Some Thoughts on Grief (and a poem that brought me back to life)

Healing from divorce is a long process.  Everyone eventually recovers and finds happiness, but the first year or two is more about grief than new life.  I wish it could be different, but that’s just the way it is for most people.

Personally I’ve experienced grief twice in my life, and both times it felt overwhelming.  Thanks to genetics (for which I can’t take any credit), it has generally been easy for me to find joy and satisfaction in my daily life without much effort. Yet during those years of grief, I felt lost inside and I couldn’t find that person I had once been.

That’s the scariest part of grief — the feeling that you’re not yourself anymore and you can’t pull yourself out of a darkness that seems to have enveloped your insides and your thoughts and sometimes even your very soul.  There’s a children’s movie called “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” and toward the end of the movie, there’s a scene where Mr. Magorium has died and all the toys lose their color and the toy store becomes shrouded in black and gray.   That’s how I felt when I was lost in grief.  It was paralyzing and consuming and felt at the time like it would never end.

At the point that I was struggling to come back to life inside, when I had just started to take baby steps trying to move forward but was still floundering, a good friend read this Ellen Bass poem to me over the phone.


The thing is
to love life
to love it even when you have no
stomach for it, when everything you’ve held
dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands
and your throat is filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you so heavily
it is like heat, tropical, moist
thickening the air so it’s heavy like water
more fit for gills than lungs.
When grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief.
How long can a body withstand this, you think,
and yet you hold life like a face between your palms,
a plain face, with no charming smile
or twinkle in her eye,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

-Ellen Bass

At the point my friend got to the verse “. . . and yet you hold life like a face between your palms, a plain face, with no charming smile or twinkle in her eye, and you say, yes, I will take you, I will love you again,”  I felt myself break down into unexpected sobs.

That line did it for me because I realized this is exactly what I hadn’t wanted to do and had been resisting.  I hadn’t wanted to embrace my broken world and my broken heart and all the disappointment and sadness and loss and imperfection that had come into my life.  I didn’t want to take that ugly little face that was my life at that time into my hands and accept it.  I wanted my life to go back to how it had been before, and I was rejecting the brokenness in me and in the world in which I live.

Another truth hit me in the face at that moment too—that rejecting my own life was keeping me suffering.  I couldn’t change or undo the past.   I couldn’t undo the losses I’d experienced or the inhumane acts I’d witnessed that had caused such a spiritual crisis.  I needed to accept that the gaping holes inside me were always going to be there, and were now a part of the fabric of my being.

Acceptance was also about letting go of the innocence of youth.  I hadn’t wanted to believe that bad things do happen to good people.  It broke my heart to see this and accept that it’s a part of life.  The greatest act of courage and hope, I decided, would be to take my life as it was dealt to me and also embrace the world with all its flaws and injustices.

Moving beyond grief is really all about acceptance.  Not resignation, but acceptance. Resignation is giving up.  Acceptance is saying, “Indeed, bad things happen—in fact, sometimes really bad things happen and people are cruel—but I believe enough in myself and in my life that I’m not going to throw it away over what has passed.”  Acceptance is about saying yes to life even when it’s not fair, even when there are wrongdoings and bad actors who have harmed you and others you love.

I wish I could say that once I had that realization, all the grief was gone and I was back to my former self.  Well, you know that only happens in the movies.  It wasn’t that dramatic or instant, but it was definitely a turning point.  My heart cracked open, just enough to let in a little light so I could remember who I used to be.  That person was still there, I saw, just buried beneath the grief.

To get out of the spiritual hole I’d fallen into, I had to follow that light– which meant stopping the pattern of ruminating on the past and the wrongs I’d witnessed, and even those which had been done to me. Dwelling on the past does nothing more than refuel one’s anger and resentment over and over again.  I should know, I did a lot of that and it did nothing more than keep me in a cycle of pain and sadness.

To return to the true self – to regain hope and faith and optimism about the future –  I finally had to accept the past with all its ugliness and sadness, and say, as Ellen Bass would say, “yes, life, I will take you, I will love you again,” in spite of it all.


  • Carol Balawyder

    I am sorry for your grief. It does take time to heal. But, in the end, we do come out stronger, a better person for having suffered. That is the consolation of suffering.

  • apatton

    This experience I wrote about was a long time ago, and now with time and perspective, I would agree that I’ve become a deeper, stronger person as a result. Suffering isn’t anything I’d wish on a person but it is such a part of life. And yet I think that for many of us, we don’t expect it in our comfortable American life and are so often taken by surprise when our world is turned upside down. I’ve had relatively little suffering in my life and perhaps that’s why this particular experience I wrote about rocked my world. It was a sobering walk through the dysfunction and cruelty of people and organizations, and it indeed deepened my compassion and empathy for the suffering people go through in this world. I never forgot that Ellen Bass poem and my moment of truth, so I decided it was time to write about it.

  • itiswhatitis

    I’m not even sure how I found myself on your website, but here I am. Nine months into what will soon be the end of a 28-year marriage and grieving that which was never supposed to end. I am here now, this place of acceptance after months and days and hours of denial and defiance of the big “D”. I’ve wasted so much time fighting my new reality, but here it is. In two days we begin to deconstruct 28 years of a life lived together with our collaborative team. My heart breaks, but I now have words to put to the experience as I hold this plain face between my hands, with no charming smile or twinkle in her eye, and say “yes, I will take you”. I will carefully nurture this face like I tried to nurture my marriage. I will kiss the tears off her cheeks. I will tenderly stroke her hair and tell her she is beautiful until she is. My new life…not so winsome right now, but with care and love, she will be. Thank you for this encouragement and for the vision of what will be.

    • Alison Patton

      To itiswhatitis: Your lovely comment was made almost 5 months ago and I am hoping you are faring well both emotionally and in the collaborative legal process. I hope you are still holding that plain face in your hands and loving it as it deserves to be loved. My best wishes to you and sending good thoughts your way.