As I write this, Tom and his crew from T & J’s Excavating are taking down half a dozen oak trees that were uprooted or otherwise destroyed during several recent storms. The chainsaw sounds like a dentist’s drill, we can feel the earth shaking when an enormous bough or trunk comes plummeting to the earth.
Losing trees is part of our reality
We live, after all, on over four acres of deciduous forest. While you might be tempted to assure us that this is part of the cycle of nature (it is), there’s a grief over the loss of these giants. Oak trees are keystone plants that support dozens of other native species of butterflies, other insects and birds. Even the dying and decaying trees provide homes for cavity nesting birds and feeding ground for the woodpecker species that fly through the woods in fluted arched patterns throughout from morning to night. And there’s an undeniable violence to these deaths in the woods. An upheaval and then a pause before the toppling, a crack and the sound of thunder, the crushing weight of one tree upon another.
This isn’t really about trees of course
It is, in part, about grief. As an oncologist, as a human being, I am no stranger to grief. It is not possible to live on this earth without facing loss and grief. It is not possible to ignore suffering in our families, our friends, and our communities. We cannot live on what Byron Katie calls “Earth School” without experiencing loss. We have many ways to experience the emotion of grief. Some of us may feel, for example, sad, angry, lonely, confused. We may feel empty. And we will of course feel other emotions, all at one time or more like beads on a string or marbles in a bowl.
As an oncologist, as a human being, I am no stranger to grief. It is not possible to live on this earth without facing loss and grief.
Grief is an intricate tapestry of emotions that arise when we experience loss, whether it be the loss of a loved one, a job, a relationship, or even a dream. It’s the raw, unfiltered emotional response to that loss. It’s the tears that flow freely when we think of the person or thing we’ve lost. It’s the numbness that can envelop us, making it difficult to focus on anything else. I have learned from observing others grieve and through my own grief that grief knows no timeline. It doesn’t adhere to expectations or norms. It’s a deeply personal journey. Some may grieve intensely for a short period while others might experience waves of grief over an extended period.
This is really about mourning
Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. It’s the ritual, the ceremony, the tangible ways we remember and honor what we’ve lost. Mourning will take various forms across cultures, including the culture of a family. Mourning can take the shape of a memorial service or funeral. It may mean creating memorials both private and public. It may be as simple as sharing stories and memories with others.
Mourning can give shape to our grief
It offers a communal space for us to come together, share our pain, and collectively find solace. It’s a way to externalize our internal emotions and connect with others who are going through similar experiences. Mourning can provide relief and connection.
Marshall Rosenberg, author of Non-Violent Communication, includes mourning as one of the universal human needs and furthermore, defines a need as “life seeking expression in us.” Thus, mourning is life seeking expression. It is hardly about death at all.
Many of us grew up in families where grief was present but mourning was not
There are families in which, after someone dies, that person’s name is no longer spoken. Whether this is an explicit request (in the hope of suppressing pain) or an unspoken rule (in the hope of suppressing pain), blunting grief does not work. Grief will rise up, seep out, crawl along, and spread throughout the house. Avoiding grief robs the living of the beauty of mourning. Without mourning, grief can get stuck like a lump in the throat.
Mourning a [loss] is not always easy. As a culture we tend to be uncomfortable with outward expressions of grief. We sometimes feel ashamed or weak if we show our innermost feelings, yet the truth is, it takes strength and perseverance to mourn.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Understanding Your Grief
The gashes in our forest are like fresh wounds. As I finish up these notes on mourning, the last of the branches are being thrown into the wood chipper to be used as mulch. I know that new life will grow from the forest floor–ferns and mayapples, blueberries and trillium–and that maybe even a redbud or two will find enough light to take purchase in the parts of the woods that have been dark as night. And I use these words as a way of marking the grief for the mighty trees that died as an unmerciful storm swept across the woods around our house.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
A time to be born, and a time to die
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted
A time to kill, and a time to heal
A time to break down, and a time to build up
A time to weep, and a time to laugh
A time to mourn, and a time to dance
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose
A time to keep, and a time to cast away
A time to rend, and a time to sew
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak
A time to love, and a time to hate
A time of war, and a time of peace.
Ecclesiastes 3, KJV