The Long Goodbye

Can Nature Help Assuage Your Grief?
A study of bereavement.
March 25 2009 12:36 PM

The Long Goodbye

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo.  Click image to expand.

The other night, I was talking to my father on the phone, remembering my mother, when he happened to mention a "loss of confidence" that "we" (that is, our family) had all experienced. I asked him what he meant. I had been noticing that I feel shy and insecure ever since my mother died, but I had assumed my insecurity was particular to me; I've always been a nervous person, especially compared with my sociable brothers. But here was my father talking about something he saw all of us suffering from. He explained. "Your mother is not there," he said. "And we are dealing with her absence. It makes us feel, I think, a loss of confidence—a general loss, an uncertainty about what we can rely on."

Perhaps that's why I've gone to the desert twice since my mother died. Not only does the physical desert reflect back at me my spiritual desert, it doesn't have a lot of people in it—allowing me to enjoy solitude without feeling cut off, as I would if I were hunkered down in my Brooklyn apartment. In January, three weeks after my mom's death, I flew to L.A. and then drove to the Mojave Desert, where I spent a few days wandering around Joshua Tree National Park. Being alone under the warm blue sky made me feel closer to my mother, as it often has. I felt I could detect her in the haze at the horizons. I offered a little prayer up to her, and, for the first time since she died, I talked out loud to her. I was walking along past the cacti, when I looked out into the rocky distance. "Hello mother," I whispered. "I miss you so much." Then I started crying, and, ridiculously, apologized. "I'm sorry. I don't want you to feel bad. I know you had to leave." Even now, whenever I talk to my mother—I do it every few weeks, and always when I'm outdoors—I cry and then apologize because I don't want her to feel guilt or sorrow that she can't be here with me as she used to be. A part of me believes this concern is foolish. But it is intrinsic to the magical thinking at the heart of the ritual. I am powerless over it.

Just last week, I went to Marfa, Texas, a town in the Chinati Desert in far west Texas, near Mexico. One afternoon, I drove south through the desert to Terlingua, an old ghost town, where I sat in the fresh spring sun. Perhaps because it is almost spring in New York, the warmth of the air registered as the augur of a new stage of mourning. It was as if I had been coaxed out of a dark room after a long illness. I watched a band play songs to a haphazard group of people who, for one reason or another, had been drawn down to this borderland and its arid emptiness. A group of girls lazily Hula-hooped in the sun while a drunk older man from New Jersey, with the bluest, clearest eyes I have ever seen, razzed the musicians: "Yer not stopping yet, are ya, ye worthless sons of bitches? It's just gettin' goin'." Later he pulled up a chair next to me. He told me he was about to turn 74. This lent his desire for things not to end a new poignancy. Dogs wandered among the tables, and tourists paused to watch before walking to the general store, where they could buy souvenirs and spring water. Listening to the band sing about loss and love, I felt sad and wrung out, but this, too, was good, like the sun on my skin. A vital nutrient that had seeped away during the winter was being replenished.

Loss is so paradoxical: It is at once enormous and tiny. And this, too, I think, is why I am drawn to landscapes that juxtapose the minute and the splendor; the very contrast is expressive of what I felt. After the concert, I drove down along the Rio Grande, noting all the green that had sprouted up along the dry riverbed. Then I turned and went into Big Bend National Park—a majestic preserve. Here, as in Joshua Tree, you drive along roads and can see rolling, rocky desert for many, many miles. The sky is as open as can be. On the horizon, mountains loom like old gods. On a clear day, you can see so far you can actually detect the curvature of the earth, according to the National Park's literature. I wasn't sure I saw any curves, but it hardly mattered. Having my sense of smallness reflected back at me—having the geography mimic the puzzlement I carry within—made me feel more at home in a majesty outside of my comprehension. It also led me to wonder: How could my loss matter in the midst of all this? Yet it does matter, to me, and in this setting that felt natural, the way the needle on the cactus in the huge desert is natural. The sheer sublimity of the landscape created room for the magnitude of my grief, while at the same time it helped me feel like a part—a small part—of a much larger creation. It was inclusive.

Being in the vast spaces while mourning made me think about religion. On New Year's Eve, I'd had dinner with a friend who had been through his share of ups and downs. I was telling him that I hadn't felt my mother leave the world, and he asked me if I believed in God. I told him that I did not know. "I can say existence is a mystery I don't understand or presume to pretend I do," I said. And I mentioned that over the past year, I had prayed in several moments of need, and had always felt better—as if something were coming back at me. He was quiet and then said, "I don't know if I believe in God. But I do believe in prayer." If you are a secular agnostic in America today, chances are you subscribe to a psychological framework for seeing the world. This framework places stress on individuality, on the unique psyche and its formation. I believe in the importance of individuality, but in the midst of grief I also find myself wanting connection—wanting to be reminded that the sadness I feel is not just mine but ours.

I also want to find a way not to resent my suffering (though I do). It is hard to know what that way is, outside of the ethical framework of religion. Last fall, I copied out a passage from an interview with author Marilynne Robinson in an issue of the Paris Review. She is one of my favorite novelists; she is also Christian. The interviewer recalled Robinson once observing that Americans tend to avoid contemplating "larger issues." (Many mourners would agree.) Here is what Robinson said in response:

The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of it, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.

To that, I can say: Amen. And it underscores why I have been drawn to the remote outdoors, to places largely untouched by telephone wires and TGI Fridays. I want to be reminded of how the numinous impinges on ordinary life. It's a feeling I have even in New York, but traffic lights and honking cars and businessmen leaping over puddles can make it hard to let that eerie, weird knowledge in.

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