Wednesday, January 13, 2016

My Labyrinth of Grief

By Brian Schwarz

The day after my mom lost her battle with cancer, I got in my car and headed for the mountains. In search of a summit that would take me to a place far above the pain, I landed in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in a free fall of grieving.

I booked into a local motel, and I hiked the next day. But the short trek I took to the summit left me unusually exhausted. The reality was, escaping the emotions that were welling up inside me was not an option. Somehow, I would have to work through them.

“Sit with your pain,” the hospice therapist told me. “Be in it.”

Days on end with curtains drawn ended when I realized I needed to venture out for some exercise, lest my body and mind deteriorate beyond recognition. Lacking energy for a hike but wanting to get out and walk, a quick Google search led me to find trails at the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum and Botanical Gardens at James Madison University.

As I pulled into the parking lot at the arboretum, I noticed a sign for a labyrinth. Considered a metaphor for grief, I knew that many people walk a labyrinth in search of peace and understanding, often after the loss of a loved one. So I made my way up the gravel path to a stand of pines, at the center of which I saw light colored stones arranged in a seemingly simple but complex pattern, and a stone bench there at the entrance.

I sat for a while and contemplated what I was about to do. Feeling tired, and sad, and more alone than I had ever felt, I considered giving up, going back to my motel and hibernating until this terrible nightmare faded to black. My best friend for life was gone! I thought, “How could walking through some confusing setup of rocks do anything to change that?”

Compelled to at least try, I took my first step into the labyrinth. Then a second. And a third. Before long I was slowly making my way up, down and over, along a path that still made no sense to me in my mind. I knew where I was going – I could see the labyrinth’s center, and I focused on the large stone there, as I could envision myself collapsing on it once I arrived – but the way to the center made no sense to me at all.

Still, I walked. I stopped focusing on where I was going and finally succumbed to the path, looking down at my feet, trusting them to help me make my way to the center. My mind fell blank. Or was it lost in a sea of sullen nostalgia?

When I arrived at the center, instead of collapsing, I stood up on the rock, took a deep breath, and stretched my arms to the sky. Then I looked down, hoping to make sense out the labyrinth’s complex yet simple design. Did I feel something different now than I had when I started, I wondered? I didn’t feel better, per se, but I did feel something like understanding creeping in. I laughed at the absurdity that I would ever understand.

My walk out of the labyrinth was different. Each step made my heart feel heavy, as if the weight of it all were rising up through my chest and into my throat. Finally, as I was reaching the beginning, which is also the end, the heavy burden burst out of my eyes. Rivers of grief flowed down my cheeks, and a guttural moan escaped my control, lifting me up from the inside.

It was time to go home.

Brian Schwarz is a freelance writer and adult educator based in Harrisonburg, VA, the heart of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. For more information on labyrinths, read this article from the blog Seven Ponds: Embracing the End of Life Experience.