I thought we’d scatter my husband Vic’s ashes on the earth under the red oak, but my sons had a better idea. They wanted their dad’s ashes nestled in roots and marked with a cairn.
This massive oak was Vic’s and my tree, the one we hugged for strength when we felt broken or scared, the one we leaned into from either side, pressing our hearts and cheeks against the rough bark. We encircled the tree with our arms and grasped each other’s warm hands. When Vic was sick, he asked me to put his ashes there.
Our son Anthony rolled boulders from the creek bed the day after Vic died. His brother David joined him the next day. Dragging, rolling, and pushing comforted these young men reeling from their dad’s death.
Two months later, the brothers used their dad’s tractor to move the stones from the stream banks to the red oak knoll. They built a triangular base with three thick slabs of native shale. On the base, they balanced three granite boulders, pushed to the Finger Lakes from Canada in the last glacial age. I helped balance four smaller granite stones on the boulders, the smallest perched on top. We dismantled and repositioned many times before we had a stable structure, three feet tall, on the forest hill where Vic’s favorite red oak stood sentry.
David laid gladiolas from my garden on a flagstone at the base. I knew this would be a place to visit often, to bring my sorrow and make offerings of gratitude.
“Divine being, transform me and allow my great grief cry to transform something larger than myself.”
In a trembling voice, I read a poem a friend had shared soon after Vic’s death:
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
In those last three lines, Rilke offered himself and his desperate grief to the Higher: “You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in.” The last two lines said to me, “Divine being, transform me and allow my great grief cry to transform something larger than myself.”
Rilke’s words left no doubt. He had known this trapped place of grief. He had felt his way in the dark, touching the hard walls, realizing there was no escape from pain. He’d experienced the blocked path and felt the paralyzing thickness of sorrow.
Rilke’s poem helps us endure the fierce darkness that descends after any major loss or heart-break.
You might think a poem describing grief’s trapped darkness would depress me. You might imagine I’d long for poems about life everlasting and continuing bonds. Instead, Rilke’s images of helplessness and human smallness filled me with gratitude. Someone had been where I was and survived. Someone had found beauty in our human anguish.
Rilke’s poem helps us endure the fierce darkness that descends after any major loss or heart-break. He gives us words to offer our sorrow to something larger than ourselves. He helps us surrender and be transformed.
 Rainer Maria Rilke, “Pushing Through” in Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. and ed. Robert Bly (New York: Harper and Row, 1981) 55.
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Thank you for this dear Elaine. I need that vision of rock right now to stabilize my grief.
Hands together over heart. Thank you, Kimberly.
I find it hard to surrender when I am so empty. 51 years together and he was the perfect gentleman to all. In his Obituary it state “A Gentleman in Levi Jeans” i loved him so much so the grief is so much. Maybe one day I will be transformed.
The one positive thing I am holding close to my heart….. is that we use to watch the sunset together and that was so peaceful. So maybe death is like that beautiful and peaceful!
It is so very hard, Mary. Wrenching and heart-breaking. It took me years to take in the deep transformation. My husband died in 2008 and for years I wept. I love what your husband’s obituary said. I hope you have people to be with and talk with about this. My friends who could grieve with me were the most help at all. Please hang on to those sunsets which I also watched with my husband. I still watch sunsets or pause to take in a beautiful flower when I’m sad. Nature’s beauty kept me going. I walked many times a day, not for exercise, but for peace.
Dear Mary, blessings to you as you go through this very difficult time. May God’s perfect peace surround you. With love and caring thoughts, Sheila ?
Grace is always at work. Your experience has touched me and will be shared. We are now in the phase where a dear loved is very near the transition. You know all the questions and emotions that arise at such a time. To be able to consider the potential of the experience gives one profound hope, yet acknowledges the necessary surrender that must accompany the process. Thank you.
Drew, I hope you have plenty of support during this transition. I had friends and sons with my husband. Now with my elderly mother-in-law, I have hospice. Even in death and the deepest grief, we are not alone. In the days after the death of someone close when we feel close to the threshold, there are many opportunities to feel sacred connection to the one who died and to Life and Nature and people we love. Surrendering to grief rather than trying to block it was the way I could keep moving through it. May you and your dying one be held in Love. .
Drew, bless you, your family and your dear loved one who is near transition. Sending you love and light, Sheila ?
Sheila, Thanks for your kind and open heart – it further validates our existing and universal connectedness
My dear Elaine, thank-you for sharing your story, which touched my heart! Yes, to surrender and be transformed! This essay was very helpful to me. You are an inspiration, thank-you!! Bless you and your dear sons Anthony and David.
With love, Sheila ?
Thank you, Sheila. This poem broke through when I felt alone and invisible. Your blessing is deeply appreciated. My husband died almost 10 years ago, but these experiences are close and still transforming me.