what wildfires have to do with grief

As I write this post, a thick haze fills the air. My throat is sore. Wildfires are burning in Eastern Oregon, their smoke and ash filtering the sunlight here, so many miles away.

The wind shifts, and my eyes sting. As I pout about not being able to bike around today (the air quality makes it hard to breathe), I think: I’m at the periphery of this blaze.

It’s mildly hard on me. I can’t escape it. It’s pervasive, and it changes everything, if only slightly, and only for the day. It affects me, but it’s not mine.

Miles away, across the state, hot shot teams and first responders are doing their best to contain the blaze. They put their lives at risk in order to shepherd the flames into paths of least destruction. Humans and animals in the fire zone have to make decisions to stay or to go, their lives altered – or potentially altered. While the fire affects me, it is far more personal for them.

Sounds like grief, right?

It’s useless to compare levels of grief, though of course, many like to try. So I’m not talking about my sore throat being less important than the experience of those closer to the flames. But this is a good picture of grief, and the widening circles of impact: for some, the death of one person changes the entire world, entirely and permanently. For others, that death changes the world in some ways, inhibits their daily actions for a time, temporarily raises their awareness of the precariousness of this life.

The impact inside the devastation zone is huge; the ripples that fan out from that place alter the world – and the people – around it, sometimes profoundly, sometimes temporarily.

As I think of the teams and the families and the animals out there in the fire zones, my sore throat reminds me to send love. My own brief pain reminds me that we’re connected by the long arm of loss, its continuum stretching to include all of us.

While my symptoms are transitory, theirs are yet unknown. I can drink tea to soothe my throat, and hope that out there, in the heat of the flames, love and support make themselves known to all involved.

I can bear witness, even when the fire is not my own.

Our culture is not so good at bearing witness, which is why grief can be such a lonely, isolating experience. People on the periphery of loss have stinging eyes and raspy throats, but they forget someone’s life has gone up in smoke. They forget to look towards the center, to the source of the fire.

Bearing witness doesn’t change the reality, but it can make a difference.

Bearing witness doesn’t change the reality, but it can make a difference. I’ve seen this over and over again in the Writing Your Grief courses – grieving people coming together to witness each others’ pain in a safe and respectful space. It’s not magic, it’s love. It’s the power of presence, and of bearing witness.

In bearing witness, we don’t change anything, but we can make living this better. 

If you can use more love and support inside your own pain, please be sure to join us for the upcoming session of the Writing Your Grief course. Every session brings together grieving people from all walks of life, joined in the shared practice of bearing witness to each others’ grief, and each others’ love. I’d love to see you there.


flame-heart-100How about you? Have you found those who can bear witness, or are you out in the landscape alone? If you have found those who can witness your pain, how has that influenced your grief? Let us know in the comments.