Harvesting Hope: The Unexpected Bounty of Grief Work
Author: Emily Munoz
I grew up in rural Tennessee, where I remember riding along with a friend's grandfather on a combine, watching and listening as he maneuvered the large harvester/thresher through a crop of corn (while I got grease on a skirt I shouldn't have been wearing on farm equipment). Joe Taylor and I were 6 years old when we climbed down from the high cab to look at the healthy corn before us. We turned toward the slain stalks that littered the huge tire tracks behind us. His grandfather explained what the machine had accomplished. The combine revolutionized the agricultural industry, combining (it's a pretty sensible name) reaping, threshing and sorting into one action. It also changed what can happen after the harvest; left-behind straw could be easily harvested for cattle feed and soil could be prepared for the next planting or for fallow time.
At this stage in my grief journey, how easy it is for me to reflect on harvested fields and feel some pang of kinship. Now, when I think back on the strong plants in the late afternoon Tennessee sunshine, my adult self wants to consider the reaping and see emptiness. I want to look ahead to the still-proud stalks and do some kind of corn dance warning, like, "You did all that growing and you're about to get smashed!" But that's not it at all. The lessons of harvesting are about what the combine does - it's about all that work. It's about moving through, taking what's useful and caring for the soil that has once grown bountifully. There is comfort in knowing that with proper care it will yield again.
Almost as soon as we're faced with drastic loss, we begin taking stock. What do we have that's still good? What has been taken from us? As we grieve, we may experience the tendency to try to gather everything we can - stories, photographs, belongings - because we want and need to own it all.
This feeling of wanting to know as much as possible about our loved ones will never go away. Even years down the road, there may be surprise moments when someone offers a previously unknown story, or something will trigger a hidden memory. So many of those moments are wonderful. Many also demonstrate our loved ones' humanity. As grief leads us to examine and gather, to know our loved ones as much as we possibly can, we may get more than we bargained for in our search.
As we seek to understanding their actions, feelings and love for us, we may discover a new understanding of how much we were loved. We also may be forced to confront things that make us feel misunderstood or limited. When this happens, all that we know to be true may be in doubt.
Our efforts to know everything may result in surprise at how much there is or how much there isn't. We may be frustrated that other family members and friends have parts of a puzzle that aren't apparent to us. We may be unexpectedly sharing our loss with family members we weren't close to or didn't know existed. We may find out that our loved ones hid their destructive habits or feelings, that they were dishonest or even just that we did not know every single little thing about them.
As we pull proof of life close to us, we take in the entirety of who our loved ones were and what that means. We will consider how to share them in grief just as we shared them in life. Our unanswered questions and the ways our loved ones played different roles for different people are combined with the rest of what we know about them.
Try to think of those as parts of the larger harvest. Like ears of corn, they're individual - no one question, action, moment or disappointment can tell the whole story. As we gather them to us, we also start to gather ourselves again. We provide context for their lives with our own lives. We look around and see what has happened, all that has grown, and all that we are now holding. And then we start to sort.
Threshing and Winnowing
The process of sorting is about learning what to keep and what to let go. As we process grief, we learn that there are parts of our grief that will fall away. There are parts of our grief that we can use and there are parts that we can't. Things that cannot be processed or that do not feed our spirits must be discarded. What fuels us forward is the harvest of your grief work. This is the process of threshing.
In agriculture, threshing is about as laborious a process as one can imagine. Hand threshing involved beating the grain with a device called a flail. So, if you feel like you're flailing about it in this process, you're doing it right. Another method was to spread the grain on the floor and have oxen and donkeys walk on it, so if you feel downtrodden, you're also on the right track. Other methods included just putting your grain in the road and letting people's heavy wagon wheels roll over it. Whatever the method, it involved work, weight and a real commitment to sweeping.
Beyond even the need for a good broom (we'll get to that), focus for a minute on the weight. True heaviness was, and still is, required to make something of the harvest. The process involves breaking and loosening. It requires determining what is useful and what is not. Threshing, as it relates to our grief, is a process of figuring out what part of your life, and your loved one's lives, is the most important.
There are parts of the grief journey, too, that we want to hold - the parts that introduce us to the #tapsfam, the parts that remind us of how much we were, and are still, loved. We want to keep the parts that inspire growth - the parts that hold kernels of truth, inspiration and power. Loosening these parts from past disappointments, abandonments, failures, mistakes and regrets, anything that does not serve to nourish us, is chaff. These are distractions, unanswerable questions, what-if's and why-did-you's that pull at our minds but will never nurture hope. When we do the work of grief and really explore what we need and what we don't, we allow a loosening of the chaff.
There are parts of our grief, and our relationships, that haunt us all. For some of us, it's the last conversation or the last fight; maybe it's a childhood argument. Maybe you regret impatience, missed moments or that you didn't understand just how sick they were. Perhaps you regret denial, maybe you regret trying to be strong and hiding your feelings. Or possibly you fixate on a small way you let a loved one down; maybe you are angry at stolen futures or embarrassed of the way you treated a loved one, or yourself, in your pain.
A time of harvest means there is an opportunity - no, a mandate - to loosen our hold on this chaff. If we do not loosen the grain from what is around it, the harvest cannot be useful to us. The problem is that this requires a lot of work. But, the heavier your weight, the closer you are. (And, no, I'm not talking about how many donuts you ate yesterday.)
Once the chaff is separated, winnowing is the process of letting the packaging blow away. Winnowing, in grief, is to allow the hollowness around which we fixate to fall to the wayside. It is to free ourselves of distractions and the parts of our stories that we can't control. It is to keep only that which is useful to the process.
Resting for Growth
Whatever work you've done in your grief, no matter how much you've resisted, you have found the parts of your loved ones that are the most important to you. Maybe you've decided to hold closest the gift of his birth, or rediscovered the way she looked at you. Maybe it's children or family, but the best qualities have come forward again to claim the limelight. Or maybe they haven't, and you've found a new strength in yourself. You've grabbed onto the truth of your own story and have started to appreciate how loving and missing someone has introduced you to that. Maybe in your grief you've even found some gifts.
After all of this work, don't forget the last part of this process. To complete the harvest season is to recognize the continued need to allow growth. As our grief journeys yield new insights, new strengths, and even new questions and disappointments, they still provide the same promise that soil does. As you move into fall, and as you see the harvests around you, start to think about what you can gather, what you can release, and how you can prepare yourself for new seasons of growth. Clear a swath of land for yourself. Allow yourself to see the promise there - you will grow again.
By Emily Muñoz, TAPS Strategy and Communications Senior Advisor, Surviving Spouse of Army Capt. Gil Muñoz: Emily Muñoz is TAPS Strategy and Communications Senior Advisor and survivor spouse of Army Capt. Gil Muñoz. Emily (with the tilde) is still living a personal campaign to be the person her late husband, Gil, loved — and is using the Inner Warrior program to empower survivors to do the same.