After the death of a beloved aunt, I returned home from her funeral to find that I was still very much with her even though she was gone. I was constantly surrounded by her presence.
I began to think that any close relationship is like a place, made by two people, that no one else can enter. The struggles and joys and meaning created together become a kind of “love room” – quirky and curious and rich. An anchor. A certain kind of Home. But what happens to the love room, I wondered, when one person dies?
I decided to map out our love room by writing letters to my aunt. Over three years, the grief continued to be wrenching and raw. But as impossibly painful as the loss was, there was also a rarefied otherworldly experience that I didn’t want to lose. While my aunt might be dead, our relationship was definitely not. What we had made together continued to shift, and to grow.
In trying to understand what I was experiencing, I read about grief and the dark times of loss. I researched spiritual traditions and esoteric reports on what happens after death – both to the person already gone, and to the one left behind. I talked with others who were grieving, and found similarities in our stories. It occurred to me that they, too, were in the love room – still very much with their lost beloved, still in the cloud of unreality that was wrenching but also suffused with a kind of wonder.
Recently a friend told me that, in helping to plan for the wedding of her (and her deceased husband’s) only child, she was plunged for a moment back into the loss she experienced immediately after her partner’s death. The recurrence of that pain, she said, was wrenching. But it was also tender and sweet. She was flooded again with the rarefied intimacy, the palpable raw miracle of care in the aftermath of loss. And she didn’t want that to end. At the bottom of the pain, she said, there was only love. There was so much love.
I wonder if maybe we lean toward that wretched loss because even though it’s impossibly hard, it also plunges us smack into a raw, magnificent cracked-open Realness. Death presses us as close to Mystery as we can stand to be.
Maybe there’s something about being battered and pummeled by loss that wears away our sharp edges until we are effaced, become translucent, are made empty enough to bear both the radiant joy and the impossible suffering of our own lives, and of the world’s.
We are so linked to those who share our lives – not just people, but pets, trees, waterways, small wild things skittering in the night, planets and stars, all vulnerable beings who struggle. We are forever connected to the wonders of the world.
I believe that the love room is one of those.
I hope this blog will help you to sink into your own love rooms with life, and with beloveds who’ve moved on. Please check out the Letters link for excerpts from my upcoming book, “Letters from the Love Room: mapping the landscape of loss.” Perhaps they’ll offer some comfort, inspiration, and even joy in your personal trek through grief. Feel free to share with others, and to offer comments, questions, or resources.
And may your journey be gentle…..
Throughout my childhood, my Aunt Min had been a bright star. In one of my earliest memories, I am three years old and crying because my mother has said something sharp, has laid a controlling hand on my shoulder, pinning me into place. Min picked me up later. I sobbed into her neck. “I wish you were my mom,” I cried. I can still feel the tears, and the sweet comfort of her skin.
Of all my father’s siblings, Min was my confidante. One of six children in a large family from a small Louisiana town, she followed an unusual path for a woman of her times. Earning a PhD, establishing a life “away,” and traveling the world, she lived and taught in Germany for a decade before retiring. Both gregarious and solitary, she stayed single her whole life but maintained close ties to family and her Southern home ground.
Forty years my senior and already established in her life away, she only appeared in my life on occasional visits. Over the decades, however, letters were the way we stayed in touch. Sometimes mine were returned with grammar and spelling corrected. Still, they were exciting, bearing stamps and postmarks from Munich, Mexico, Jerusalem, Greece, and her home in Maryland. Min’s letters to me were prized and kept. Later, I would find she kept mine, too. Kept, in fact, almost every letter she ever received, and many rough drafts of those she sent.
Our connection shored me up through the shaky journey of childhood. The gentility of Southern culture that left so much unsaid, stern religious injunctions, my parents’ quiet dance with alcohol, an early abusive marriage, and years as a single mom—had all left me withdrawn and confused. I distanced myself from family, then began the journey of trying to heal. Throughout those hard times, the relationship with my aunt weathered the storms and stayed intact.
In my early forties, I followed my love for land and became a clinical herbalist, then moved to Maine to get an advanced degree. Min visited our little farmhouse, helped work in the big garden, and walked ocean beaches with me and my two grown daughters, Lara and Alison. After the deaths of my father and then my mother, I made more frequent visits to Maryland. My aunt, in her nineties by this time, remained healthy and engaged, insistent on being at home for her final years.
But, once her last sibling died, Min became withdrawn, and I stepped in to help. Through many visits to Maryland, I listened and learned as she reminisced. Her childhood memories were bright and rich, and I grew more curious about our Southern roots.
It was a sweet time for both of us. Still, managing her care from a distance took a toll. As her needs increased, my own exhaustion and flagging health led to some hard conversations about the possibilities for my aunt’s future. At the age of 100, she had a fall, and a few close friends were organized so she would not be alone.
Min remained inquisitive and alert, celebrating her 102nd birthday in generally good health. Then, in May of 2010, she suffered a small stroke and was hospitalized. She struggled to work at various therapies, but was unable to recover. While always grateful to see visiting family and friends, she eventually withdrew and refused to eat or engage in conversation. On September 4th, sitting alone in a chair by the window, she slipped away.
But she didn’t disappear. Her presence continued to be palpable, and luminous. Our relationship was definitely still alive. Inspired by this, and curious about how the love room worked after a death, I began the tender journey of writing to my aunt. Brief letters just spilled onto the page. Over several years, loss turned out to be a winding journey with a timing of its own. And while I often questioned the circuitous process, I waited to see how the love room—that space we still seemed to share—would unfold over time.
In showing some of these letters to friends, several noted that I have written as if to a lover or, sometimes, even to God. I have come to understand that, while the love room experience wasn’t necessarily religious, at its heart was a rarefied intimacy that persisted even after death.
I began to think love really never ends. That the world is a soup of souls still engaged in some small way in our ongoing lives. That grief is a backward trek through the love room door. That we are never torn apart.