Grief is no stranger to me. In fact, it’s easy for me to recognize, experience and, at the ripening age of 59, even welcome its familiarity.

Why welcome it? Because the painful experiences of my past are places within that I can now mine for the teachings and gifts they provide; things like empathy, compassion, forgiveness, self-knowledge, wisdom, gratitude, and even joy. These are the gifts that old grief keeps on giving if I take great care to be conscious of their existence. Otherwise, unrecognized and unprocessed grief can bite me in the arse and block both the flow of love and the ability to be in the present moment.

After much inner shadow work over the decades, I’m grateful to be able to say that I have a fairly healthy relationship with human suffering and how it furthers my growth and helps me serve others and our collective home, Mother Earth. Mourning, one of the manifestations of grief, is also an integral part of cultivating self-awareness and continued healing from life’s losses and traumas. It can blast open the heart and keep it open if we allow it to.

I experienced so much loss as a youngster–one of my brothers died at the age of nine and another at seventeen years old. My military family moved every year, and I had no solid ground on which to stand, no community nor rites of passage, but plenty of social isolation and depression. There were long periods of time during which I actually lost my voice. From time-to-time, I was a teen runaway. I even tried to take my life (several times) because it seemed like the only way to end my earthly pain and suffering and join my brothers in heaven.

Thank God I didn’t complete the suicide attempts! I now love life and appreciate my freedom with a fervor and passion that is unstoppable. This zest for life helped see me through one of the most difficult years of the new century so far, 2011, and I suspect there will be more years like it.

On 6/12/11, I was in Memphis, Tennessee after attending the funeral of a first cousin in New Orleans who tragically took his life. I didn’t know him well, but I wanted to be a source of support for my southern relatives and decided to show up.

While in Memphis, I talked my Aunt into taking me to the Martin Luther King Museum, where I saw the remains of the burned-up bus in which Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back, the hotel where Dr. King was shot, and other images of racist hatred that I’ll always remember.

Minutes after visiting the museum with my Aunt Loli, I received a call from my sister-in-law from the ambulance as she accompanied her mother to the hospital.

My beloved mother-in-law had had a massive stroke and was en route to the hospital. Soon before I arrived the next morning, her three adult children had made the painful decision to have her taken off life support. She died peacefully, with my husband, his sister, and my brother-in-law by her side.

Her death came just five weeks after my dad died suddenly from a heart attack. Then, just a few months after my mother-in-law’s passing, Ann Walker, my best woman friend for many years died after an arduous journey with ovarian cancer.

I miss them all dearly—along with our best family friend, Robert Allan Woodward, aka, Woody, who was brutally murdered by police in 2001, and our friend, David Semone, who took his life in 2009. Previous to 2011, I’d known other people who had suffered numerous deaths within a brief period of time and I honestly wondered how they could still be standing. Then it became my turn to wade through what felt like unbearable grief from loss after multiple losses. Those heartbreaks practically brought me to my knees.

In order to allow myself the time to fully mourn, I needed to press “pause” on the projects I’d invested in, such as my then-fledgling coaching practice, community involvement, and relationships I was trying to sustain. I had no choice but to give myself what may seem like the luxury of time, but it was essential that I allowed myself the time and space to feel the sorrow, even though at times it felt untenable and overwhelming.

Yet, it wasn’t. As the cliche goes, “God only gives you what you can handle”. While the weight of the grief was devastating at times, I knew I simply had to ride the waves as they came and surrender to the process.

There will be more losses, more waves of grief, maybe even tidal waves at times, but this does not stop my heart from loving, nor will I let it. For what is the point of living if we cannot love?

The Chama River in New Mexico
Photo by Mary Rives

About Mary

Mary Rives, MHA, BA, MS, is passionate about people’s stories and being of service to others and the planet. She specializes in helping elders in the early stages of dementia craft their memoirs and leave a legacy for future generations, as well as leading “Story Circles”. In 2018, Mary founded Santa Fe’s Annual Me Too Stories.

Mary loves to record parents’ birthing experiences as well as the life stories of others with tales to tell. She skillfully facilitates writing seminars, story workshops, and individual writing sessions. Living in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her beloved husband, Keith, and their cat, George, Mary delights in life and revels in love.