July 16, 2015

Guest Post: The Journey of Grief As Pilgrimage

Posted by with 19 Comments

Christine-Valters-Paintner-I’m honored to be hosting my friend and fellow author, Christine Valters Paintner of Abbey of the Arts here today on the Anam Cara blog. This is part of Christine’s virtual book tour for her latest offering, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within. To win a copy of her book, just comment on this post, and a winner will be drawn by Friday, July 24.


My heart sank when I stepped tentatively into my mother’s room. She lay there connected to a complex web of tubes and wires, eyes shut. The thin skin on her face was sunken and bruised, her lips were raw. She had a serious pneumonia that had entered her bloodstream causing septicemia and leading to unconsciousness, kidney failure, inability to breathe without a respirator, and dangerously low blood pressure. The previous evening she had gone into cardiac arrest twice but they had resuscitated her.

I took a deep breath and I began to pray those feverish prayers of desperation as death whispered in my ear. When you suddenly hope the way you have lived your life somehow earns the right to a miracle even though you no longer even believe in miracles and deep down you know that’s not how the world works. I prayed that she would be able to go home. But as day gave way to night, I realized that the meaning of that prayer had shifted. Going home would mean something entirely different.

I spent the hours perched on the edge of my mother’s bed, rubbing hospital lotion on her arms and legs as a private act of anointing. Each stroke became its own kind of blessing.

“She can hear you,” the nurses kept assuring me, despite her not being conscious, and so I sang simple chants to her choked by tears. Words of longing would rise up in me and I would bathe her in song. I told her again and again that I loved her and that she was beautiful and I wanted more than anything for her to open her eyes again and gaze on me.

Five days after I arrived to that hospital room, my husband John and I were there alone with her, her blood pressure and heartbeat began to drop and I knew my mother and I were both at a threshold in our lives. The slowing beep of the heart monitor sounded as though it marched her toward death rather than merely recording the journey. And when the beeping became one long sound, I began to wail.


We returned to Seattle and in those November days I found more solace among trees than people with well-meaning, but often trite, advice about grief.

First, came the brilliant gold leaves of the bigleaf maple, then the orange Pacific dogwood, and finally the reds of the vine maple. Then the slow process of letting go and watching the leaves fall from the trees became a daily meditation.

Once the last leaf had surrendered its futile grip and drifted gently to the ground, I was propelled into winter. Bare branches. Days that grew shorter. The sun, when it was visible, dipped low along the horizon so even in daytime there was a darkness that lingered and pressed upon my imagination.

My mother’s death was a threshold and grief became its own kind of pilgrimage through my life. The seasons became witness to the slow unfolding of loss from the release of autumn, to the ache of winter, to spring’s renewal of possibility, and the fruitfulness of summer.

We live in a culture that worships spring and summer. In my own pilgrimage of healing I discovered the wisdom and depth of winter. I have learned to love it on its own terms – not just as a preparation and precursor for spring’s blooming – but for all the ways it calls me deeper into unknowing. Being fully awake and conscious in the dark days of winter can be challenging.

But pilgrimage thrusts us into these spaces of unknowing and mystery, that are so often uncomfortable experiences. We have all had winter seasons in our lives when what was familiar is stripped away and we have to hold grief and open ourselves to the grace of being rather than doing. Winter calls us to trust that fallowness and hibernation are essential to our own wholeness.

For me, making a pilgrimage is not about growing more certain about the world, but embracing more and more the mystery at the heart of everything. In a world where so many people are so very certain about the nature of things, especially in religious circles about who God includes and excludes, I believe unknowing calls us to a radical humility.

As we mature, we must engage with what our own mortality means for us, knowing that we one day enter what I call the Great Unknowing. The season of winter helps us to practice for this and naming these experiences as times of pilgrimage helps us to understand them as ancient journeys.

This is the gift that pilgrimage can offer, a way of connecting our experience to thousands of journeys that have been traveled before. Some for very long distances, and some just along the tender borders of the heart.

Connect with Christine further at Abbey of the Arts, and follow more of her thoughts inspired by The Soul of a Pilgrim. Don’t forget to comment below to enter to win a copy!


  1. Pat Slentz
    July 18, 2015 at 12:01 am

    Thank you for sharing this personal journey with grief. Winter is also a time of more darkness and so much growth can occur as we learn to walk in the dark.

  2. Susan Slesinger
    July 18, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    This was a very touching article on the death of a parent. My Father died suddenly and alone at 90 and it has always bothered me that no one was with him

    • Renee Riley
      August 7, 2015 at 8:00 pm

      Hi Susan: In my experience, sometimes people choose to be alone so they can die. Those of us still living often hold the dying in very strong bonds. If your father had needed someone there, he would have held on. He probably died in the best way he could. Don’t feel guilty.

      • Susan Slesinger
        August 7, 2015 at 8:22 pm

        Thank you for your insight

  3. Emma Bunday
    July 19, 2015 at 1:45 am

    This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing your vulnerability with us

  4. Don Moreno
    July 19, 2015 at 3:45 am

    Christine, thank you for this reflection. It rings crystal clear.

  5. Betty Anne McDorman
    July 19, 2015 at 5:18 am

    Bless you, Christine. Last fall – and then on the first day of spring – first my mother -then stepped into the Great Unknowing. I find journeying through summer as winter a surreal yet peace-filled pilgrimage. We are surrounded by so much beauty …

  6. Nora
    July 19, 2015 at 6:17 am

    This is a most moving post and I thank you for sharing. It gives me a greater perspective on the journey through grief.

  7. Wendy Huntington
    July 19, 2015 at 6:54 am

    Thank you, Christine, for your beautiful reflections on your connection with all of nature and the seasons of life on your exquisite pilgrimage through grief.

  8. Jane Finucane
    July 19, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Thank you for honoring the seasonal/cyclical nature of the journey, Christine. I think there’s often pressure to rush through the process and that sometimes means missing opportunities for real deepening and healing. Mystery is much more gentle and spacious than certainty.

  9. Susan Gallegos
    July 19, 2015 at 11:50 am

    Thank you for sharing this personal journey, Christine.

  10. Kate
    July 19, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    thank you…I felt the movement of the seasons while reading..Now I am a little more synched up with my self and what is presenting in life…

  11. Gail Kenny
    July 19, 2015 at 10:07 pm

    My sister’s death in March 2014 became, although I did not know it at the time, the beginning of my pilgrimage. Since she was just 18 months older than I am, I am about to arrive at another milestone this fall — arriving at an age my sister never experienced. Grief rises and falls unexpectedly, and never quite washes away.

  12. Kristie Ihde
    July 20, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    “Winter calls us to trust that fallowness and hibernation are essential to our own wholeness.” This is certainly a sacred calling as most everything that surrounds us shouts, “Strive! Produce! Consume!” Thank you for sharing!

  13. David Fox
    July 20, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    I also echo the communities gratitude for you sharing. I am finding that “pilgrimage” and the call to move into the unknown with comfort is cropping up a lot in my life now. Though I have not lost a loved one to date, I know I am traveling through a great shift in my life. Letting go of many things in my past that were a comfort/stability for me and embracing a new way of being. – May we all walk mindfully this moment of the journey –

  14. Laurie Klein
    July 20, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    “…embracing the mystery at the heart of everything” and “connecting to thousands of journeys…traveled before…some for very long distances, some just along the tender borders of the heart”—thank you, Christine, and thank you Tara, for timely words, soothing and wise, penetrating in scope. It reminds me a little of aboriginal songlines, all those hidden pathways carved into terrain that we now walk, forward motion carved into hearts and faces through ten thousand thousand goodbyes.

  15. Marilyn Rampley
    July 20, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful description of grief as a journey. As a member of a progressive church where we embrace mystery at the heart of everything and uncertainty and many paths, I connect with the pilgrimage offered here. The only difference I have is that here in the hot desert, the seasons are flipped 180 degrees. Summer is the time of inertia, dying, inactivity, cocooning, hibernation and so forth.

  16. Cecilia Fogg Whitehurst
    January 30, 2016 at 1:57 am

    Grief is my defining focus these days, having lost my beloved 18 months ago and still grappling with the pain of that most difficult and confounding loss. But your sharing also brings me back to the 10 days I sat vigil with my own mother as she slipped away from this plane ten years ago today. Mystery has become the heart of my spiritual experience, and the prospect of the Great Unknowing becomes greater and more mysterious every day. And somehow, that is consoling. Thank you for your vivid sharing of that great mystery and privilege: witnessing a loved one’s departure.