The Blessings of Complicated Grief

“No motion has she now, no force; / She neither hears nor sees; / Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

-William Wordsworth, “Lucy”

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the birth and death of a poet-friend’s son. Today we finished packing baby items originally bought for our own son, James, to pass along to our nephew-to-be in Australia. No life is simple. But while most Americans are firing up their grills or caravanning to the beach to enjoy the easy pleasures of a three-day weekend, I find myself sifting through a tangle of thoughts and feelings that seem, well, complex.

The clinical term for a sometimes-debilitating sadness that persists long after the moment of loss is “complicated grief.” The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide online says that “the disorder is more likely to occur after a death that is traumatic–premature, sudden, violent, or unexpected,” and the Mayo Clinic website cites “risk factors” such as “being unprepared for the death,” and “in the case of a child’s death, the number of remaining children.”

Loss is never simple. However, if I were to try to define a corollary to this condition, called “simple grief,” an illustrative example would be the death of a grandparent who had been sick for some time, and who had lived a long and happy life. Such a loss fits the framework of most cultural beliefs about the natural and acceptable cycles of life and death. The death of a child, or suicide of a loved one, however, do not.

And so, the complication, for me, became existential. Without the agreed-upon societal mythos about life and death to guide me toward resolution, I have had to come to terms with, and make meaning from, this experience anew. A lifetime of spiritual studies taught me that any situation, no matter how intense, could be used to learn and grow. Losing our son, and not being able to have another child, tested this belief intensely.

One of the great blessings James brought was my return to poetry. It is through poetry that I have been able to relate to the the complexity of this grief–and the complexity of life itself–on its own terms, without, as Keats put it, “irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Another blessing that has come from this experience is compassion. Val recently pointed me toward “Glow in the Woods,” a blog dedicated to supporting bereaved parents. But it is not only parents, but anyone suddenly plunged beneath the surface of life’s apparent simplicity, who has my heart.

Persistent and ubiquitous marketing messages teach us that life is simple–with simple problems and simple solutions (for a price). In fact, most of the messages we receive on a daily basis seem designed to try to keep us relating to life superficially–to mask out disease, suffering, and trauma, and keep us focused on cycles of short-term gratification. And so, there are few external reference points for navigating the deeper waters when something unexpected and traumatic occurs. Yet this too has been a blessing for me. I turned inward, to my own experiences, and the wealth of spiritual teachings I had studied up to this point, to guide me toward a refreshed understanding of what it means to live.

This deep disillusionment and reawakening was one of the greatest blessings of a complicated grieving. And so, while I agree that it is important to find ways to return to a healthy, productive life, and to reconnect with joy and hope after a trauma, I also see how grief triggered in me a more profound examination of the complexities of life. In this examination, it seems to me that the ways in which we, as a society, train ourselves and each other to blot out unpleasantness and to project an image of success based on consumption is, in fact, the real, and rampant, psychological “disorder.”

I keep listening to a musical setting by The Divine Comedy of Wordsworth’s “Lucy.” In the version I have, the accompaniment stops before the final word of the song, and there is something compelling about the vulnerability of Neil Hannon’s progressively-less-musically-supported voice pronouncing the final words: “with rocks, and stones, and trees.”

In hearing it over and over, I have come to see “Lucy” as a poem of complicated grief, stemming from sudden loss. In the final lines, however, the speaker-griever experiences a moment of transcendence: ” A slumber did my spirit seal; / I had no human fears: / She seem’d a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years.” Following this, he experiences the simultaneously comforting and heartbreaking awareness that Lucy has become one with everything, no longer a particular individual he can love, but instead a part of the natural process, “Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

It is only through similar moments of elevation that I have begun to understand seemingly tragic events and circumstances–my own, or those of another–as part of the grandeur of the universe. Poetry allows me to relate to the complexity of human experience more on its own terms. Yet it, too, is insufficient–even as words are insufficient to capture moments of transcendence. It seems to me that the ultimate transcendence–the ultimate state of being in which all the contradictory, conflicting, beautiful, and traumatic aspects of human existence might be reconciled, and lovingly held, is what many religions call “God.” And so, a simple definition of God might be: the one who can abide all things, with love and understanding.

Wordsworth’s grieving speaker catches a glimpse of this consciousness in the final lines of “Lucy.” It is through facing down grief, in all its complications and implications that run contrary to the shallow surface of an unexamined life, that he reaches a state capable of containing, at once, so much pain and beauty, love and loss.