On Bright Wings

The one-year anniversary of my wife’s death looms, less than three weeks away, and I feel an overwhelming sadness grow inside me like a treacherous tumor. I cannot seem to excise that emotional sarcoma that wraps itself around every shred of my consciousness. I try humor and utter silliness and anger and sullen emptiness, but nothing is capable of cutting through the sinewy rope of sorrow that chokes me. Grief wells up in me like tears, threatening to drown me. Even the excitement of buying a house is overcome by a flood of memories that chastise me for every brief moment of respite I find possible to experience. Even the comfort of my IC’s tender and loving embrace cannot always hold the river of tears at bay.

I awoke just after 3 this morning, the sadness suddenly with me and telling me I would not be able to get back to sleep, no matter how hard I tried. So, I got up and made coffee and, as usual, read a bit. Among the bits and pieces I read was a poem—Antidotes to Fear of Death—sent to me by a friend, Robin, less than three weeks after my wife’s death. Though I was not and am not afraid of death, the poem resonated with me. In thanking her for sending its healing words to me, I said this to her: “What a wonderful way to awaken to my new perspective on the world.” The poem did not heal the pain of my loss, but it put a different slant on it. It lifted some of the sadness and sent it away. Even though I have no delusions of an afterlife or a world beyond the one each of us will one day leave, the poem’s imagery comforted me in the early days of intense, heartbreaking grief. The poem was written by Rebecca Elson (1960-1999) an astronomer and poet who died too young of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Her comforting words about death translate into healing words about grief. Yet their healing power does not remove the thick scar that death leaves; they only mask…thankfully…the excruciatingly acute pain beneath it. But the words comfort me a little as I think my wife “flew off on bright wings.”

Robin, if you read this post, know how much I appreciate you for thinking of me and helping me get through that terribly rough time.

Antidotes to Fear of Death
by Rebecca Elson

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

This morning, my cheeks are wet, with no signs they will dry anytime soon. Regrets about words I failed to say or said infrequently hound me. Guilt that, not even a year in, I am “moving on” with my life stabs at me. Even my appreciation of Elson’s beautiful poem belittles me for finding any solace in words my late wife never heard or read. And I think my tears are for me; they acknowledge only my pain, not the emptiness left behind by my late wife’s absence.


My IC and I close on our new house this afternoon. Before long, I will put my house on the market and, if all goes well, I will sell and vacate the house where I’ve lived for more than seven and a half years. Maybe leaving this house and the memories etched into its walls and floors and ceilings will help soften the acuteness of the grief I feel at this moment. Maybe, once the anniversary of her death passes, the pain will ease a bit each year until I  no longer feel the wound, like a sharp, stabbing pain that won’t leave me; won’t even subside. Maybe won’t do; I must insist on working through the pain, not just for my own well-being but for the well-being of the woman who now shares my life. Both of us can live with moments of grief, but we have to be able to keep it from intruding to frequently or too deeply.

We’ll make the new house ours. We’ll leave the stunning view of this house for the spectacular solitude of the one we are buying. I will adjust to a different architectural style and décor. I will keep trying to experience obstacles as opportunities. I will continue to work at being grateful for what I have, not unhappy for what I don’t.


I remember, when I was a child—perhaps a little older, maybe a teenager—that I was afraid of getting too close to the edge when I was in a high building or on a bridge or near a precipice. My fear was that I would be unable to resist the urge to throw myself off. It was not so much suicidal as it was a desire to know what death was like. My fear, gratefully felt in hindsight, was that I would be unable to return to life once I experienced death. Fear can be life-saving. Even today, I still try to stay a safe distance from dangerous high places, just in case I have not completely overcome irreversible morbid curiosity.


It’s a few minutes past 5 and I think I’ve overcome my early morning grief, for now. I have to keep at it, though, so my IC and I can enjoy one another’s company for years to come. More coffee, now, and something to eat. My IC will be awake in just over an hour, prepping for her hair appointment and, then, our walk-through of the new house before closing (to ensure our requested repairs have been satisfactorily made). I want to greet her with a happy face.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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