Grieving my Grandmother in the Light of the Moon

This piece was originally published on Glow 

The Anishinabe people of central North America teach that the first of all mothers resides in the sky. That there she shines over the Earth. Resting, keeping watch on her children and guiding them through the night. They call her Nokomis, or Grandmother Moon.

 Sometimes Nokomis is full and luminous, and her presence can be felt intensely. To connect with her, one must only tilt their head towards the sky. Other times she is dark and quiet, and one must simply trust that she is still there, up in the sky, watching over,  protecting. Through her spiralic phases, her rhythmic waxing and waning, she gently guides the flow of life.

 My grandmother was my very first guide, and my closest friend. My earliest years overflowed with her full, magical presence: tea with fairies in the garden, afternoons at the duck pond, late night bubble baths with The Chronicles of Narnia playing from the tape player. 

 She died when I was six, on the night of a cold dark moon in November. This was fitting, as it was a cancer death: the kind of death that eroded her insides as she waned and then disappeared into the dark. The years immediately after felt barren and uprooted, shaky in her absence. 

 As is the natural rhythm of things, life did go on. For so many years, I left it at this, trying to “get over” the loss by keeping it behind me. Whenever I did allow myself to even come close to it, the years of compounded grief would crush me.

 Halfway through college, something shifted. For whatever reason, some part of me decided it was time to embark on the long, winding, beautiful, inevitably treacherous voyage of uncovering and healing my deeply buried grief. At first it felt like I was falling apart (sometimes it still feels like that), but every time I dipped my fingers into the pain I got a little deeper. And the deeper I went, the freer my breath became, and the more I began to feel her love again.

 In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes, “When it’s time, it’s time. The seal woman returns to the sea, not because she just feels like it, not because today is a good day to go, not because her life is all nice and tidy--there is no nice and tidy time for anyone. She goes because it is time and therefore she must.” In the passage, she’s talking about how when a woman feels the call to return to herself, to reconnect with her innate creativity and wildness, she simply must, no matter the wreckage. 

 I believe grief and healing work the same way. When old wounds open, when your heart calls out that it’s time, right now, right here, to allow yourself to feel what you’ve buried, to face the excruciating pain and fears that live in the subterranean of your psyche, well... you do whatever it is you need to do to answer your heart’s call, because it’s time.

 I also believe that when it is time, things that want to help us through the pain will call out to us, too. For me, that help showed up by way of grandmother moon. During this time, I was down deeply into the wisdom of her cycles. I read everything I could on her mythology, learned what she’s like through her varying phases, and most of all, spent many nights sitting outside crying under her sweet, watery light.

 Grief is a continual process. There is no getting over it, no going back to the way it was before the loss. There is only evolving with the grief as it waxes and wanes, intensifies and subsides. Writer and witch Sarah Faith Gottesdiener writes that “a grief timeline is not made of logic. The timelessness of Moon time, the timelessness of magic, can be helpful to realize, witness, and work with.” As I drew closer to the moon, my view of time and trajectories opened up, and I began to see my grief as something to move withrather than move through.

 There are still days, nearly sixteen years later, when the grief feels fresh and raw and wailing-- and truthfully, there will probably always be days when it feels like that. But through releasing the pressure to overcome the grief, I started to see it as a living, breathing, evolving testament to the strength of what my grandmother and I shared. 

 I like to think that my grandmother also loved the moon. She probably did, given that she loved to be outside. It comforts me to know that the moon I look at each night is the moon that watched over her during her time on this earth. It’s how the moon helps me connect with my grandmother, to feel her presence even though her physical form is long gone. 

The moon teaches trust. It teaches that there is so much more to this existence than what we can see in our immediate physical reality. It teaches of the interconnectedness of light and dark, birth and death. There have been so many times since she died that I wished I could talk to her, ask her for advice, tell her what I’m thinking or just tell her “I love you”. So many times I’ve wanted to hug her, laugh with her, pick weeds and plant snap peas in her garden. At every milestone, I feel her absence-- what would it be like if she were there to see me graduate, or read my poems, or meet my partner? None of this will ever change, and my path forward will be one of spiraling in and out of this grief, evolving with it. And yet, her love is always available. Even if I can’t see her, or touch her, or hear her laugh, I know there is the moon--that I can look up  and trust that she is still here, deep in my heart, watching over and protecting me along the way.

Sabrina Nelson