A Flood of GriefBy Sheryl Paul
September 20, 2013
Our family's story of walking through the recent Colorado floods.
Life seems so normal until a fire burns through your home, or someone you love is diagnosed with a serious illness, or you’re awaked at 6am by your cat uncharacteristically digging her claws into your toe until you get out of bed, pull back the curtains, and find the 500-year flood roaring through your backyard. Have you ever had a dream where a tsunami rises up a beach until it’s at your feet? That’s what this sight was like, except that it wasn’t a dream at all. It was the beginning of a story that is still unfolding, a test and challenge in our family’s life that we are walking through as best we can.
The next hour is a bit blurry. I remember yelling “Flood!” and my husband jumping out of bed. I remember my older son, Everest, asking if Tashi was okay and me explaining that it was her that woke me up. I vaguely remember my mother calling at 6:30am to ask if we were okay and to tell us to get to her as soon as possible. I remember packing our bags with my boys hanging on to my arms and legs like toddlers. I remember looking into my office closet where my dozens of journal are stored that document my life since age six and wondering if I would ever see them again. I remember walking downstairs and carrying Asher across the two foot swamp that had suddenly become our front yard while Everest carefully carried Tashi in her carrier. I remember the amazing neighbors who watched my scared boys as I went back inside a few more times, grabbing things like our insurance folder and our lockbox. I remember thinking, Is this really happening to me?
My instinct was to get out of there as quickly as possible; my husband’s instinct was to save our house. He stood at the car window and told me that he needed to stay. I begged him to come with us, asking, “What more can we do?” as we watched a six foot wave of water pummel through our backyard and flood all the way to road. I could see he wasn’t coming, so we kissed goodbye. He said he would come in a few hours. It would be over thirty hours before we saw him again.
My boys and I spent the first day in a state of shock. I cancelled my full day of clients and posted on announcement on Facebook as I knew I would need words of support. My husband texted me saying that he had ripped down our fence to create a dam that would help divert the water away from our house. He had several neighbors helping him, which brought me comfort that he wasn’t alone. He worked tirelessly all day trying to save our house. I knew he hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink, and urged him through texts to take a break and nourish himself, but he kept going, desperate to keep the waters at bay. It turns out that everything he did that day circumvented the waters. Miraculously, aside from the garage, our house is dry. But when he tried to get to us late in the day there were so many closed roads that he had to turn around and sleep at our friends’ home, who graciously welcomed him in.
The first night was hard. I slept squished between my two boys with our kitten sandwiched between my legs. I knew I wouldn’t sleep much, separated from my husband and thinking about the water rushing through our land and around our house. In the dreamlike state of half-consciousness, I found myself trying to understand the water, to insert myself into the flood and feel what it was feeling. Why are you here? My life is guided by a deep desire to learn, to understand. I think in symbols and metaphors, and what I felt that night was the Earth’s pain, a flood of grief roaring and raging down the mountainsides stripped bare of undergrowth because of too many fires. My husband said that when he was working in the backyard trying to save our house, the creek, which had surged to ten feet in height, looked and sounded like a dragon, waves and curves of water snaking through our yard, our neighborhood, our city, leaving destruction in its path. We say “the rivers raged” but we know that underneath the rage is always grief. The earth is grieving, and she’s leaving a torrent of tears in her wake.
Our beautiful earth has been grieving for many years now. A planet out of balance will exact its recourse, and that’s what we’re seeing with the extreme weather. If we thought we could dominate Earth and force her to obey the will of man, we were wrong. She is so much more powerful than anyone in the Western world mindset would like to admit. I’ve never been so close to a natural disaster. It was louder and more powerful than I could have ever imagined. I’ve tasted the inside of a flood. I’ve swam from a waking nightmare to a nighttime sojourn under those water. I’ve heard her heartbreaking and terrifying grief tumbling down mountainsides and drowning an entire city in her tears. It’s time we listen. It’s time we wake up.
The next morning, as I looked around our temporary home, I was struck by what I decided to grab in the half an hour or so I spent packing our bags. I forgot my husband’s socks and the kids’ toothpaste, but I packed a bag full of the objects that comprise our little altar before which Everest and I sit every morning to practice mindfulness and say prayers. I forgot extra food (which my husband blessedly remembered) but grabbed the three books that my spiritual teacher gave me at the end of our last meeting just a few days ago. Socks and food can be purchased fairly easily, but the sacred objects and books bring us peace and ground during this tumultuous, uprooting time. We can now sit in our morning ritual the way we do at home, and that will bring some sense of normalcy to the chaos. The objects and books seem infused with a numinous quality now more than ever, as if they’re carrying the wisdom of my teacher, my ancestors, my heritage. Grounded in something bigger than myself provides the deep knowing that we’re okay, we’re going to be okay, this is just a moment in time, this too shall pass, that our true refuge is not in our actual home but in the home deep inside ourselves, the timeless, infinite space that reaches out to those we love and says, “Here. Now. One. Love.”
During those first few days, I knew that it was time to drink my own medicine and practice what I teach every day: to lean into the grief as it arises, to trust that hope and new possibilities always arise from destruction, to help guide my family through their manifestations of grief: pain, confusion, disorientation, loneliness, anger, frustration, and raw, unbridled sadness. For my kids, the grief comes out mostly sideways in the form of whining and grumpiness. I wish they would cry as we’re crying, but it isn’t that way for them yet. We’ll see what happens when we drive to the house for the first time, but for now they seem mostly okay. For the first couple of days Asher asked continuously when we were going home, and Everest was perseverating on a couple of items he wanted Daddy to rescue when he went back each morning to try to minimize the water damage. I was pleased to hear that Everest’s most precious item wasn’t a Lego or a Disney toy but the blue vase his grandma made for him several months ago. Asher, on the other hand, just wanted his Buzz and Woody : ) (from Toy Story, which he saw once before we banned Hollywood and Disney movies from their daily diet two years ago). But mostly they’ve adjusted to their new surroundings and are playing creatively, just as they always do. Asher has been busy creating new magic tricks and Everest built new wings so he could fly through the backyard.
For my husband and I, the grief arrives in waves, as grief always does. My husband cried when he returned to the house on the third day to find it that our beloved creek, which we’ve honored and loved like a member of our family, had changed directions and was now surging through our backyard. I’m sure he’ll cry many more times as we wade our way through the long, wet road ahead.
Like the waters raging down from the mountains, the loss floods up inside of me until it reaches a breaking point. I didn’t feel much of anything the first day or so; I was probably in shock and knew that I had to remain a strong fortress so that my boys didn’t fall apart. But as soon as my husband finally arrived on the second day, the tears welled up. My rock was here and I could now fall apart. I told him I needed some time, went downstairs, called my Carrie, and wept, sobbed into the phone. I haven’t cried that hard in a long, long time. Carrie and I used to hold that kind of space for each other on a regular basis in the pre-marriage, pre-kids years of our friendship. But now it takes a natural disaster of Biblical proportions to touch that place of broken-open pain. After a solid ten minutes, all I could say was, “The loss. The devastation. The beauty that’s been washed away.” Carrie breathed with me. She didn’t need to say a word. There are no words in that kind of grief. Words only clutter the pure container that allows grief to wash through. We know this, which is why we call each other when the dam breaks and the floods are here.
After that, I felt clear. Tired, overwhelmed, and sad, but clear. I was able to attend to my boys with focus and attention for the rest of the day. But that night, after they fell asleep, the grief bubbled up again. A text came through from Carrie:
Prayed long and hard tonight for you and for your community. May you know that you are protected, regardless of outer circumstance. That is my prayer (along with your house being dry as a bone). I’m with you my love in every way, especially in the Invisible where there are no structures, where there is only eternal life.
And I cried. Every time she texts me I cry. I cry when I read about the neighbors helping my husband at the house, or when I read the words of support on Facebook, or when I feel the gratitude that in the biggest picture we’re all okay. I cry when I see photos of our beautiful yard and sacred creek destroyed. I cry for everyone who is suffering as a result of this flood. I cry for everyone who is suffering as a result of any painful circumstances in their lives. This is what happens in grief: Your heart breaks open and you feel not only your own pain, but the pain of your community near and far. It’s a raw, vulnerable, soft, beautiful space. It’s why I’m always encouraging my clients to move toward it, not to fear it, that it’s through our grief that we can touch into our deepest connection to self, others and Spirit. It’s when we taste that we are all one.
Sometimes when I’m grieving I hear a quiet, faraway voice whispering, “Other people are suffering more than you. This isn’t such a big deal. Your house is fine so far.” It’s not a loving voice, and not a voice that springs from a spiritual source to guide me back to gratitude after the grief washes though, but the voice that steers us away from grief because it doesn’t believe and know that we can handle it. It’s like when I’m encouraging my clients to allow themselves to feel the pain of their past and the respond with, “But so many people had it so much worse; it’s not like I was sexually abused or something.” And then those who were sexually abused will say, “Other kids had it worse. At least it wasn’t someone I knew.” And for those who were abused by someone they knew… well, you get the picture. So I acknowledge the unloving voice, and then return to the grieving that only needs my love and compassion.
On the third night, my husband and I process in whispers after the boys go to sleep.
“Why? Why, when we’ve loved and honored our creek so much has it turned on us?” I ask. I know it’s irrational. I know that’s not the way life works, but I still feel it.
“Maybe it’s the shadow to all of this beauty we’ve been blessed to live with,” my husband wisely responds, reminding me of my own work. We speak the same language, which is one of the reasons I married him.
“But we’ve done rituals at the creek. We’ve cherished it. I write love poems for it. It’s not fair.” Still irrational, the part of me that wants control over the uncontrollable.
“Maybe the extent of the love is the degree of the shadow. Or maybe it’s just that our land is two feet lower than it should be.” Again, he’s wise and practical, spiritual and pragmatic. It’s what I love about him.
And when the questioning and attempts to control stop I bury my face in his shirt and weep. He holds me as he’s held me a thousand times, an island for my tears. This time, we weep together, holding each other up, knowing that the waters must pass through us if we’re to continue on with strength.
I’m often asked, “How do you grieve?” You grieve by surrendering to the pain that is living in your heart. You grieve by surrounding yourself by loving, strong people who can provide a container for you while you fall apart. You grieve by replacing the lies about crying – “What’s the point?” or “Crying is weak” or “Others have it worse” – with the truth, which is that the medicine of pain is to cry, and that it’s only through crying that the pain washes through and we find our way to strength and clarity. You grieve by writing, talking, praying, dancing, sleeping, sitting, and letting yourself be held.
And when the grief passes through, what’s simmered down is gratitude. It’s what I’m left with at the end of the day. I’m grateful that our kitty woke me up an hour earlier than normal. I’m grateful that our house is still standing. I’m grateful that my mother and Erika, after five years of trying to sell their home in Durango so they could live closer to us, moved here six weeks ago and have so warmly and graciously offered their home not only to us but also to our dear friends, who evacuated two days ago. I’m grateful for the volunteer firefighters who walked up and down my friend’s street to count heads (people and animals) and let them know when it was time to evacuate.
I’m grateful to the dozens of neighbors who helped my husband in so many ways: For Sharon and her husband, who were outside before I was even out, helping my husband, asking what else they could do, staying with my two scared boys as they waited in the car while I gathered a few last items, showing up for people with warmth and generosity who they’ve never met before. For Jessica, who sat in her truck that first night when my husband was working tirelessly to fill Whole Foods bags with silt and mud to create barriers to our home. She told him that there were flash flood warnings and that if he saw the water surging, to jump in her truck. She didn’t leave until she watched him get into his Jeep and drive away. For Rich, Dean, Jen, Max, Jason, Alan and so many others, most of whom we’ve never met before, who built dams, moved furniture and books off the first floor, helped my husband build pumps and drainage systems when the water filled our crawl space, and countless other acts of service.
I’m grateful beyond grateful, the kind of grateful that wells up in floods of tears and surges out from heart to throat to eyes, for our family. The love that flows between us is more powerful than any river. If we’re together, we’re home. Yes, our hearts ache for the devastation that has struck our beloved home and gardens and creek, for what has been lost and broken, but we know without a doubt there’s not a flood in the world that could break us apart. Home is where the heart is. Every time my husband walks through the door after spending the day trying to minimize the damage, he completes the structure that, with our boys, creates our home. We dwell under a canopy of love and unwavering commitment. We are blessed. We have a long, hard, muddy, overwhelming, and painful road ahead of us as we recover from this disaster. But we will walk through it together, holding hands and hearts, always.
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Pain and joy are in the same place in the heart. You cannot put a lid on pain without putting a lid on your joy as well. Are you opting for the flatness of the illusion of safety, or are you willing to experience both the lows and the highs of life? Today, cry and laugh with your whole heart.
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