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Sacred Absence

A Pilgrimage of Love, Loss & Grieving Well

“Perhaps for now it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery of how a heart so broken can go on beating…” 

  -Jan Richardson, Blessing for the Brokenhearted

The Leaning Limb

For the first three or four years after Craig died, I took a morning walk with my dog, Cyon, so I could get a bit of exercise and she get could get her “ya yas” out – all that pent up energy! Sometimes we would jump in the old Subaru and head to the bike path, especially in winter when I knew no one else would be on the trail. Or sometimes we would head to a local park during off-peak times, again, so we wouldn’t run into other dogs or people. But most of the time, we would head down to our portion of the creek that ran along the back of the property. This was something I did joyfully since the day we brought our fluffy German shepherd home, but during my early years of grieving, these walks took on a different purpose. The became my “weeping walks.”


Along the edge of the creek, there stood a spreading box elder tree. It wasn’t very tall, maybe fifteen feet high, but it was wide. One of its large branches shot out horizontally from the trunk towards the water. It was just the perfect height for me to lay my elbows on, put my head down, and cry. Year after year, as Cyon sniffed holes in the bank or cooled off in the water, its mossy bark bore my full weight and sadness.


During one walk last year, I noticed the horizontal branch only came up to my stomach. I tried to recreate the lean, but it didn’t work. It was awkward and uncomfortable. I wondered what had happened. I inspected the trunk. Was it too heavy and causing the tree to lean forward? I looked at the ground. Did the several flooding events in previous years pile more dirt under the limb? I couldn’t really see anything definitive. All I knew was that tree or the creek side topography was changing and would continue to change, as I was and as I would.

A few days ago, I walked down to the creek again, but this time alone. I had to say good-bye to my faithful companion at the end of summer last year. Just one more life change to grieve and heal and move forward from. This time, though the “leaning limb” was still there, even lower, and another large branch from above had cracked off. It laid at the base of the tree covered with pieces of dark green moss and sage-colored lichen. As I scanned the tree top to see where it had cracked off, I noticed how different the tree was from just seven years ago. Smaller branches had also fallen off in strong winds, freezes and thaws were peeling away bark, shelf and other forms of fungus were slowing consuming the trunk. It is turning back to the earth. It has served its purpose to the soil, to the insects, to the birds, to the air, and to me.


At that moment, it dawned on me that I had not needed that “leaning limb” for quite some time. The “weeping walks” ended at some point but I could not recall when. My sorrow did not just stop one day. Like the lifecycle of that tree, parts of it were shed or consumed day after day after day, sometimes without noticing until much later. I also realized that as the box elder is transitioning to something different, so am I. Change is hard, but through the changes brought by loss, parts of me are becoming useful and creative and courageous.


A friend read the poem, When Great Trees Fall, by Maya Angelou, at my husband’s

memorial. It was a perfect and beautiful moment. But the box elder taught me that before they decompose and fall, they are great trees. And great trees teach us how to stand strong or bend when buffeted, how to reach for the goodness of light, how to shed what is no longer important, how to nurture ourselves by continually deepening our roots, how to be patient and forgiving with ourselves in cold, dark times, and how to let go, like leaves to the ground each fall.


© Cindy K Steffen  2023

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