Dying is a journey. The same can be said of grief.
Indeed, a journey is a central image for everyone’s life. We take first steps—onto college, a new job, marriage—and set forth on unfamiliar paths. Maybe we’ll read a self-help book as a “trail guide.” Maybe we’ll listen to the advice of mentors. Maybe, even before a first step, we’ll plot the course of our education, relationships or career, identifying benchmarks to achieve and long-range goals. Planning is good, but most of the time we’ll stumble along.
Every “trail” has trials and errors. Oops and Hooray are often said on the same day. Regrets burden us like boulders tucked in a pack. Joys surprise us and lighten the load. On we trudge. On we scamper. Or, in my case, I bring on a labyrinth.
I’ve begun to use the labyrinth as a tool to help people understand their grief. I’m new at this, and mostly wonder how it will go. But I already know one thing: we’re all sojourners, pilgrims with heavy hearts and hopeful longings.
A labyrinth is a circular pattern with a specific course that includes an obvious start, middle and finish. Labyrinths can be temporary designs on a beach, painted on canvas, set in stone in a church’s floor or constructed for long-term use in an outdoor setting. A simple labyrinth may be no more than parallel lines forming a roundabout path. Complex ones will include symbols and mimic, to quote the Beatles, “a long and winding road.” For example, designs inspired by the 13th Century labyrinth in France’s Chartes Cathedral include a flower-like pattern in the middle with six “petals.” Those petals are symbolic of the six days of creation. But rudimentary or elaborate, all labyrinths share two key traits that may help a grieving person.
First, every faith (along with traditions that have nothing to do with formal religion) has symbols rooted in a circle and/or journey. Christians were first called “people of the Way.” Buddhists reference the path of enlightenment. Native Americans speak of the sacred wheel. A labyrinth harkens to a common human experience, the journey of life. Second, labyrinths are not mazes. A maze contains dead-ends, wrong turns and tricky decisions. You may get lost in a maze. If you walk with others, some “win” and others “lose.” Instead, the labyrinth is intentionally calming and easy to follow.
Grief can often seem maze-like, with wrong turns and dead-ends. Which is why encouraging someone to walk a labyrinth is helpful and life affirming. It’s an invitation to work through, and walk through, their concerns and questions. A labyrinth is a literal and symbolic way to explore steps toward healing. While on a labyrinth, a grieving person has a chance to start a path, take one step at a time and complete a journey. As we heal from grief, we don’t forget the loved one. As we heal from grief, we don’t go back to our “old normal.” But each step on a labyrinth may help some discover how they can move forward.
When we grieve, life can be scary. Loss scars us. But I believe all are on a sacred path.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by