I know you know firsthand that the death of someone close changes our lives dramatically. Congratulations on your new book, The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. It’s out, and I know how much work you have to do now. Get in touch with Cheryl Jones, MS who has a radio show called “Good Grief Radio” if you haven’t already. She gives wonderful interviews on issues of grief and end of life. Tell her I sent you. I hope all goes well and I look forward to reading your book.

  8. Love it Elaine. You’re on fire. And you’re wet as your heart continues to weep. There’s a reason the willow likes swamp land.

    Here’s to water and fire and the journey of a writer, seeker, and soul speaker.

    • Thank you, Marcy. I miss you and your fiery passionate honest writing. I am on fire, and sometimes I get a little burned or burned out. While I was away a few days to visit friends and give a reading for The Healing Muse Journal, I got text messages that my mother-in-law had a mini-stroke. I paused. Should I return to Ithaca? The Visiting Nurse went to see my mother-in-law and assess the situation. Nothing to do but let her sleep and wait a bit. Fortunately, no one mentioned the ER now that the Visiting Nurse and Palliative Care are in place. Vic’s mom steadied a bit (she’s a miraculous one) and I decided to go ahead with the reading and tend to her needs when I got home. Life pulls in so many directions. I’m trying to make decisions that factor my needs in as much as anyone else’s.

  9. As always, you find a way to touch my heart. You and Vic achieved so much and conquered the demons that life hands to us all. The land you both loved and the house you turned into a home and your two strapping sons that you both loved. You turned your sadness and grief into a book that has helped so many people dealing with death and grief. You are my hero

    • Thank you for your encouraging and kind words, dear Pam. We’re all given rivers to cross and mountains to climb. So many of us do a good job of re-creating ourselves when we have to. I know you had to do just that a few times at an early age. Here’s to the heroic parts of all of us.

  10. You have opened a door for a new friend. I feel so honored to know you. Bless you Elaine, and all that you do. Keep writing and keep fighting. I’ll be looking forward to the Missouri (Missouri yes?) post.

    • Thank you, Dennis. It was the St. Louis Jung Society (there’s the Missouri part), but the conference was in Illinois at a place that was once a monastery. I always feel at home in those small monastic rooms. I spoke about you yesterday because someone asked about my TEDx talk (which has 100,000 viewers now). They wanted to know how I managed to do that. I told them about you, an actor, a director, and a kind heart, who encouraged and coached me through the process. After that, any presentation felt easy.

  11. Elaine, thanks for your unflinching honesty, clarity, and courage!

  12. Your journey has been remarkable and instructive on many levels. Keep going dear friend!

  13. Way to go Elaine! I’m so proud of you friend! You are so inspirational. And you can bet that Vic is smiling down on you with pride.

  14. I often cry when I read your writing. For so many reasons, beauty, sorrow, tenderness, depth… but this one because it made me miss Vic terribly. And, It made me miss your relationship, the two of you together working it out, whatever it was. Outer or inner you both had the view that there was something more to be learned in any experience – some insistence on psyche, on the imagination, on your soul’s choices that deserved time, listening, introspection, application. I will forever respect his courageous facing his own death and the direct way he loved you through all it’s ugliness and beauty. I am so grateful how much macho man- lover of pregnant women and elephants- he of delicate feelings- and one with a critical scientific mind remains in our minds, our hearts.

    I miss you two and yet, there is a you now that was not there before. You who are seen standing, not behind Vic, but in front with the winds blowing in your face. Sometimes cold winds sometimes hot makes your cheeks red with life. It is exciting to see where you have choosen to go after getting up from his cairn. It is easy to see Vic beaming at you.

    Your words are strong, clear, helpful. They are yours. Thank you for writing. And for continuing to write.

    • Oh, Lauren. You make me cry. Vic and I stuck together to keep working on any difficulties and irritations life presented, and you were right there, sticking with us and then me through it all. I couldn’t have wished for a better friend. I remember a conversation we had not long after he died as we walked through fields of blooming lupines. I said, “It breaks my heart that Vic isn’t seeing the lupines.” You said with the most accepting and understanding smile and hug, “He’s seen them many times. He’s on to bigger views.” I paraphrase, of course, but that was the thought I needed at that moment. Accepting my personal sorrow and reflecting back another perspective that didn’t negate the personal one. Instead, a way to hold both. Thank you for being a life and death midwife and wise friend.

  15. Late bloomers are the best as I am realizing more all the time that I’m in that boat as well 🙂 We can’t all be rockstars (or great writers or focused writers) at age 20…

    • Here’s to late bloomers and starting over, Jeri. I’ve had a few blooming seasons along the way. It took many tries and many disappointments. Not likely to be a rockstar in my 70s either, but I feel my star within. Day by day, you’re getting closer to the goal.

  16. All the things you’ve been able to accomplish, Elaine – it’s amazing. And unlike me, you knew you had it in you even in the days of hanging out in the shadow of the remarkable one you loved.

    • I also carry a sometimes uncomfortable dose of my mother’s never-enough ambition, Robin. Now, I try to follow my inner longing, whatever that is, and not regret that I was too scared to try. Sometimes there is nothing to lose…

  17. Exquisite, Elaine. I would only like to suggest that the idea of a “late bloomer” is nothing but a meaningless mental constructs. A very wise mango taught me, thirty years and many lifetimes ago:

    “When fruit is ripe it falls naturally from the tree.”

    Because your life, both with Vic in the flesh and afterward, has been guided by Grace, you were smart and humble end courageous enough to know when to LET GO!

    Big hugs and love, dear One,
    Beth

    • Beth, thank you for your comment about bloom time. As a gardener and a mango lover, I resonate with your image. In a short blog, much is left unsaid. In those marriage years, I tended a deep and loving relationship, raised two sons with their dad, studied philosophy, mythology, and Jungian psychology, meditated, and traveled to work with psychological and spiritual teachers. I also got a 2nd degree in nutrition, was certified as a personal trainer and exercise counselor, and worked as a women’s health counselor. All that time, I wrote–budding, blooming, and sending deep roots in various directions. I chose in this piece to focus on the longing for something more I needed to do.

      It was after Vic’s death that I knew it was time to share the inner work, even if it scared me. I’ve never doubted that I’ve been guided by Grace, and I’ve always found help when I needed it. Letting go of Vic in my outer life was demanded, but he still hangs around in my thoughts and dreams as a positive and encouraging male helper and the love we shared still supports me. Thank you for the cyber-hug. So appreciated.

      • You are gloriously beautiful and sincere, Elaine, as well as brilliant and balanced. Thank you for taking the time to send such a heartfelt and informative reply. Julie Nierenberg is a dear friend and spirit sister of mine and I know that she is a huge fan of your work and expressions. All the best to you as you continue past full bloom…!
        Beth

        • Thank you, Beth. I’m blushing as I try to learn to accept compliments gracefully. A bow to you. Julie is a woman I love from afar since we’ve never met, but her heart is huge and her work inspiring despite what life hands her. I’m glad you’re close friends and sisters of the heart. I appreciate knowing our connection through Julie.

  18. Wonderful Elaine!

  19. Dear Elaine, I always return to read your wonderful replies. For I love the richness and generosity you and others offer. Deep insights and wisdom held within each and every word. This is a profound article. You have truly helped me to understand what “moving into acceptance” looks like and “how to let go” a little more. You encourage us all to take our second or third chances in life. That’s all really. You’re such an inspiration! Love and light, Deborah.

    • Deborah, I’ll never match you for richness of replies and deep exchange in comments. Not that we need to match or keep up with each other.

      Acceptance is not a clear line for me. Sometimes I protest; sometimes I accept. Acceptance is the perspective that sneaks in when I can’t get what I wanted and when I was strong enough to face the pain of that. I’m grateful for my first spiritual teacher who taught that Life is the Teacher and we’re the students here to learn our lessons. So, as I wept and thrashed those first months and years, I also began cooperating with what had been given and how I might make it a gift as well as a loss. I still weep or shake my fist because Vic is no longer embodied and even if I can talk with him inwardly, it’s not the same. He would have raised an eyebrow once in a while and said, “That’s not what I think.” When he was here, we tried not to speak for each other and now I speak for him all the time. Sorry Vic.

      Thank you, dear Deborah, for support and love.

  20. So moving, so beautiful, Elaine. I’m so grateful to have found you, your blog, and to be able to get such wisdom and inspiration from your posts. Hugs, A

  21. Now that I am a senior, looking back on my life, and realize we are who we are, from the beginning, life it’s just the unfolding, sort like a seed, it cannot be anything but what already is, an orange, or an avocado, a pear tree,life, is just the process where the particular seed grows and became the tree, it always meant to be. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Brigido. Your words remind me of James Hillman’s writing about the acorn as an image of an individual-seed, or soul-seed, or potential for transformation and wholeness . We are all unique acorns in the process of emerging into unique trees or persons. Some will thrive and send out more acorns. Others will break or be hit by lightening and provide nesting places for birds and squirrels. Knowing this, my husband and I didn’t walk to his death feeling sorry for ourselves or crying out, “Why me?” We understood and did the best with the remaining time. (Not to imply that was easy, especially after his death.) His ashes are buried under his favorite oak. I gather acorns for my altar every autumn to remind me of the idea you’re sharing, to use in Solstice rituals, and to plant and protect.

  22. Dear Elaine- I am myself a short on words person – my feelings are not as evident to me. The depth of searching and honesty not reached yet. So I greatly appreciate how in touch you are with so many emotions and your openness in sharing. Showing those like me possible human capabilities. This lifetime has certainly provided you with a range of both very wonderful and very challenging experiences. My life is enriched by our friendship.

    • Marie, you paint and photograph your deepest feelings. I’ve put feelings in words for a long time. The letters I wrote to my mother when I was in college (she saved them) were filled with trying to articulate emotions and grapple with psychological issues. Later and thankfully, spiritual issues were added. What a gift to me that Anthony Damiani introduced his students to C.G. Jung’s work and the meaning found in dreams. I’ve followed that thread since the 1960s.

      I’m enriched by your spiritual aspiration, faith, hospitality, and community-building. Thank you for being in my life.

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