The Labyrinth of Grief

by: Sandra Howlett, Ed.D. 

Remembering a time at a retreat I attended with a group of bereaved parents, I felt called to spend some time reconnecting with nature.  Toward the back of the property of this retreat, I discovered a labyrinth of stones.   At first glance, a labyrinth looks like a maze with its series of concentric circles yet it is quite different.  A maze has channels with choices to be made at every turn, some leading toward the center and many leading to dead ends.  In a labyrinth, there is but one choice to make – to enter or not.  It is a gentle, contemplative experience combining consciousness with movement.   The labyrinth is a metaphor of the journey inside oneself to gain understanding for living in the world. 

I have walked the labyrinth many times with a variety of experiences and outcomes.  Sometimes I gain a spiritual insight or solution to a troubling situation; sometimes not.  As I stood at the entrance to the labyrinth on this particular day, I set my intention as a desire to see something in a different way.  And so I did.   

Within the first few steps I saw things that I had not noticed before…footprints in the dirt, stones out of line yet still a semblance of order, weeds, and the gentle breeze with some significant gusts.  I saw a single way in and out but no quick way to get from “here to there”.  I became increasingly aware of the parallels between walking the labyrinth and the journey of grief. 

I started off slowly but noticed that sometimes I would speed up as I turned the corners of the switchbacks.  After a while, I let go of any sense of time and could not have told you if I had been walking for 10 minutes or an hour.  Sometimes in grief, time gets convoluted….from standing still to totally losing track of it. 

I noticed the footprints of others in the sand reminding me that I was not the first nor would I be the last who would walk this path.  That was a comfort to me, to know that someone else had been there.  On previous walks, I have shared the labyrinth with others, each of us on our own journey and at our own pace, silently stepping aside to allow one another other to pass if we meet in the same ‘lane’.  It is possible to be in the same lane and going in opposite directions.  Such is grief as everyone does it a little bit differently. 

While I could see at least ten lanes to the labyrinth, I could only be in one at a time.  The design of the labyrinth includes what appears to be backtracking switchbacks on the way to the center as well as to the exit.  Grief often feels like two (or three or four) steps forward, one step back – taking a lot of time, effort and energy with indiscernible results.  There were moments of impatience and frustration that I wasn’t moving ahead (aka healing) as fast as I wanted to.  I even asked myself when I would get to the end of this walk about only to met with yet another switchback on the path.  I reminded myself to simply put one foot in front of the other and trust that I was going to get where I was going.  The faith in that simple strategy helped me squash other worries, concerns and distractions…just one step at a time. 

There were a couple of times when I was not so attentive to my path resulting in a stumble and near fall.  Fortunately, I was able to catch my balance and avoid all four points plus my face landing in the dust.  My first thought was to look around to see if anyone saw me!  Why do we concern ourselves with what others might think when we are struggling and doing the best we can? 

The ‘halfway’ point of the labyrinth is the center, an open space that is a bit larger than the paths that surround it.  Some people leave symbolic tokens and ceremonial items in the center – candles, pictures, and personal items of interest.  It is a space to stand or sit and contemplate the journey.   I like to linger in the center for a while to take in the beauty of the four directions that I miss when walking with my head down, to say a prayer of gratitude or request, to even be grateful that I am able to walk the labyrinth knowing others who cannot. 

After this time of rest and reflection, I begin the journey ‘out’ of the labyrinth, walking the same pathways in the opposite direction.  For some reason, the walk out seems faster than the journey inward much like returning from a trip.  I recognize some of the terrain and feel a little bit clearer in my navigation. Perhaps it is a sense of familiarity of knowing the way or maybe it is an eagerness to find ways to integrate any insights I may have gained, it just seems to move quicker.    

 There are no ‘dead ends’ in a labyrinth, only switchbacks and changes of direction moving closer or further from the center.  There are really no dead ends in grief work either, only paths that move us closer or further from a peaceful heart and healing. 

After what seems like lots of back and forth, going over the same roads and finally making progress, the opening to exit always seems to come up quickly. While the entrance and the exit are one, it is the experience and wisdom of the journey that makes all the difference. 

As I back out of the labyrinth, I say a prayer of gratitude and peace.  Thank you for slowing me down and helping me see something differently today.  Thank you for the gift of wise presence.  

Dr Sandi Howlett is the Bereavement Specialist for Hansen Mortuaries.   She may be contacted at [email protected]