The Matchbook Diaries


#6 The Liberating Power of Grief

This is a very modest version of a Styrofoam-carrying cyclist in Guangzhou, China where we lived. You often saw people peddling with twice or 3 times this amount.

I have a lot of grieving to do.  The agony hits me night after night. Once in a while, I have a night or two when I am not crying.  More often than not, as the sun begins to set, my heart starts to race.  Over the hours that run from twilight to darkness, I feel dread.  Once I am in bed, I feel a heavy, cold, pile of terror pressing down.  My chest gets colder and colder at the center, right at my sternum, and my whole body becomes rigid.  My throat gets so tight it hurts.  I can’t speak.   I start to sigh, heavily.  As with nausea, I try to avoid grief; my instinct is to push it off.  But just like nausea, there is always that terrible tipping point when you know for sure that you’re just going to have to do it.  So you topple off your platform of self-control and let go.  My grief is loud and exhausting.  I’m often howling, shaking my head, trying to push off the pain with my hands, flailing at nothing. Even my toes are wrenched up.

Later I start to melt, like ice, the sadness coursing through me.  All the rigidity is gone when I’m finished.  My body feels loose, I’m collapsing, and physically I’m almost helpless.  I often stop in the middle, thinking it’s over, only to resume a moment later.  Even writing about the process makes me sigh deeply.  When I start, I think my sadness is bottomless but within an hour or two I know that my grief, for that night, has an end, and, that another part of my pain has exited permanently.

If you know wickedness intimately, life can feel weirdly meaningless. Expressing grief is a path to meaning.  If a predator has had his or her way with you when you were helpless, you are left with the filth of their act in your heart.  The more exposure you had, the larger the pile of spiritual filth you carry around inside of your heart; this spiritual toxic waste is the byproduct of what happened to you.  Hallmarks of that waste are nagging feelings of ugliness, terror, and rage.  My resistance to expressing grief never changes.  I don’t want to do it.

Grief is a gift from God.  Like material toxic waste, spiritual toxic waste is impossible to dispose of by any reasonable means.  You can’t ignore it and make it disappear.  Anger and hate are the common, fruitless responses to pain.  Rage is the self-gratifying reply to an unjust personal history.  If you were powerless then, the delusion is that rage is power.  If rage worked, I’d have been emptied of my personal pain long ago.  I don’t break other peoples’ things, but I’m excellent at breaking my own and at being incredibly reckless; many times I’ve done things that ought to have resulted in my death.  If rage is a step in grief, and maybe it is, it’s assuredly not the final one.  The one thing that seems, looks, and feels helpless –  submission to raw grief – is the one thing you can do that has unparalleled power.

You can’t numb pain with food, money, television, sex, alcohol, or drugs.  You can’t hide from it under a layer of body fat, ill health, consumer debt, fucked up relationships, compulsive behavior, or professional failure/success.  Attacking inner filth by any of these or other means aside from unfettered grief will only exacerbate and embed your own suffering and lend power to your pain whilst you rob yourself of energy and dignity.  Shake your fist at evil and evil is delighted that you’ve chosen to play its game.  You can’t win.  Evil always wants you to play games you can’t win because the end goal of evil is to produce in you endless despair.  Then you wind up hating God and yourself and everyone else for the horror that happened to you when you were too young to protect yourself.

One summer we hiked 440 kilometers (275 miles).  My husband, my 11-year-old son, and I were often utterly alone for entire days together, in the perpetual brightness of the arctic in summer.  In the vast empty wild for 40 days, I thrust myself onto a blue screen.  Whatever evil I experienced out there was shit I brought with me, because where we were had zero distractions, zero pollution from commerce, crowds, internet, or any mechanized items.  As I shook my impotent fists at the Swedish mountains I knew that I carried hell inside of me and spread it like a cancer, like nuclear fallout, as I entered a place.  After that summer I began to grieve nightly in earnest, nearly without interruption, and now, years later, I’m still crying, though slightly less.

The unprocessed filth from my past is an abomination; it’s firmly embedded inside of me.  I am a slave to that darkness until I cry.  Inner filth is symptomatic, but not definitive.  Grief is the weapon of power I wield that not only removes the filth, but transforms the core of it into power, beauty, and wisdom.  In the aftermath of terrific grief I feel a keen, fresh feeling. What was heinous is now pure; what was rage is now strength; what was senseless is now meaningful.

I can’t change what happened.  I can choose from an unlimited number of self-gratifying replies to the things that were done to me as a humiliated, terrorized girl.  Or I can submit myself to the helpless waves of grief that my heart urges me to endure. Evil cannot resist the power of grief.  Grief defuses, distills and transfigures residual evil.  In grief’s crucible the collateral damage you know that humiliates and disempowers you is changed into a substance of equal and utterly opposite spiritual composition.  After grief, what has happened to you has meaning; your history makes you wise, beautiful, and strong.  Use grief, and your own pain will not be able to use you.