The Restorative Power of Grief

W. stared at me from under his ferociously, kind brow. “Ben, you will stay right here until you allow that boy … to grieve.”

I had no idea what this grizzly of goodness meant.

Fifteen months later, now acclimated to living inside a verb, J. asked me what grief was to me. I started babbling, going one way, and then another, and then the common poetics the two of us both knew caught up with me.

“It is like that word denouement. It is the knot of familiarity that I have always felt in the pit of my guts, loosening. It’s the sensation of something I have clung to as truth, perhaps self-contempt, being seen in a new light and beginning to fall away.”

J. asked if pain felt good or bad. I paused for a while. It’s both, really, I replied. Grief is the pain that arrests and captures breath and brings to focus the crystalline properties of the past, and anchors them in the now. It’s the process of  metabolizing the plaque that clogs our spirit’s will.

David Whyte is a poet after my own heart. I will let him speak to it what the sensation of denouement, the loosening of being-bound,denouement which is the outcome of grief, actually feels like to the sojourn soul.


.. after the pilgrim lanes,
and the ruined chapel,
the gull cries and the sea-hush
at the back of the island,
it was the way, standing still
or looking out
or walking, or even talking
with others in the evening bar,
holding your drink
or laughing with the rest,
that you realized part of you
had already dropped to its knees,
to pray, to sing, to look,
to fall in love with everything
and everyone again,
that someone from far inside you
had walked out into the sea light
and the great embracing quiet
to raise its hands
and forgive
everyone in your short life
you thought you hadn’t,
and that all along
you had been singing
your quiet way
through the rosary of silence
that held their names….

Excerpted from LEAVING THE ISLAND :
Twenty Poems of Requited and Unrequited Love’
© David Whyte and Many Rivers Press
Now Available at
Preorder on


My life was bound.

I can’t live a generative life, bound. No one can. Damn, I was trying. Like a kicking duck, damn I was trying to make my own generosity.

I told those knots to go away for years. I dissociated. I shunned. I prayed for them. I asked others to pray for them. I got angry at them. Really angry. I looked for surgical repair, binary solutions, this is here, can’t it be cut out of me? They remained taught, sometimes growing in their resilience.

Only recently did I grieve them. But the process started two years ago. Unconsciously, two years ago I created a playlist called “Inspiration”. I metabolize via music and sweat. It’s a work-out mix of what I consider “power music”, the kind where maybe a certain song hits just so and the volume needs to go to 11. That was the plan at least. It’s a really weird mix. Half Light II by Arcade Fire. Instant Karma by Lennon. Little Black Submarines and The Weight of Love by Black Keys. I Can Change by LCD Soundsystem.Johnny Cash sings The Wanderer with U2. When it’s on shuffle, it seems that my friends at The Blackthorn Project’s Too Proud tends to come on before Midnight City by M83, and I have no idea why that happens.  But when I first started listening to it while working out, I didn’t know for instance, which locked drawers of my history songs like “Shake it Out” would come from or why that song regularly brought me to tears in a pre-dawn run. And why did I put Cat Power’s “The Greatest” right after that? For a while, I was embarrassed to do pull-ups and listen to David Bowie’s “Heroes”, thinking that I was living straight out of my all-too-familiar grandiosity. How illogical to want to be a dolphin.

But one day, while sobbing on the bar, I forgave my youthful feelings of grandiosity and I let poetry happen. I just let it happen.

To me.

Once I wanted to be the greatest
No wind or waterfall could stall me
And then came the rush of the flood
The stars at night turned deep to dust

Getting stuck there in the pain of the unresolved was much like Florence’s devil looking to hitch a ride and add some real weight to my regime. From somewhere, it started to become actual pain that I could feel. While not comfortable at all, the very pain of breath, pain of soul, pain of body and pain of past was a presence I could weep for, a pain I could also receive blessing for, a pain that was my own, a singularity, a youth and a 40 year-old, a summation of story and context, of bondage and freedom, a moment that lingered on into the night with the residue of sweat and heart and somewhere down the road… gratitude.

God, I love how Florence sings the song of doing it herself. I know that so, so well. That is my story. That isn’t as familiar as much as it’s mantra. It’s a solidarity to trust in no one.

And yet grief isn’t doing it yourself.

Grief is the pained, tired soul unlocking the door.

Only when I grieved how the history had come forward into the present moment, when tears were shed in pain and sadness – and not in mis-directed, self-contempt and self-malice that spilled anger into the world- was I able to see the world in a generative lens again.

that you realized part of you
had already dropped to its knees,
to pray, to sing, to look,
to fall in love with everything
and everyone again,
that someone from far inside you
had walked out into the sea light
and the great embracing quiet
to raise its hands
and forgive
everyone in your short life

Grief isn’t frequently on the menu at holiday gatherings. But this year, this year it is for me. Because only in the grief can restoration, regeneration, and ultimately the very renewal that is the gratitude at the heart of the season, be born anew.

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