Facing Grief

Spring and Fall: to a Young Child
by Gerard Manly Hopkins

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Our apple tree is losing its leaves. Like Margaret, I’m grieving.  It’s far too early in the season for this to be happening.  Now, it must be said that this thought comes to me every year.  Some of the leaves on this particular tree often start to yellow at the very end of July or early August, their weariness increasing gradually through September until they can no longer hold on and finally, fall to the ground.

But this year seems different.  I can’t explain why; perhaps it’s due to the unusually hot and dry conditions we’ve experienced this summer.  Perhaps this poor tree is still recovering from losing some of its roots three years ago when we renovated our home. Perhaps it’s something else altogether.  Whatever the cause, the annual cycle of growth and decay seems to be accelerated.

And so, I’m grieving.  I adore this old tree – she’s one of the things that enticed me to fall in love with our crooked old farmhouse.  She stands securely in a place that apple trees generally aren’t found – at the very edge of our deck.  And over the years she’s been pretty much allowed to grow unhampered, save some annual pruning, ‘til she has reached majestic heights.  She shades the deck and supplies the basic ingredient for delicious applesauce, pies, and crisps.

I’ve come to value our beloved tree as a source of stability and strength – wisdom, even.  She’s seen us through welcoming new family members, the loss of cherished friends and relatives, career moves, and of course, my own relentless aging process.  Even as the social, economic, and political fabric seems to be unraveling all over this earth, our old tree remains steady and strong.  She’s an enormous comfort in an unstable world, yielding to the cycles of the seasons, wordlessly teaching her lessons of the rhythm of life.

It’s that very rhythm of life, the cycle of birth, death, rebirth, that dictates that someday our tree will meet her demise, surrendering her life force back into the earth from whence she came.  It might not be this year, or next year, or the year after that.  But someday our tree will be no more.

And so, I grieve.  But the truth is that like Margaret, I’m not so much grieving in anticipation of the loss of a tree, as I’m grieving for myself.  I’m grieving my own losses, tangible and intangible. I’m grieving the reality that someday I, too, will face the death phase of the life cycle.  I’m grieving the loss of dreams that will never come to fruition as well as cherished illusions that continue to shatter and splinter.

Our culture teaches us to shy away from grief.  We’d prefer to hurry up and get the mourning over with, to have some closure, to move on to the next thing.  We’d rather our lives were filled with endless springs and summers.  Leave out the falls and winters, thank you very much.  Growth and productivity are what matter.

But it doesn’t work that way.

Grief is actually an essential element of a life fully lived and love freely given.  If loss is a fact of life (and trust me, it is) so is grief.  Yes, grief is painful, heart-breaking, even incapacitating at times.  Grief brings us face to face with that which is most precious to us.  I’ve heard it said the grief is love seeking its home.

But embedded in the pain of grief there is promise.  If we yield to it, grief will lead us to the depths of our souls and reveal a source of strength we might not otherwise discover: the spark of divine Light that dwells within.  It’s that Light that brings us back to ourselves, now paradoxically stronger and more tender, with a deepened capacity for empathy and compassion.

And so, with Margaret, we grieve.  It’s a messy affair; it’s not linear.  It comes and goes in waves and sneaks up on us when we least expect it.  Our grief resides right there beside our joy.  It’s part of the fabric of our being.  It gives us depth and makes us whole as it leads us into wondrous new places. In fact, counterintuitive though this may be, fully embracing our grief is an act, not only of courage, but of hope.  It’s what allows us to proclaim with audacity and conviction the words of the classic funeral liturgy:
All of us go down to the dust;
yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!