Sacred Solitude

October 1, 2009

Grieving requires tremendous energy.  That’s why we sometimes find ourselves inexplicably exhausted during the grief process.  It takes everything in us to lean into the wind of loss.  But what choice do we have?  If we are approaching our grief consciously, all we can do is show up for the experience and do the work.

Because of the demands of grieving, most of us find ourselves craving solitude at various times.  We have this sense that if we could just be alone, we could concentrate on what’s happening inside us, and honor our loved ones with our undivided attention.  Even those who are otherwise extroverted may sometimes need to withdraw from all distractions to grapple with their loss.  It is like the instinct an injured animal has to find a cave and tend to its wounds.

The literature on grief used to refer to this impulse as “isolation” – the companion to “denial” – but both terms are misleadingly negative.  “Isolation” makes it sound like the need to be alone is delusional and dangerous.  I would assert that the attraction toward solitude is a healthy response to grief and loss.  As long as we don’t get lost in that wilderness and forget our way back to the circle of humanity, time by ourselves is essential for integrating our loss into the whole of our lives.

When my daughter Jenny died in 2001, I was struck by the conviction that I did not want to miss a minute of the experience.  I had this sense that I would be wasting a precious opportunity if I were to distract myself or focus exclusively on finding relief for my pain.  I could not articulate what that “opportunity” was, but I knew that my task was to show up for it, as completely and as consciously as I was able.

This fierce need for solitude does not always present itself in clear and responsible ways.  Sometimes, as it did for me, it manifests as irritability with the ones we love, who may want only to take away our pain.  Starved for time alone, we may lash out at the people closest to us, in an unconscious effort to push them away so that we can get on with the difficult and solitary task at hand: coming to grips with the extraordinary magnitude of our loss, and the radical way it is transforming who we are.  We intuitively understand that no one else can do this work for us.

The grief process is ever changing.  All kinds of people will have all kinds of opinions on the way you are grieving.  In my community, someone would ask someone else how Mirabai was doing, and that person would answer, “She’s having a terrible time.  Just terrible.”  Maybe the person who was presuming to report on the matter had said something trite and insensitive to me in the grocery store — like Jenny was now “in a better place” — and I had responded by walking away without a word.

When someone else asked yet another person how I was, this self-appointed expert on MY grief might answer that I was amazing, that my daughter’s death had brought out the deepest wisdom and compassion in me.  Perhaps this second authority on the matter had encountered me in a moment in which my heart was blown open by the rush of grace that sometimes accompanies profound sorrow.  Both people were well meaning, but neither realized that grief shatters the container of our former self, and that in this newly vast space, there is room for everything.

Solitude is sacred.  It is an appropriate response to the awesome significance of what has happened to you when someone you love dies.  If you get caught in isolation, the benefits of being alone become diluted.  Maybe the best approach is to reassure the people who care about you that you feel strongly about the rightness of being by yourself sometimes.  Then, ask them to check in with you if they start to feel that you are drifting too far from the shores of human contact, and to throw you a life-line if it seems you are in danger of getting lost.

3 Responses to “Sacred Solitude”

  1. Brenda said

    A very wise, mature woman, upon the death of her grandson, said “I am just tucking in for awhile”. I like that. The picture of the injured animal you gave is similar. To lick our wounds, to tend to what is going on inside of us. I, like many, find the danger lies in the fact that tucking in is so comfortable, we are reluctant to “untuck”.

  2. Wonderful, precise, evocative quote, Brenda! And the red flag you wave is of great service. With winter coming, it’s even easier to get lost in that cozy cave, isn’t it?

  3. Hi Mirabai,
    I have followed your work and am always deeply moved by your words and you have a great gift of expressing the deepest emotions in such a clear way. I have been thinking of the myth of Icarus these last few days and I am struck by some of the words you use to describe grief. They often have fire and burning in them as an analogy and how the spiritual transformation can be one of searing pain. I would be interested in your thoughts . I have just started to put some stuff on Icarus on my blog – Blue Eyed Ennis – if you want to visit, it would be great. I am beginning to realise that I could do a whole blog on this one theme ! There are other things there of interest too. Hope to hear from you soon. Keep up the good work!!

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