In grief and gratitude

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

This article first appeared in the Woman and Home shortly after the death of my dad and mom. February marks two years since my dad died and almost three since my mom passed on. I hope maybe this article brings some solace to others. The text is below the photos of the article.

By Vivian Warby I was privileged to spend every day with my father, and almost every night next to him, for a month prior to his death. After he died, we had a six-day open house wake in which hundreds upon hundreds of family and friends arrived to show respect and sympathise with my siblings and I. Streets were closed and a guard of honour was formed at my dad’s funeral.

Every step of this journey was so important for me but I had not had a moment to actually take in the enormity of what had just happened. My dearest father, Joe, had died less than a year after my beloved mother Dot had died, and a day before Valentine’s day.

I had feared and dreaded my parents death since I was a little girl, right through my teenage years and even well into my later years.

And yet, here I was carrying on as normal, as if nothing had happened, back to my daily life. Something did not feel right. I felt it my body’s unusual aches, and I felt it in the way my tears refused to fall. This event, the death of both my parents within a year of each other – needed something more than a courteous nod. I put in for leave owing and within a few days I was packed up on a solo road trip. It felt like my parents' end of the road here on earth needed an exclamation mark. My parents have died. Exclamation mark. The great loves of my life are gone. Exclamation mark. It is not business as usual. Exclamation mark.

Added to that I had not found a safe place to express this inordinate amount of mixed feelings that had been swirling inside of me.

I needed a space to howl – like my ancestors before me had done in times of grief. It was in my DNA to wail, to express in 3D my lived reality. But polite society often does not understand this base instinct within us, this primal need to let our bodies talk our pain. But, my body wanted to talk - loudly - and as a great act of self love I was going to give my body the space to do so.

My requirements for a solo road trip: No humans close by. Preferably complete isolation. Nature.

I found this in my first stop. Springfield Farm in Agulhus. I specifically arrived on a Sunday after guests at the cottages had left and I was all alone. I was petrified. Anxious. And I felt every bit alone as my heart was telling me I was now that my parents were gone. At night times I could hardly sleep as a city slicker jumping at every sound in the darkness of the countryside, only a candle flickering. The stories of a ghost who lived on the farm certainly didn’t ease my nerves.

Yet as day broke, so did my fears break into a myriad of little pieces. This repetition day in and day out, that the night turns to day and all is fine again was just the message I needed imprinted into my achy psyche. Yes it was scary being in a world without my parents, yes it was scary not to have that unconditional love around anymore, yes it was scary to miss two people so much it tore at the skin of my soul. Yet, the baby pinks that ploughed through dark skies to bring in the day told me again and again that everything would be okay. I heard my mother's voice often in Springfield: "Every day is a better day." And it was.

I feel Springfield was part of a sacred initiation. It helped me come face to face with lifelong fears and face them, live through them and walk out of them, getting a bit stronger each day. Writing became my ally in this grieving process. For years I had guided clients in this writing process for healing and now I lived it. I wrote ferociously. Letters to my parents, to myself, stories from childhood, memories that came flooding back.

And as I wrote and wrote, thousand upon thousand of words, an immense gratitude started to emerge. A gratitude for the parents I had had, for my brothers and sisters who walked this grief road with me, for my nieces and nephews and my great nieces and nephews, and especially for my ancestral lineage that I strongly felt supporting me every step of the way.

Days were for adventuring on my own into unknown territories. I began to feel brave and strong and me – the one who gets lost often – found in the 'lostness' the most wonderful spaces and places in Agulhus, and always, every night, found my way home.

This process too was a reminder of that no matter how lost I got, how big or small my adventures were, I would always be able to find my way back to myself and that was affirming.

By the time I left Springfield for my next leg of the journey – to the red mountains of Kruisrivier in the Klein Karoo – I was feeling strong, as though I had walked through an initiation and had survived it. I felt proud of myself, I felt loved and I also felt grateful for the unseen beings – including my parents, my sister, and my niece and nephews, gone before me – who had supported me in these days of early grief.

As I was leaving Agulhus, it struck me that my great grandfather had drowned at sea, and so I made a detour to the southern-most tip where two oceans meet, and I paid homage to him and to the brave souls of my ancestors who had come across the treacherous seas to make a home for us here. And I started to sob so much that my body was shaking uncontrollably. Through the tears I sang an old family song and acknowledged the dead and I felt a million years of grief crash with every wave back to the here and now. Those who understand that the pain of our ancestors lives in our DNA will understand how big this was in letting go of another layer of my shared pain history. At Redstone Hills, the majestic mountains greeted me, and I could immediately feel a shift in the energies. This felt like a completely different part of my journey. While the lovely cottage was at the foot of the mountains with ostriches as neighbours, there were also people closer to me, and I started feeling I was slowly emerging into the world. Here I walked in the mountains early in the mornings. The walking was a meditative space and I had time to ground the past two years, including my mom’s illness and suffering leading up to her death, the nights next to her, and the nights next to my dad, as I watched them dying. I recalled how both in their last days had shown me something which felt like unconditional love. My dad two nights before he died, woke up in the night and I saw him reach for the blanket and then he did something which stretched my heart wide open – in his last days as he lay dying it was not of himself he thought but of me, he had picked up the blanket not to cover himself but to cover me. My mother too had done similar in her last days.

At Redtsone Hills my writing took a different turn. It was looking at a lot of faulty thinking about myself and a lot of crazy beliefs. Here, a big barrel in which I made a fire every night served as a place to let go as I tore page after page of unnecessary baggage that no longer belonged to me.

Watching it go up in flames was liberating and freeing. And in the early mornings as I walked the mountains, my stories of loss and of pain, were received with love by the earth and it supported me with bird songs, and wild flowers and red hills. It seemed as if every tear brought a new beauty in nature into focus and soon it felt that I was truly in paradise.

When I left Redstone Hills, it was not as an adult orphan, it was as a strong woman who had faced her fears and risen above them, who had also let go of the stories of not good enough. Sitting here now, as I write this, I recall the full moon at both Springfield Farm and Redstone Hills and how both in their unique ways supported me. Springfield was water, Redstone was fire. I knew I had not lost my parents but that they, like my ancestors, ran through my blood and that I would never be alone. My dad, taking a phrase from his soccer team, always used to say: You will never walk alone. This journey affirmed that. My mom’s words: "never give up", were echoed as the night fears at Springfield turned to the beauty of a new day. And, still, after their deaths, my mother and my father teach me. *Vivian Warby is an editor, writer, counsellor and writing couch. She uses words, writing, meditation and movement in her workshops and one-on-one sessions to assist with major transformation and healing.

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