My husband and I met in our early twenties, so young, so new to adulthood. We had everything to learn and, over the course of thirty-six years, we learned with each other. After he died I struggled to understand how I would live without him. So I did what felt natural and looked for others’ experiences in books and online. I read how-to accounts for surviving grief. I read the memoirs of widows, of widowers, of parents who’d lost a child. I read about the stages of grief, the neurology of grief, the culture we have (or don’t have) surrounding and informing grief.
Somewhere in those first few months I stumbled onto this poem by Mary Oliver:
The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
I believed myself open and curious in my quest to understand, but when I first read this poem I snorted out loud. Seriously? Or, well, okay, but surely Mary Oliver’s “box full of darkness” wasn’t the death of a spouse! But when I learned the poem was published a couple of years after she’d lost her beloved long-time partner … doubt crept in. What to make of her claim?
I questioned her idea, I worried over it, annoyed, even angry at the concept yet unable to completely discard it. This small, beautiful image felt so mysterious, so loaded, yet like a koan it was slippery and ungraspable. Over time I stopped trying to understand it, feeling my pain was just too great, my sorrow too heavy. I would never be able to see my loss in any way as a gift.
But a funny thing happened while I was sleepwalking through months and years of grief. Shortly after Bill died I’d begun writing haikus while walking in Pacific Spirit Park. Most of them were laments and cries, sorrowful little poems expressing deep pain, but every now and then a different sort emerged:
heart blown wide open
love for everyone: blue sky
holds the bright red birds
In these haiku I felt my grief was opening into something else and that something was love due to grief, because of grief. Perhaps I’d felt this love all along, with my husband, with our children, our families and friends, but it didn’t feel like just love-love, as beautiful and profound as that is. It felt like a love that was as big as it was because there had been loss, that only through loss could this love be completely seen. As if a veil had been removed and I could see a love-because-there-is-nothing-else-but-love and a love-is-all-that-matters-love.
This felt like a transformative moment in my grief and in my life. Since then I’ve been so happy to find in grief writing any shift that brings additional shape to the sorrow. This shift may show up as a kind of radiance or spaciousness or a sense of greater ease. It may look like an opening into feelings other than those that seemed initially to give rise to the poem. Sometimes it’s an indefinable movement, koan-like, the gift within the box of darkness that brings the writer and reader to a newer, hopefully more easeful place.
On Sunday, November 19, 3:00 to 4:30pm, I’ll host a workshop here at the Joy Kogawa House where we’ll talk about how poems can exhibit these beautiful and complex characteristics. We’ll also write together, looking for new ways to express grief and create meaning. It would be lovely if you could join us. I hope to see you here!
Karen Parrish is a poet and grief group facilitator with the Lower Mainland Grief Recovery Society. She holds a certificate in fine art techniques from Emily Carr University and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and literature from Syracuse University; she graduated cum laude in English and American Literature and Languages from Harvard University.
In October 2019 she ceased being a partner in a lifelong relationship and became a single person navigating disbelief, confusion, and deep sorrow. In her loss she turned to literature, and as a poet, she looked to poetry to make sense of suffering, undertaking a daily ritual of walking in Pacific Spirit Park, and writing haikus on her iPhone.
Karen Parrish will edit to publishable size more than 1,500 grief haikus while in residence at Historic Joy Kogawa House from October 1 to November 30, 2023.