Because of my personal history, the majority of which I wasn’t acquainted with until I was 49 years old, I have a lot of grieving to do. The agony hits me night after night, all in a row, then, 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 sense the pain welling up in my throat. Later, usually once I am in bed, I feel this weight on my chest, like a heavy, cold, pile of books pressing down firmly, imperially. My chest gets colder and colder at the center, right at my sternum, and my whole body becomes rigid, like there is rebar running down my back. My throat gets so tight it hurts. Then I can’t speak. I’m unable to even force a word out. I’m breathless.
I start to sigh, heavily, wearily, as the first waves hit me. Like nausea, I usually try to avoid grief; my instinct is to try 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 massive. It’s loud. It’s exhausting. I’m often howling, shaking my head, trying to push off the pain with my hands flailing at nothing. I’m regularly writhing in pain, fending off the evil memories. My whole body is rigid at first; even my toes are wrenched up. Then I start to melt, like ice, the sadness coursing through me, and finally the grief exiting my body. 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.
If your history contains evil, if you know wickedness intimately, then expressing grief is your only 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 will be that you carry around inside of your heart; this spiritual toxic waste is the byproduct of what happened to you. One hallmark of that pile of waste are nagging feelings of ugliness, terror, and rage. My resistance to expressing grief never changes. I don’t want to do it; however, I know that 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.
Rage is the self-gratifying spiritual reply to an unjust personal history. If you were powerless back then, the delusion is that rage is power. There is the destructive instinct to be angry rather than sad. 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 beat the spiritual toxic waste out of yourself with rage. You can’t numb it with food, money, television, 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 any other means aside from unfettered grief will only exacerbate 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 endless despair. Then you wind up hating God, 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 (275miles). 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 was essentially thrusting myself onto a blue screen. Whatever evil I experienced was shit I brought with me, because where we were contained 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, 2 years later, I’m still crying.
The unprocessed filth from my past is an abomination, utterly hideous in every respect, and it’s inside of me, embedded in me firmly. I used to think I served it. I used to believe that this filth was definitive instead of symptomatic. But the filth can’t survive my grief. 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, a sure knowledge that what was heinous is now pure, that what was rage is now strength, that what was senseless is now meaningful.
I can’t change what happened. I can choose from a nearly unlimited number of self-gratifying replies to the things that were done to me when I was a humiliated, terrorized girl. Or I can submit myself to the helpless waves of grief that my heart urges me to endure, and when I am bathed in my own tears I find that no evil can resist the power of my heart’s grief.
I know the power of grief like I know my name. When I grieve, the evil, solid, massive, vile torment in my heart is not only defused, but distilled and transfigured by grief’s crucible into a substance of equal and utterly opposite spiritual composition that liberates me where I was moments before enslaved. 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 anymore.