Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Alchemy of Grief

photo by Judith M. Daniels, © 2007

by Emily Ferrara
Mindful Living Guide
September 23, 2007

Grief is a kind of illness—a journey into the pit of one’s own suffering and the knowledge of one’s own mortality. When the grief is for one’s child whose death came suddenly and unexpectedly, the journey is particularly harrowing.

The processes of alchemy—calcinatio (burning by fire), solutio (dissolving in water), sublimatio (rising in air), coagulatio (falling to earth), mortificatio (decaying), and transmutation (healing)—have provided a container for my experience of grief in the wake of my son Adam’s death. They have grounded me in the essential elements of life—fire, water, air, earth—and have given me the scaffolding on which to hang the maddening, frightening, and at times incoherent experience of the illness of grieving, and the hope that there is the possibility for renewal and transformation on the other side of grief.

I work and teach in a medical school, and am surrounded by doctors and doctors-in-training. I am witness to the transformation of young, idealistic men and women compelled to go through the fire of medical education in order to be fully prepared to bear witness to illness and to provide some measure of relief for their patients. One fact that is mostly overlooked in medical education is that no one who is a human being will escape the experience of illness. As no one will escape death.

Advances in medicine allow for saving babies born who weigh less than two pounds and are not finished with the developmental processes meant to occur in the womb, and prolonging the lives of the elderly and the catastrophically injured, who themselves may wish for death’s release. Stem cell research, genetic engineering, cloning, and other advances offer hope while also giving rise to a false sense of control over life and death—an especially dangerous idea being planted in the minds of medical professionals and patients alike. And yet if we wake up to the actual experience of life and death, we must know, right to the marrow, that illness is our lot, and death is unmistakably inescapable.

Despite my familiarity with the world of medicine, I was not prepared for its ultimate failure—the death of my son. He was born with aortic stenosis in 1984, before balloon angioplasty was used to repair faulty aortic valves. At that time, his life was saved with surgery in the skilled hands of now renowned cardiac surgeon Dr. Richard Jonas at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and the caring attention and expertise of all the doctors, nurses and staff.

I still remember sitting beside Adam in the Cardiac ICU, the night after surgery. He was hooked up to a multitude of tubes, and his tiny body was drugged and restrained. The surgery had gone well, but now the moment of truth was upon us. Would he make it through the next 48 hours, the most critical period for survival?

I sat by his isolette in the middle of a large open room—my breasts still producing milk, my vagina still bleeding from the birth just weeks before—and stood watch, for 5 minutes every hour, the limit on ICU parent visitation. I was desperate and filled with fear at the prospect of losing my firstborn child.

When the pediatrician made her rounds, I asked her, “Could he die?” I was looking for some kind of reassurance. She would offer no false hope. She met my eyes and, without turning away, said, “Yes, he could die.”

At the time, her direct response seemed cold-hearted. I barely knew this doctor, and I had barely tasted motherhood. I clung to a tiny strand of hope that I glimpsed beneath the doctor’s direct acknowledgment of the limits of medicine—the bald truth of the tenuousness of life.

Now, I know the direct, honest answer by this brave doctor was the beginning of the preparation I would need to face Adam’s ultimate death 19 years later. In Buddhism, The Five Remembrances mantra is recited to remind ourselves of the ultimate truth of life—that illness, suffering and death are our lot:
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
Are of the nature of change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions.
I am the beneficiary of my deeds.
My deeds are the ground on which I stand.
Reciting this mantra in the months after Adam died helped me to accept his death as the natural order of the world. And provided me with the guidance to consider that what I did in response to his death was my primary task, my most important responsibility, and the only true way for me to continue being alive.

— — —
Emily Ferrara, the 2006 winner of the Bordighera Poetry Prize, has published poems in Worcester Review, Ballard Street Poetry Journal, Family Medicine, Full Circle, Lifeboat, Lynx Eye, and several anthologies. Her poems have received awards from the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine in 2005, and from the Worcester County Poetry Association and the New Words, New Voices in 2006. The Alchemy of Grief will be her first full length book. She is Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at University of Massachusetts Medical School, where she teaches creative writing and directs the grants and special projects division for the school’s Office of Medical Education.

Emily can be reached via her website, located at

© copyright 2007 by Emily Ferrara.

1 comment:

  1. I am awed by your bravery. Personally, with loved ones who have passed away, it's a comfort to me to know that their essence or spirit survives in the universe, and that, each breath we take contains some bit of them. But because we are physical beings, as well as spiritual, the loss of "holding" and touching" is very hard. May you enjoy peace of mind.