Backpacking the Undiscovered Country

Once I had informed the Guardian Council of the Ruined Castles Of My Mind (RCOMM, also known as the voices in my rice krispies that advise my better angels) that I would commence the primrose Path of Bloggery, the ideas tumbled out of the interior woodwork. I can no longer take a shower or play a video game without some niggling inner pixie proposing an idea that wants developing. No cocktail napkin, grocery list or credit card receipt is safe from my scribblings. I believe it is a form of vengeance for all the years of resistance to pounding the keyboard for my own purposes (to clarify the nature of this particular perversity, when asked, I’ll cheerfully write – with verve, alacrity and occasional eloquence – for other people’s projects. However, much to the frequent frustration of friends and family, plunking my delicate posterior into a chair and writing my own projects is generally met with a couple of offstage snickers and a Hell no! from the darkly inner place of resistance – right next to the aversion to broccoli and slightly left to the anti-styrene response).

When commencing “Travels,” I had visions of being pithy but not too personal. In fact this week’s endeavor was going to be another rambling muse on a cause dear to my heart. Then I hit a grief pocket.

When one is in an airplane, there you are sitting – impossibly high off the ground going at some absurdly zippy pace – ignoring the fact that you are in a climate controlled aluminium can, when there’s a bump, perhaps some rattling and a precipitous drop. An air pocket. Sudden, unlooked for and possibly alarming, but the clever and well-trained pilots have everything well in hand, the airborne sardine can continues hurtling through the sky, and soon  you can press the call button to ask for another little bottle of indifferent chardonnay.

A grief pocket is similar (with perhaps larger bottles of better chardonnay).

After suffering a loss, no matter how catastrophic, we go through mourning, grieving, flapping around in small circles, &c, and then get on with our altered lives. However, for a good while after that recommencement, many – perhaps most – people encounter occasional moments when the grief returns: a sudden drop in emotional cabin pressure, if you will. My remaining brother and I call that a grief pocket. We both happen to think that it is important to honour these moments and take the time to acknowledge our loss.

 Since a grief pocket of considerable size derailed my day, you, dear reader, get some of Thalassa’s Ideas on Death and grieving (a promissory note is issued for a return to the more regular sort of essay soon).

Ours is a culture that is about as comfortable with Death as a chihuahua in a tiger cage.  Since at least the middle of the last century in the West, for most people death has increasingly taken place in a hospital setting away from friends and family. Our memorial traditions have gotten a tad tatty with imperfect use.

Shaking theirr fly fists at the Great Leveler, an army of experts thunder about how we can “lower the death rate” from [insert current dread disease, leering safety hazard, glitchy gremlin o’doom here].  An ever- growing cultural mindset postulates that if one simply eats right, exercises, avoids [insert  health bogeyman here] one can somehow live forever. We focus on fighting disease, and by extension death.

Alas, Nature does not oblige us. The death rate remains the same – one per. If half the energy was expended on living a good life (and preparing to make a good death) I suspect we would find ourselves, personally and culturally, in a very different place (and you may be assured that that’s another installment of “Travels”).

Our discomfort with death extends to a certain unease with mourning. We so often do not know what to do or how to feel. The rites of funereal passage are for the living to help deal with the loss, and they are sad weak things in these latter days (btw, I think that the shrines that are so swiftly erected after a death are a healthily irrational response to the passing of a human life).  

When someone dies, they leave a hole in the lives and hearts of those around them. The mourning rituals of all ages exist to help the living cope with that hole, but the truth is that one never really gets “over” the passing of a loved one. The terrain of the heart simply shifts around the gap. Even if you didn’t get along with someone, or they were dreadful, their death still leaves a hole, but with those who we love and lose the hole is large and ragged and remains raw for a length of time that varies from bereaved to bereaved. If we can acknowledge that, learn to sit with that, then our grief matters and our loss has a recognized place in our lives. The chasm opens and you miss someone (or several someones) but it is something to be held in the open hand not locked away in some dark pie safe of the soul where it can fester and make uglier scars.

Thus, when a cascade of events brought an avalanche of renewed suffering today, I honoured it. I wept,  leaned (albeit as gently as I could) on friends, moved gently around the wound. Stop, drop, roll, as it were.

What is remembered lives. What we have loved and lost remains a part of us. We need to get better at making it part of our culture to acknowledge death, grief and mourning in a healthier and more supportive way. For my part I start where my feet are planted, and raise a toast to those who have left me on this side. 



  1. I agree that we don’t “get over” death, but rather we do our best to integrate it, to weave it into the fabric of who we are. The interesting twist in our culture is that it’s scared as heck of natural death, but deals out artifical death abundantly (think chemicals, weapons, etc.).

  2. This nudges what I was trying to enunciate last night about the 5 of Cups: Acknowledging what has gone, honoring the need to mourn before striving to “move on.” Thank you for your clarity of expression on the culturally-unspoken.

  3. sfpete · · Reply

    Dearest Thalassa — that was a beautiful post and it contains much wisdom. Death is pretty scary. Being a “survived by” is, I think, the harder responsibility in the process. I think your phrase “The terrain of the heart simply shifts around the gap” is beautiful in its simplicity and very eloquent. You do always bear the loss and the feeling of being without. To this day I still sometimes wish I could pick up the phone and call my mom to tell her about something that happened in my day or something I read. The ache is somewhat less now, but it is as you say, I’ve adjusted to the reality of that missing piece. I thought this writing was honest and, even though it deals with a somber subject, was delivered with wit and the humor necessary to help each of us get back into the light. Grieving isn’t all that linear. It is most appropriate to stop and take a moment when those feelings of loss and sadness wash over you — whenever they happen. Your friends will always understand and be there for you.

  4. Beautifully said, and absolutely right. (As always.) I find that grief pockets occur on expected days (the deceased’s birthday, or a holiday), and that they also spring up on completely random days for no discernible reason. Then, if at all possible, one takes the day – or at least a few hours – out of the mad rush of quotidian demands to accept and feel whatever is going on rather than trying to struggle against the feelings and bravely soldier through the day. Duty calls, and sometimes, that duty is to one’s own healing rather than the external obligations and commitments that consume our days.

  5. Cheryl Ryder · · Reply

    Coming as it has, nearly on the eve of the day when my Mom was lost in a car accident (March 16th), I am suddenly struck by the intensity of my memories of her. In this particular year, events have arranged themselves in a rather seredipitous fashion. This year, I shall be able to do more than raise a glass in toast of my Mom’s incredible life. I shall be on the field of Eagle Community Park, Belen NM, and at approximately 7 A.M. a host of nearly 40 hot air balloons will launch en masse towards the heavens. She always did love Christmas Ornaments, and I have the opportunity to toast her with a whole bunch! To Mom! And I hope she smiles at the sight of them nearly as much as I smile whenever I read something that Thalassa has written.

    1. That is lovely, Cheryl. Thank you.

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