Good(?) Grief by Esther Nelson

The current pandemic has kicked our collective butt by putting a huge dent in our ability to maintain relationships so necessary for keeping our social gears greased and running smoothly.  Grabbing coffee with a friend or meeting up for lunch in order to “catch up” with one another are activities that in times past we took for granted.  Meetings nowadays (both work related and social) are done primarily via Zoom.  Even a doctor’s visit can be accomplished electronically—a mode that, in my opinion, leaves much to be desired.

Besides feeing socially deprived over the past year, I’ve experienced a number of other losses.  I’ll mention a few of them, but am not prepared to write about the ones that sting the most. I gave up my house in Richmond, Virginia, and moved to a high-rise condominium just down the road.  I’ve yet to make it “home.”  Halfway through the Spring semester, all classes at the university where I taught went online. The Fall semester followed suit, delivering classes (mainly) online.  I didn’t want to box myself in on a screen.  I find classroom interaction meaningful in a way that I cannot replicate on Zoom.  I gave up teaching.  In August, I drove to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and have been here ever since except for a brief visit in September to New Jersey for my brother’s funeral—another loss.

There have been some positive happenings as well.  In New Mexico, I live two doors down from my daughter and son-in-law.  Even though most of the state is shut down due to COVID-19, my yard has been spruced up with new rock and cacti.  I now enjoy sitting outside under the pergola.  The midday sun warms me down to my bones.  Our small family gets together for “happy hour” every evening—something that helps us feel whole.

But still, this calendar year has been shrouded in grief—a grief I feel viscerally.  I began seeing a therapist in February.  She asked, “Why are you here?”  I simply said, “Grief.  It’s overwhelming me.”

I recently read Kathleen Glasgow’s YA (Young Adult) novel, How to Make Friends with the Dark, a story about 16-year-old Grace attempting to just get through every day after her mother suddenly dies.  I understand Grace when she looks into the mirror and says, “…the girl who stares back looks haunted, like she’s been scooped out from the inside, like she’s lost twenty pounds in a day….I rest a hand on my chest.  How is it physically possible for a heart to be beating so fast and a person doesn’t die?  I feel like I’m going to split open any minute.”

At her mother’s funeral, Grace experiences “[t]he wet cement feeling….A thousand bricks on my chest….A whole canyon forming in me, immense and desolate…. I have no idea how I am going to live with such a giant piece of sadness in my body all the time, knowing it will never get any smaller.”

Grace resists attending a “grief” group led by one of her high school teachers because “Adults always say they want you to tell them how you feel, but when you do, they mostly just tell you to try to feel another way….It would be nice if once, someone would just say, ‘Girl, you are in the shit and you will not be getting out soon.  So here’s how to make friends with the dark.’”

Viktor Frankl (1905 – 1997) was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor.  He’s probably best known for his book Man’s Search for Meaning.  He founded the school of what he named “logotherapy,” healing through finding meaning.

This is one of Frankl’s famous quotes:  “A man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.”

Frankl’s solution is to seek meaning in whatever circumstances you find yourself.  His popular book gives an account of Frankl himself discovering meaning while suffering in the Nazi concentration camps during World War 2.  Frankl channeled what energy he had to move forward with meaning and purpose.

All well and good, but how does one accomplish that?  I think that at times when we suffer from overwhelming grief, we are so intent on getting over it that we don’t allow ourselves to sit with our grief and feel the anguished sadness.  Perhaps we could then express (painting, writing, and dance come to mind) that raw pain that sits like “a thousand bricks on my chest.”

Maybe rituals surrounding death and loss nourish a friendship with the dark.  “Shiva,” a Jewish ritual, allows space for people to grieve the death of a loved one as friends and relatives gather with the bereaved family for seven days to mourn and pray.  The community helps to sustain those who have suffered loss.

In Argentina, where I grew up, many women wore black for a year after the death of a family member.  Men wore a black armband when they experienced the passing of a relative or friend.  It signaled that the wearer was grieving and temporarily fragile.

Slogging through the messiness of grief is foreign to me.  My fundamentalist upbringing frowned on paying any attention to sadness.  After all, look how God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  We had no mourning rituals.  The deceased went immediately to Jesus’ arms.  What’s to mourn?

I, like Grace, would like to be able to make friends with the dark, move through the mire of sorrow, and then come out on the other side transformed with renewed energies for living life more fully.  Perhaps a first step is to just sit with the dark and open up myself to its possibilities.


Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently stepped away from teaching and now splits her time between New Mexico and Virginia.

Categories: Books, Gratitude, Grief, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , ,

28 replies

  1. Esther it seems to me that there is a family of women (and some men) grieving with you. May we find nourishment in the dark, as you say; and perhaps your own mourning rituals. Thank you for your writing here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I hear you Esther. Grief needs to be felt and honored before we “move on.” Of course grief for some losses never ends, but it does get easier. Denise Levertov once counseled making grief space for grief comparing it to an old dog who sits under the porch of the house.


    • What a great image, Carol. “An old dog who sits under the porch of the house.” Since writing this piece, I’ve read Megan Devine’s book, IT’S OK THAT YOU’RE NOT OK. I don’t usually like this genre (self-help), however, her book is exceptional. Among so many other things, she’s critical of our culture–one that doesn’t allow for grieving properly. Thanks for commenting.


      • Talking To Grief

        Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
        like a homeless dog
        who comes to the back door
        for a crust, for a meatless bone.
        I should trust you.

        I should coax you
        into the house and give you
        your own corner,
        a worn mat to lie on,
        your own water dish.

        You think I don’t know you’ve been living
        under my porch.
        You long for your real place to be readied
        before winter comes. You need
        your name,
        your collar and tag. You need
        the right to warn off intruders,
        to consider
        my house your own
        and me your person
        and yourself
        my own dog.
        Denise Levertov

        Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s also showing respect to the processes of grieving. “Getting over it” may very well be a myth. At the time of my father’s passing, now about ten years ago, I was told to take 3 weeks and then get in with it. It was an outrage. I doubled over at the kitchen sink just last night at a memory of him. This goes for any kind of loss obviously.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A wonderful and insightful post. Thank you. I don’t think we ever “get over” grieving, I think we can only be transformed by it, for better or worse, and positive transformation happens when we allow ourselves to live through it, exactly as you say. In ancient times, people were able to participate in grief by ritually honoring goddesses who had been bereaved and perhaps we can learn from this that living through times of grief has its own sacredness. We need to live with it, honor it, and remember that without love there would be no grief, whether that is love of a person, action, or the Earth.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Carolyn, for your beautiful comment. We are not set up in our culture to mourn and grieve. We carry around so much sadness with us, I believe, because we don’t allow ourselves to feel the pain of loss. Am just beginning to learn how to do this.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Viktor Frankl is one of my favorite authors. Man’s Search for Meaning has been extremely influential over my life. It has helped me to find meaning in the abuse I suffered as a child, as well as in the other traumas of my life which in turn has been consequential in my own healing.

    Sorry you had to give up teaching. I imagine there is more grief in that. I hope you find something that replaces that part of your life.

    May the dark enfold you in a cocoon-like field enfolding and holding you in earthly energy until you are ready for other adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Janet. Love your last sentence: “May the dark enfold you in a cocoon-like field enfolding and holding you in earthly energy until you are ready for other adventures.”


  6. Esther, I have just re -read my December dreams and see the theme of grieving appearing over and over – from inside to outside – for me there is little difference between the two. Grief just is – we don’t get over it – we return again and again to those cycles if we are living in our bodies… Just now we are all dealing with so much collective grief – add that to personal losses and it is easy to become overwhelmed. Fortunately these cycles do turn. I am so glad that you have a little family to be with during this time of transition and I deeply appreciate the depth of your honesty. As a culture we are so inept and unable to deal with grief – we are taught patriarchy’s way – its a linear process not a circular one if we are allowed to grieve at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this post, Esther, your honesty and depth. Just what I needed to read today–and many other days.


  8. Thank you, Elizabeth, for your lovely comment.


  9. Thanks, Esther, for this depiction of your grief and the ways you are dealing with it. One of the authors who helped me through a period of grief was Elizabeth Kugler-Ross. Her five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining with a higher power, depression and acceptance — were markers that helped me understand what I was going through. Of course, we don’t necessarily experience them in that order or even one at a time. But I dipped into each of them at least once on my way to acceptance of my loss. For me, knowing that anger and bargaining with a higher power were part of my grieving was extremely helpful. The dark has many aspects.


    • I think it’s important to note that some more recent research grief work suggests that we don’t move through these stages but rather return again and again on a cyclic basis. Certainly the latter has been my personal experience


  10. Thank you, Nancy, for commenting. I really like your reminder that the “dark has many aspects.” Feel I need to become acquainted with them!


  11. Grief , in its many forms, has been quite a constant companion of mine through the years. Now a new grief, the death of my son, Jonathan, has grabbed hold of my hand and heart. Do I view it as friend or foe? Do I allow it to drown me in its ocean depths, or do I discover the oyster pearls hidden in its darkness? I love your title “Good? Grief”. Thank you for writing and for all the insightful responses here. I think of Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, fully acquainted with grief because of his love for us. I am finding fragments of thankfulness weaved among the dense fabric of pain. “Storm” by Fernando Ortega is a beautiful expression of finding joy through pain: “ Sometimes it takes a storm to really know the light. To understand indigo and the varnished sun lighting up the fields. I love you.”


    • Thank you, Joanie, for commenting. You seem to have attained some peace from your religious tradition which, I suppose, is one reason religion exists in the first place. Am glad for you. I have found, though, that the religious tradition in which I was raised and “lived in” for a time to be inadequate, even condescending and dismissive. (Of course, it’s the not the tradition per se, but how some people within those traditions behave.) But still….the assumption that someone (Jesus) suffered vicariously for humanity and is acquainted with grief, is not comforting to me. And sometimes there are no pearls to find in the grief. Grief just plain sucks! Am beginning to understand that grief can be a companion.


      • Could the Christianity that we experienced have been a misrepresentation of the whole truth? Grace and Love were MIA.


        • I think the Christianity we experienced “came off” as knowing the whole truth. One of my favorite authors, Reza Aslan, says that religion is not inherently violent, nor is it peaceful. If you are a peaceful person, your religion will be peaceful. If you are a violent person, your religion will be violent. Miss you……


  12. Have you read Learning To Walk in The Dark? You might like that. You might also like Rachel’s Cry – a book about the psalms of lament. A full third of the psalms are laments – and my Methodist tradition has always taught me that we are to grieve when the Spirit says grieve– to cry and rage and storm and wail – because the example is right there in the Psalms, and because the Bible is full of people weeping when they are sad, and because there are no shortcuts through grief. You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley. Ain’t nobody else can walk it for you. So I am very, very glad that you are embracing grief. I hope it brings you much wellness. There’s a great book called The Mindful Way Through Depression that is wonderful for this kind of thing, too, just accepting feelings rather than feeling ashamed of them. Highly recommend. I hope and pray your journey will be full of exactly the sorts of comfort and solace you find best for you. Peace to you. <3


  13. Thank you, Trelawney, for your kind comment as well as the book recommendations. Will check them out.


  14. Great post, Esther!

    I know that I will never get over grief, and honestly, I don’t want to. Grief has transformed me and grown with me. I move forward in life with my grief rather than despite it and I give it the space that it deserves because I will always miss my mum :)

    Take care!

    Katie x


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