The Alchemy of Grief

By on September 27, 2011 — 9 Comments

Grief touched me, cracking my heart open, a number of times this summer. While most of the encounters were somewhat removed from my immediate experience, the one that shocked me to my core was the death of a teenage boy I’d known since his birth. Jonathan’s mother, Jane, was in shock when she called to tell me he had just died in a tragic car accident.

This experience, and the other more public expressions of grief such as Jack Layton’s passing and the 9/11 anniversary, has made me consider loss in new ways.

Grief is perhaps the most intense and powerful emotion. It can shatter our lives and the sense of self we’ve carefully constructed. It can also be an opportunity to explore our ‘one wild and precious life’ and to open to a completely different reality. But not right away.

Abigail Carter lost her husband, Arron, in 9/11. Ten years later, she published a book called the Alchemy of Loss, describing how her life actually became better through this experience. She calls grief an unexpected gift, one that unmasks an entirely new universe of possibility. Over time, she found new strengths in herself as a mother, a writer, and a teacher.

Alchemy is an interesting word to associate with grief and loss. In medieval times, alchemy was the art of turning lead into gold. The alchemists had both a literal intention to alter metals and they also saw their work as a metaphor for the inner process of changing consciousness.

I saw some of this alchemy at work at Jonathan’s funeral as his teammates, beautiful lanky young men in bright-colored soccer uniforms, stood inside the chapel, obviously broken-hearted.

When Jane spontaneously rose to speak after the eulogies, I held my breath in anticipation. In that moment, she decided to ignore the minister’s gentle recommendation to grieve quietly from her pew. Instead, she chose to speak from her heart to the packed audience. Everyone leant forward to receive Jane’s words.

“I have several things to ask of you, “ she said, her voice strong and clear. “When you see me out in public, please do not cross the street, pretending you didn’t see me. We are all grieving and sometimes we avoid each other because we are afraid of saying the wrong thing. I am not afraid of your feelings. Please don’t be afraid of my tears.”

I gasped at the courage it took for Jane to invite such open-hearted intimacy.

She continued, “Also, please keep saying my son’s name aloud. We tend to stop talking about the person we loved when they’re gone, but I still need to hear his name.”

I’m learning that there really is no perfect way to grieve. It simply hurts, terribly, and often for a very long time.

The first phase of grieving is not about moving on or being strong. It is simply about being broken open. When we can allow ourselves to surrender fully into the grief, we descend into dark realms that we cannot control.

In some ways, this is very healthy. Our bodies serve as wise guides during this time. They know when to rest and when to weep. Our minds may have other agendas but when exhaustion, tears, or waves of anger sweep through us, they bring a swift and cleansing release.

If we try to take a shortcut through grief’s darkest emotions, we often prolong the process. Then the powerful transforming energy goes underground and lingers in the body like a slow poison.

Grief reveals just how profoundly we are connected to each other. The beautiful bond that unites us is the same one that breaks our hearts. Sometimes we do not acknowledge the depth of this connection until loss drops us, humbled, to our knees.

It is not always the death of another human being that opens our hearts. When my dog died many years ago, I found myself inexplicably consumed with grief. Though I was very sad about losing my pet, I realised many of my tears were unshed from past losses.

Each new grief opens the well, fresh and raw. Through these experiences, we discover the depth of our heart’s capacity to feel, to love, and also to gracefully let go.

I appreciated what Jane was asking for, in the acutest phase of her grieving. She spoke of what we all need but rarely request — the need to be met with compassion, not unsolicited advice. The need for others to embrace and tolerate their own pain. Her yearning for simple expressions of caring — a

touch, kindly silence, thoughtful actions. A friend’s ability to sit with grief goes a long way.

Grief takes us completely out of the ‘normal’ forcing us to be still for a time, like frozen water in the winter. Gradually an imperceptible movement stirs again, and sorrow begins to melt into gratitude for the life that does remain.

The American poet, Mary Oliver, asks the question that lies waiting on the far side of the grieving process. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

When grief has had its way with us and we are ready to answer this question, our lives will never be the same.


More blogs: When your Heart is Broken Open

Saying Farewell

Some recommended flower essences: Grief and Loss, Pink Hawthorn, Crabapple



  1. Thanks for this beautifully written article!

    • Thanks for your comment, Kristina. Grief is such a difficult subject and emotion in our culture, and we handle it very poorly for the most part. Talking about it may help to open the larger conversation…

  2. From my cracked-open heart, Andrea, thank you for opening this dialog. It is so needed….

  3. Thank you, Tracie. Your comments always add a lot to these dialogues… A.

  4. Thank you, Andrea. This past week I had word that a young woman (37) who I taught when she was 10 had passed. I worked in a small school -only 75 children- with very active parent and community involvement. We became a family and very few have lost complete touch no matter how long ago we were together. She is the second young woman in that small group of 10 children to pass; the other was the daughter of a close friend who died at 21 and whose anniversary of passing we just celebrated a couple of weeks ago,
    So it all comes around, one event retrieving the other in our hearts…grieving for the parents because we saw first hand what the grief did to the first family…and thinking of our own kids. This passing made me call my grown children to get together for dinner this weekend when nothing had been previously planned.
    So, yes, you let your heart be cracked wide open again and again and with each time you know more and more that you will go on and you will remember and honour and grieve and want to talk about the memories.

  5. Beautifully written Andrea. Thank you for including me in your post.

  6. Thank you Andrea. Your beautifully written words have given me strength today and the courage to open a difficult conversation I am currently faced with. Much love to you.

  7. Andrea, I’ve been following your posts for some time now and they’re all worth taking the time to read. This one, however, was especially moving. I’ve sent it on to a friend whose husband died suddenly and unexpectedly almost a year ago. She is having a very hard time and I’m hoping this will help give her permission for what she’s feeling. Some well-meaning people still have a tendency to try to rush us through the grieving process. Understandable, but not too helpful sometimes. Thank you thank you.

  8. Andrea… It’s 7:30 in the morning and I have sat down to read your posts. I’d forgotten how much I have enjoyed them, having gotten caught up in “living” and the “busyness” it entails. I have lived with all kinds of loss from an early age. It is like mental illnes, people will give you permission for a short while, to feel your pain, but then their own fear sets in, and they want that smiley face, no matter how phoney it is. Your emerging living room is a really good metaphor for how so many people are on the inside, and it takes time and love to get it to the state that it is meant to be. I’m always amazed when I talk to people about my book, becasue, somehow it gives them permission to bring up the subject that is not spoken about…. fear and grief.As they speak, I see their fears reflected in their eyes, both for themselves and their loved ones. One of the things I see you doing,is to offer ‘guests’, or ‘clients’, a chance to see the essence of who they are, reflected back to them. I think people need to talk about it more, to get it out there, to bear witness to it. We need to Start the Conversation about grief. Like the fire damaged wall in your living room, we need to open the wounds and display our grief, bear witness to it and then let the healing take place. It is only becasue I have had safe, quiet corners to lay my grief, that I have been able to move on.

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