The Tumbleweed, the Flower and the Grief Wheel

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The Tumbleweed and the Flower by Michelle Katz

This week, I met a tumbleweed caught on a low laying branch.  Not normally a striking image here in the southwest, except that I found myself getting curious about this particular tumbleweed’s journey.  I thought of how it once lived on the landscape above the arroyo, I thought of how it was once deeply rooted into the ground, how it once bore leaves or flowers.  When suddenly, a wind came, strong, determined, powerful.  It unrooted this small scrub and carried it across the landscape, rolling it haphazardly into the cut in the earth, and now it stuck, immovable, being weathered by the elements.

On the mornings after the rains, on my daily walk, I also came to meet a single white, fully bloomed flower on the path.  It’s petals soft and pure, it’s stance and heart delicate, yet dominant.  It was beautiful and caused me to stop and be for as long as I could.  Though this in itself is enough to create awe, it was not what struck me the most about this interaction.  It was the return to meet it again, later in the day that struck me.  For when I returned, the flower was gone.  I did not know if it was picked, eaten, or simply shriveled up in the day’s heat.  The next morning, however, the flower revealed itself again, and the next evening, vanished without a trace.  I thought of this brave flower, able to open again and again, though the difficulties of the heat of the day clearly had it go underground again. 

I wondered if I could be so brave to open up again and again, or I was more like the tumbleweed, stuck and weathered.  Both meet the changes of their lives so differently, both teach a lesson in grief.

It occurs to me that moving through the stages of grief, is a journey around the medicine wheel. I walk the grief wheel.  Kubler-Ross spoke of the 5 stages of grief.  Some believe these stages happen in a sequence and build on each other to help us through these times of deep sorrow.  I, however, believe that these stages happen in a cycle.  Round and round we go, many times until we can feel acceptance, at the center of the wheel. 

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I walked barefoot in the sand.  It felt soft, cool; I felt connected. My skin met the cool air, I smelled the changing of the season, I saw budding trees, heard chirping birds.  I moved slow and consciously, looking at earth and sky, feet and dog ahead of me. The earth met me in each step.  Denial is easy to know, as it is the place of being in the body and in hope.  I could convince myself that all was right in the world.  I would believe in magical thinking, ideas that I could dream up and wanted to will into truth. There is no better way to know denial as a stage of grief than to be in the practice of the body and pleasure seeking.  As there are many sides to all things, this can be a lovely place of naiveté and staying innocent, believing that somehow all things will tend to work out.  Yet, this place of naiveté also has a darker side, one that keeps us from maturing and living truths.  I felt that sweet innocence with my feet on the earth and sand between my toes.  I felt aware of all the ways people distract in order to not meet reality: eating, drinking, drugs, sex, jumping into things without deeper soul. 

Suddenly, I remember the reality of the situation. I remembered the presence of my sorrow.  I felt alone and in the knowing of the depths of grief.  I recalled, and again became awake to endings, to wild betrayals and overwhelming heartbreaks, to the state of the world, to the increasing temperatures, the ongoing natural and human disasters.  I felt deeply into the hurt of humanity, how cruel we can all be to one another and to the planet we live with. It’s the turn in the arroyo, where the shadow hits the land I walk on, when I must wake up to a truth, personal, cultural and universal.  I fell to the earth.  Wanting nothing more than to be close to the ground, to be held and loved by the earth. We cannot stay naïve to the world. We hurt each other and this planet and there is no going back from that hurt. This strips us of hope, this brings us down to the ground in the depths of depression.  When our heart breaks and it echoes in every fiber of our being.  This is a place of utter stand-still, of weeping, of withdrawal from life, of feeling numb, living in a fog.  This is also a place of consciousness growth as we come to know reality, though the depths are often hard to bare.  It is in this stage that we began to learn about ourselves. From the places of darkness and depression we find our way to what our gifts, the crack that allows for the light to shine through.

In the quiet of solitude, the soul is known, and then the mind begins to have the loudest voice, ask questions about what could have been done differently.  “If only I had shown more affection, if only I said more about how I feel, if only I listened more, if only I made more time, if only we had stepped in fully, if only I were an outgoing activists, if only I was older, or younger!” I find this part of the circle the most distressing, as I bargain with my journey, as though there was some way to change it.  The stage of bargaining feels, to me, most wounding for the soul.  As I question myself and actions so intensely.  (Unable to recognize that I am not the sole guide of this journey.) This deep and utterly exhausting but unrelenting place of doubt has us second guessing our choices and Self.  Leaving us in a place that feels so detrimental to our well-being.  Could we have saved the life, or made it better, could we have taken different actions that would have led to a different result?  This can feel anxiety provoking, injurious to the soul as it evokes guilt and shame and a wild uncertainty of Self. This is the place that also has us in dialogue with the power of who we are.  A worthy conversation to engage in, for we can create change!  As we call in serenity for the things we cannot change, the courage for the things we can, and indeed, the wisdom to know the difference. 

Then the winds blow fiercely, and we may not be able to hold ourselves to the ground, this is the nature of things.  We must experience a wild part of ourselves. Grief is about a departure from a source that once fed us so richly, that we were once connected with so dearly.  The rupture can evoke a force which is untamable.  This is where anger lives.  There is action in anger, it is fiery, wild, and so incredibly out of control and entirely transformational.  It is the place of burning old matter into a different form, disconnecting from what was. Something takes over that has a life of its own, and it keeps us alive and going.  Anger helps us move, more often than not. Though it can often be a way to stay connected when connection is lost. Anger can be the footing when there is no ground, can be a way to engage in relationship when relationship is lost, can be a way to find our path to change.

We meet denial again, depression, bargaining, and anger, and cycle around getting closer to the center of the wheel each time, until we may meet acceptance.  Each round informing us.

Joanna Macy, speaks about the two sides of emotional states in the practice of the Truth Mandala.  She states that grief and sorrow are just one side of the coin, the other side is love. We do not grieve what we do not love. Great grief is a sign of great love – and great love is a gift beyond compare. If we love with all our being, the grief will be sharp and deep. The price of love is steep.  If we choose to not grieve, or hold ourselves or get stuck in distraction and denial and not move around the wheel for however many times we need, then we are not stepping fully into our knowing of what it is to love.

As I think of the tumbleweed stuck in the branches, and the flower that chooses to bloom daily, I deeply honor both paths.  As I, personally, hope to find the courage and strength to keep going in and coming out, to know that the heat of grief has be recoil inward, and the cool welcoming air has ready to feel seen again.  I wish to know the dark places and keep blooming whenever I am able.

Love and Grieve around the wheel with Oaks Counsel.  Join us this weekend for the Healing Ground Grief Ceremony, a rich process of honor what was, yourself, and what is to come. (Sign up to receive details.)