Tears Of Grief At The Altar Of Memory

— Pat O Donohue

“…the memory of the earth is the ultimate harvester
and preserver of all happening and experience.”
— John O Donohue

Christmas for me had always been a time of sweet tastes, of presents, presences and joy. Then on January 04,2008 it was suddenly and cruelly transformed as it was overtaken by the bitter awareness of loss and grief. It was at that moment, 4.35a.m., Friday morning, my head bent low into the phone searching for a mistake, that my eyes first caught a glimpse of the familiar ground vanishing at my feet. As a fog descended on my days, the only thing that settled in my heart was an absolute presence to John’s oft-repeated statement,

“There’s a day waiting for you in your life when unwelcome news will breach your boundaries, whether through the measured sentences of an obligated physician or through the cold earpiece of technology, news of illness to you or a loved one will arrive.”

The familiar ground vanished. My feet lost their confidence. It’s as if I walk on the frozen surface of a lake but my footsteps can no longer sense the thickness of the ice –I am not and never will again be on the familiar ground of past experience.

For those of us plunged into grief, a cold icicle pierces our center and forces the lungs to suck in their last breath of innocent air. This last gasp must sustain us as we rise from the despairing dark towards the blue light of the surface. Our body reaches back into its history to reclaim the learned lessons of survival. We feel the pores of the body closing in on themselves in an effort at self-protection against the on-coming pain. This is our oldest, most primitive reaction, born as a child of the desire for self-survival. John describes this time as the winter-season of the heart. Through this time;

“It is now wise to follow the instincts of nature and withdraw into yourself. When it is winter in your soul, it is unwise to pursue any new endeavours.”
— Anam Cara, Seasons of the Heart

This is the time to lie low by the shelter of the wall and let the worst of the onslaught pass. The walls that John knew here in the Caherragh Valley are the single, loosely built stone walls full of winking openings which allow the passage of light and air. These walls filter the most intense of the driven fury unlike the solid double-wall which would block out everything.

For me, this is the journey of my grief — I have no control, it cannot be processed, dealt with or made sense of. Grief is the flowing of the tears of loss realizing itself in my being as a new definitive existence. This loss is the gap that cannot be filled and never should be. If we take the idea of ‘gap’ in its clinical definition of being a break in continuity, then we miss out on the possibility of its being an opening into possibility. If we fill it up with quick-fix solutions, we are only putting a temporary ‘ciseach’ over it in an effort to continue with the linear dimension of our old lives.

We used a ‘ciseach’ when bringing out turf (peat) from the bog with donkeys and baskets. The journey of the turf laden donkey from the bank of turf to the solid road would often be mined with soft, marshy spots into which the donkey would sink. To enable him to travel safely over it, we would gather sticks and rushes to form a strong layer of skin over the marshy spot. This was a temporary measure. It had to be patched up regularly with fresh bandages of newly cut rushes. We need a temporary ‘ciseach’ as a patch on the boggy ground of grief to help us to solid ground. We must recognize that we are patching just to be able to mind what it is that we are carrying, knowing that it will not be a permanent bridge.


For me, I must accept this gap, this loss, as having an existence of its own now as I journey ahead with the absence of the physical presence of John. Death has entered my living space and has left me its calling card: Grief. This card will remain in my pocket until my own moment of embrace with him again. Grief comes over me like the waves down at the shore — relentless yet rhythmic and always varied — some gentle and then the tumultuous roaring ones. By its very nature, grief will always make itself known to me — I never have to go in search of it. If I leave myself open to the path of the wave, it will tug at my feet and it is up to me to sense how far and deep I am willing to be drawn. Collective wisdom would teach that I should enter only to the point from which I know I can return, and then venture a little further with each visit. To race desperately from our shore of sanity into the insane and unknown sea of grief seems both futile and dangerous.

Fisherman and others living at the edge of the sea tell us to “always respect the power of the sea”. As the original womb of all it draws us to it and has a constant heaving desire to reclaim its children. I think that ‘the sea of grief’ is an evocative metaphor. Underneath the surface lies a myriad of memories, each a catalyst for a certain emotion — some bitter, some sweet. To wade in too quickly can only lead to the losing of our footing and despair draws us down into its darkness.

In grief our grounding connectedness to the earth becomes severed and we are at the mercy of the ebb and flow of the unknown. This will happen anyway at different stages in the journey of grief but if we learn to be gentle with ourselves and attentive to the cry of the heart then we have a better chance of entering into the new presence that’s waiting to embrace us. In this way we will be better able to swim parallel to the shore in that calm space behind the unleashed wave that has washed over us and the gathering one that is building up to consume us.


The idea of our own mortality is like a shroud of fear that paralyzes our lives. When we find our own rhythm, this shroud relaxes its grip on us. The veil is thinnest now and we can become more aware and present to the constantly offered glimpses of the soul and the eternal.

Each of us has a unique rhythm through which we resonate the call of the eternal. We are like little time-capsule bubbles floating around within the eternal. The eternal is like an uninterrupted flow of music surrounding us with beautiful rhythmic tones. Whenever we stop racing around inside our bubbles and become still, these tones attract our inner rhythm; a connection is formed and a flow establishes itself. It’s like a great orchestra filling a grand hall with its music. The flow of music wafts itself in through our bodies. It does not touch merely our mind and senses. It engages the soul. As we become still we allow the music to dance its dream into our imagination. Presence to a moment is created.

Recently I had an amazing conversation with an engineer on the topic of suspension bridges. It illuminated for me a fascinating aspect of the merging of rhythms. Rhythm does exist everywhere and sometimes we can synchronise with different rhythms by pure chance — we just need to become more aware. He explained that each cable in a suspension bridge is tightened to a certain frequency of tension, which is central to the stability of the bridge. He explained that when an army is out on a training exercise and if it has to cross a suspension bridge, the soldiers have to walk at random over it. If they were to march across the bridge in a rhythm accidentally hitting the same frequency as the tension of the bridge, its structure would be compromised to the point of collapse.

Every single thing on earth is held together by a thread of rhythm through which we have a conversation with the eternal. This conversation is continuous throughout every moment of our lives, calling us to become consciously present to its existence.

This is the path we walk each day with the possibility of awakening or increasing our awareness to the merging of our inner clay rhythm with that of its earth mother from which we are made. In this modern world of distraction we often live our lives with a foolish bravery born of the presumption that tomorrow’s air will fill our lungs.


The journey of grief is individually unique to each person. It is an entering into the “corner-field of memory” where all the shared moments of a past life have gathered. John used to always say that “nothing is ever lost or forgotten”. If we could grasp the full implication of that statement, we would find ourselves in the arms of the ultimate comfort.

The memories of the missing one are ageless, eternal, as pure and clear as their moment of conception. The term ‘memory fades’ means to me that it is we who are fading from the place of memory. Our desire to visit there becomes eroded by our reliance on the conveyor-belt of routine which kidnaps our days making us lethargic. While we are alive our memories do not intrude, yet I think that they are not inert but live just over our shoulder and will appear on request in order to illuminate a darkness, lighten a load or trace a tear-drop. Normally we are too distracted to be fully present to our memoria. We live our lives too much in a linear fashion with not enough attention to the chinks into the other dimensions where all the real fun happens! We must learn to move more carefully and awaken to our own rhythm so that our hearts can fully absorb all that the poultice of memory is offering us. ‘Time will heal’, only if we become attentive to the wound. Healing occurs at a much deeper level than at the surface.


By not putting myself on the path of my grief I am making the statement that I do not want to change. I am afraid of the new. I want to wallow unchallenged in my old innocence that defined the parameters of my thinking and my living.

By offering myself to the path of my grief, I am making the statement that I want to lay claim to this new absence of the lost one. The innocence of my old life has been shattered. I must now try to reconstruct it. I must take one conscious step to signify my own awareness and to acknowledge that I am on a threshold. “When the eyes of my beloved freeze behind the grey window ….”, my eyes have to adjust to the dawn of living in this new world without him.

Wounded by the death of John, I now understand its aftershock and have a deeper sense of the saying, “Death comes like a thief in the night”. It routs the forces of its enemy; in its wake it leaves a trail of maimed, crippled and broken hearts. However, John spoke in such a reassuring and comforting way about death that it lifted the fog of fear that traps and terrorises our imagination. He spoke about death being born with you and being your secret companion throughout your life and then one day overtaking you or taking you over to your other dimension. He spoke of “befriending your death” — releasing yourself from the fear that you placed on it. Oh John, which celestial ancestor plucked the strings of such a sweetly tuned heart to bestow such beautiful music on us:

“you would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.”

Jesus broke the back of death on Good Friday. At the Last Supper he broke bread with his friends and shared his last meal with them. His last request to them as he broke the bread was that they would remember him. “Do this in memory of me.” John used to always say that when Daniel Berrigan celebrated the Eucharist he would say instead: “Whenever you do this, remember me!” This then is how we continue to wage the war on death — we use the lever of memory to widen the crevice of light which the boulder of death wants to seal out of our lives forever. Memory calls the past into the ‘now’. Remembering shared moments and saying the person’s name out loud keeps the annihilation of death at bay while we slowly graduate from the level of physical presence to the level of real presence.


A friend of mine who had served as a missionary in Peru told me that when saying mass, the remembering of the dead was very poignant. When he read the names of the dead, a roar would rise up from the crowd, their hands in the air calling out ”PRESENTE!” — present, — he/she is here! They kept their dead alive in their hearts.

Our highest honour as humans is to remember our dead. By calling their names we rescue them from anonymity and remember them to the journey that they had here. We invite them in gentleness to witness our acknowledgement of the beauty that they left behind them.

John saw “Memory as bringing our past into our present and connecting us to our future.” In his book Stone as the Tabernacle of Memory, he wrote:

“The soul is the home of memory, as you go through your life nothing is ever lost or forgotten; all the kindnesses and experiences of your life are gathered together in the Divine tabernacle of memory. Memory is the place where our vanished days secretly gather providing a beautiful shelter and continuity of identity. In a strange way everything that happens to us remains still alive within us. Sometimes it takes either focused attention to the past or merely a trigger moment to set off a sequence of memories.”

For me at this moment, memory seems like that field onto which I step to meet the person who has died. In this way I feel that I am accompanying John, keeping John alive in me. It acts as a kind of reference point and allows time for a gradual growth towards the new presence. While he was alive I often visited some of those memories, but death severs irrevocably the flow of shared living moments. Initially, all the strongest memories called me but as they opened their petals, I found myself in a haze of daisies offering me their dream.

Now, I open each memory-moment with a renewed intensity and different angles of encounter emerge. The approach now has the sensitivity and desperation of a film-editor but all the clippings are being picked up off the floor and spliced back into the reel. I am present to each millisecond of memory. Instead of just replaying, I’m letting it unfold its hidden message to me. This is a time for total presence, not analysis. My mind must become absent here as the new presence of the missing one caresses my soul through the medium of memory. This union is pure until it is disrupted by the mind as it reasserts itself in an effort to regain control.


What has happened here in this field dwells in the domain of ‘glimpses of the eternal’ — like the wonder of a rainbow being drenched by the mist of a mysterious evening. It is a moment when all forces coalesce to form a rare angle of vision that was never meant to be maintained. This is one aspect of the journey towards enlightenment and a realization of another interpretation of the saying, “As you get older, you have more friends in the graveyard.” I like to think that we are less alone as we walk the path of our lives. In the words of the wonderful Leonard Cohen; “…it’s crowded in my secret life….” We have more souls we know, available to us, waiting to be acknowledged and given an invitation.

John used to always say that we have no idea what boulders of misery are being held back from crushing us, by our loved ones who have gone before us. When a person close to us dies, we find ourselves faced with the conflict between loss and rebirth. On the one hand we have lost the physical presence; the soul has gone out of the body. Where did it go? Meister Eckhart`s answer to this question is: it goes NO WHERE!. The soul has returned to the great consciousness that connects everything, as the river returns the water to the sea. So we’ve got to let go of the physical connection in order to awaken to the dawning of a new spiritual presence. The agony of aloneness is visited as equally in the separation at death as it is in the separation at birth. There must have been tears on the other side at the departure towards birth into this dimension as there are tears on our side at the departure towards birth into the other dimension.


When we revisit our memories of the loved one who has died, we do so with a poignancy and intensity because we are now inflicting memory with our experience of death. While that person was alive there was always the possibility of a response to the question; “Do you remember when we………?” Now that possibility no longer exists. Now we are on our own and our aloneness accentuates our loneliness. This is where I am with grief: saying goodbye to the scent, taste and touch of the physical John who has left so that I can let the old memories merge and fill with the new presence of John. All the worldly possessions of our dead now have the status of the decaying body as it returns back into its earth mother. All physical things were of their time here of that body. It’s not that we callously remove them from our lives rather we pick them up and hold his scarf, his jacket, his pen or hat and as we remember, we thank them with tears of gratitude and sorrow. Each memory must be allowed its time and we must be present to its feeling.

I’m mourning the physical loss of John, his body with all of its vibrations. But it was only one aspect of his being in this world in which he lived with me. His beautiful spirit and soul was the eternal John that I’m now learning endures time, outside space and lives with us now patiently awaiting being seen by our new eyes. John had a unique understanding of how absence is alive with hidden presence. When a person dies they leave a gap behind them. When they die this space doesn’t have to become a dark void, a containment chamber for our refusal to accept their passing. In this space we can find their new presence when the tears of grief have cleansed our eyes of the dust of an old innocence.


After we let the flames of sadness and despair rage through us, like flash fires erupting in parched grass, it is the overflowing of the well of tears that quenches the fury. Then comes the time of picking our footsteps among the patches of scorched earth. As this ground cools it is already inviting new growth.

This time of healing is full of fear, excitement and guilt. This strange ground holds a promise of new life yet one might feel guilty about the necessity for all the destruction and pain that has carved this path towards a new threshold of promise. Why did death have to come and ambush us like that. John fell in the first volley and the rest of us limped away wounded.

“Indeed, the prospect of death is probably the greatest single inspiration of human creativity and passion. The brevity of our presence here is suddenly brought into sharp relief and intensifies our sense of urgency.”
Benedictus, Chapter 7

As the dawn drives the darkness back we come to trust that there is an overall plan that is teasing a rhythm from the chaos all around us. God is the name, but God is too big a concept for us to comprehend. The Sacrament of love connects and sustains the souls of human, animal, earth, sky and sea. A sacrament by definition is a ‘visible sign of invisible grace’. This sign involves taking the step into awareness of the intimacy of relationship between the human soul and the soul of the earth and all its inhabitants. Now we can receive the grace to become present to the journey of our own life. This to me is the thread of connection between what John called our own inner landscape and the outer landscape of the earth. John unearthed a forgotten Celtic language and perception thru which we can baptise ourselves back into this sacrament. As we awaken to the existence of this connection, we can begin to trust the moon again as it blesses our nights with remembered dreams, trust the sun as it warms the hope of each footstep we take on this earth.

Beannacht oraibh,

Pat O Donohue

Benedictus is entitled To Bless The Space Between Us in the U.S.
Stone As Tabernacle of Memory is currently out of print, but plans are underway for reissue.