It might have been the incessant rain or the murder of crows gathering in the dead oak outside my window. It might have been the dying flowers in their pretty vase or even the candles—flickering their last at the ends of their wicks. Whatever it was, I found myself at the gate. Unlike Heaven, there’s no keeper. This gate is unlocked and you can come whenever you please, though it pleases no one to come here.
I tuck my heart close, lest I lose it, and set my shield down; having been here before, I know there will be no protecting myself from what I find. Next, I tuck my shoes and soul beneath it’s weight, comforted that they’ll have some shelter from the elements while I’m away. Whatever else you do, never bring your soul here—this is no place for the divine.
When all is as it should be, I step through and begin my descent. Down, down over eons of rot that squelch between my toes. Down, down through hallways of bones and teeth where I somehow know which belong to those I’ve loved. Down, down where moonlight can’t go. Down, down where the rain is full of salt and never stops. Down, down until the path levels out and turns to the broken dreams of the living. Only then do I know I have arrived in the Underworld.
It isn’t Hell, if such a place exists. Hell is for souls and there are no souls here. Just the end. The end of whoever it was you were in the middle of loving. The end of yourself as you were when they lived. The end of all you knew and all you didn’t. The end–where all that holds physical form loses it to water and worms.
Now that I’m here, I crinkle my brow the same way I do when I’ve just entered a room and already forgotten why. After all, I already gathered up the remains of my loves and left them here months ago. I stand at the exact place I stopped then and try to remember to no avail. Finally turning with a shrug to retrace my steps to the gate which leads right back to my life as I left it . . . it’s only then I realize my mistake.
I left the wrong way last time–returning to life as I left it—surrounded by empty spaces where love used to be. I let go of their bodies but held on tight to the emptiness they left behind. Turning back toward the dark unknown, I shudder. I want to go back to the gate: back to my shoes and my soul and my shield, back to familiar, if empty, spaces.
But I don’t.
I know I came for this—the sixth stage of grief. The one that comes after you find your way through your worst nightmares to acceptance. It took me a while. Acceptance cost me and I had to gather up fresh courage for this:
There’s new love, new adventure, new wisdom that await on the other side of all you go through when you grieve. More than enough to fill the empty spaces to overflowing. But if you want it, you can’t go back the way you know.
To reach the sixth stage is to set down your shield. It’s all heart. It’s running barefoot through the Underworld, soaked in the tears of everyone ever, in a darkness too deep for moonlight. It’s feeling the sickening squelch of eons of rot between your toes and pushing forward, knowing that if you keep going, you’ll love again and get hurt again . . . and again and again until your teeth and bones join the others here.
And it’s worth it.
It’s worth it.
So I run. Heart wide open through all I’ve loved and lost before. I run barefoot through darkness as deep black as a crow’s feather with nothing but hope to guide me forward. Until I’m falling down, down into a deep, slow river. Cool, fresh water rinses the tears of everyone ever from my hair and washes the rot of eons from my feet. I close my eyes and float on my back, not warm or cold, not happy or sad, and not marking the moment moonlight creeps in–slowly turning blackest black into gray and gray into silver, until the sun rises–shifting silver into the pale gold of a new day.