Journey From Death to Life

By Elaine Mansfield

I walked the trails on my land, stunned by the contrast between fields of blooming purple lupines and my numb despair. My husband Vic had died the week before. We knew death was coming, but how can anyone imagine it?

Here, breathing, struggling, loving one minute. Then gone, silenced, limp and gray. I was left with a longing for what couldn’t be.

I was in danger of sinking into despair. Darkness was so close. I didn’t belong in the world anymore, although I wasn’t suicidal. I just felt dead. I’d helped my husband, my lover, my partner, my best friend survive cancer for two years and helped him cross to the other side. He was gone. Where was I?

Lost.

I spent that week walking, one foot in the world of death and one in life. Death felt closer. The only comfort was walking. Going nowhere.

At night, I hardly slept. How could I survive this? Where could I hide? I had friends, sons, and a therapist, but in those dark hours, I was alone with sorrow. I only wanted one thing. He was dead.

Ten days later, a dream emerged during fitful sleep, my first dream since Vic’s death:

I am in a wooden house in a small white-walled room with a single bed where I will sleep. I walk up a wide staircase to a landing. Through an open door, I see a giant naked man sitting in a porcelain claw-foot bathtub. His bronze hair looks like foliage. Water droplets cover his pale jade body. “What’s with your skin?” I ask. “It lasts one year,” he answers.  I know that this is the Green Man, and I will live in his house for a year.

Orpheus Green Man Underworld

I didn’t know what the dream meant, but was relieved to get an inner response to my cries for help. A green-skinned, bronze-haired giant was offering a home and protection. The dream even had a sense of humor. What was with his skin?

I knew the Green Man as a face on a garden gate, but not much more. I needed to know who he was. A close friend loaned me a book by William Anderson called Green Man: The Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth. The book was filled with pictures and history.

Hardly able to think or read, without much appetite for life, I devoured images of the Green Man and learned he was a Northern European pre-Christian earth god of life, death, and rebirth. He survived because artisans carved and painted his image in decorative vegetation of medieval Christian churches. These sculptors quietly saved the old pagan image in magnificent structures like Chartres Cathedral in France and in famous churches all over Northern Europe. (Pagan, by the way, is a word we use for someone else’s religion.)

The Green Man’s face emerged from swirls of leaves on cornices and gates. Vines or branches grew out of his mouth or curled around his ears. Sometimes he was sculpted or painted with the Earth Mother or the Virgin Mary.

What did it mean that I would live in the house of this mythological figure for a year?  I now knew the Green Man was a god of death and rebirth—the edge on which I stood.

My unconscious dream self, my inner wise woman, had sent help. My Soul offered a path into the Unknown, although there were no maps to tell me where I was going. Still, I felt a sliver of hope. Maybe I could lean against the Green Man.

I kept walking the trails in my fields and woods. When I couldn’t handle the heartache, which was many times a day, I went outside no matter what the weather or time. I walked in moonlight and in rain, in heat and snow. My yellow Lab was always willing to come along.

The first summer, I watched lupines die and seed while goldenrod arrived. I watched butterflies laying eggs and mushrooms bursting with spores. I watched the moon go from a sliver to full and then back to darkness before repeating itself. I photographed life as it budded, gave birth, and died and felt how commonplace my sorrow was and how ordinary death. Just as ordinary as those other miracles, new love and childbirth.

As I walked, I felt Vic’s presence everywhere.

He wasn’t an angel hovering around. Or maybe he was, but that’s not what I experienced. I felt him as a presence on our land. The trails he’d cut into the forest and the wild flowers he’d planted with me. Everywhere I looked, I felt his love.

Vic was a man of compliments and affirmations, but the biggest one he gave me was, “You taught me how to love.” He did the same for me. I realized I still felt loved.

cairn

A few months after the first Green Man dream, my sons and I buried Vic’s ashes in the forest and built a stone cairn for him. A few days later, I dreamed of a man in a green shirt laying a trail of flat stones across a swamp, so I could cross the muddy water and muck. I woke up knowing I was on the right path, taking the only journey I could take to reach a new life.

A few months later, when I had the courage to clean out Vic’s desk, I found old glasses and clippers with bits of his fingernails attached. In the back of the last drawer, I found a packet of photos I’d taken of him ten or more years before. He’d been tired of posing for promotional shots for his new book, so he ducked under a maple tree, stuck his face through the red leaves, and grinned. I snapped the last picture on the roll and forgot about it.

Finding the photo that night, six months after his death, I understood.

vic

Vic was my Green Man. When we first met, he’d taught me to wade in streams and walk up hillsides to catch a sunset. On our land, he saw beauty when I saw piles of junk and a falling down house. We’d cleaned up junk cars, mountains of old tires, and dumps left in gullies by previous owners. We’d helped Nature heal the land. Now Nature was healing me.

The Green Man kept walking with me on this journey I had to take alone. I trusted him to lead me across the swamp and back to life. As that new life emerged, I felt guided and held.

Nine years later, I still walk my trails with the Green Man.

 

EMansfield with Willow

 

Elaine Mansfield’s book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief won the 2015 Gold Medal IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award) for Aging, Death, and Dying. Her TEDx talk, Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss has over 90,000 viewers. Elaine writes about grief, relationship, family, and the inner life. She facilitates bereavement workshops, gives presentations, and volunteers at Hospicare in Ithaca, NY. She’s been a student of nature, philosophy, Jungian psychology, mythology, and meditation for forty years and writes a blog about these topics. Her recent essay, “Wild Nights: Grief Dreams, Mythology, and the Inner Marriage,” won first place in a competition sponsored by Jung in the Heartland. You can read more about Elaine and her work at her website.

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22 thoughts on “Journey From Death to Life

  1. Thank you Elaine for your beautiful words – I remember that photo of Vic in the trees, from some previous post maybe – it made me smile to see it again as well as be in wonder of how your dreams helped you to come to where you are now …

    All Hail to the Green Man –

    And, for those of who who haven’t read Elaine’s book, I HIGHLY recommend it. Even though I have not suffered the grief that Elaine did in terms of her losing her dearly beloved husband and feeling lost and adrift, I nevertheless enjoyed every word she wrote which had an immediate resonance with me, not only because of her profound honesty but also because she writes so b….y damn well. It really is an excellent book …

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    1. The first two years after Vic’s death, my dreams often referred to the Green Man, but none gave such a strong image as the first. I guess I needed to see that big Green God with red foliage hair to understand and go searching. It was 6 months before I found the photo of Vic as the Green Man. That’s the one that sits on my altar. After the first Green Man dream, the theme came up more subtly: a man with a green shirt building a stone path across a swamp or a drab nun’s cell with a green flowering world out the window.

      Thank you for being so kind and supportive of my writing, Susan, and for traveling outside my blog to read this and comment. OTV is a lovely magazine. You might have something you’d like to share here. Under submissions, they have future themes. “Journeys” resonated for me.

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      1. Thank you for saying about OVG Elaine – I will look into it. I THINK I may have picked up your post from FB? ‘the rabbi ….walked into a bar’ – however I came across it, I’m glad I did. Appropriate also that this post appears on this day of the Equinox, new moon, Rosh Hashana – All Hail to the Green Man!

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  2. Dear Elaine, Thank you so much for opening and sharing your heart and your precious words and memories of those early days and dreams without your beloved Vic. At times I read with a heavy, yet always full heart. I love reading all about the Green Man and always smile when I see that particular “emerging” photo of Vic.

    Like Susan, I recommended your extraordinary book, “Leaning into Love” to everyone I know. And recently to a young widow who is desperately grieving and struggling to find a way out of the darkness that pulls her down. She has said your words, your incredibly honest and heartfelt words, give her hope and courage.

    I’m so pleased and happy to tell you my dear friend! Tell you that your words are read and seen and shared by many. You were born to write! For what you share with others is treasure. You possess a “realness” that many simply don’t have as well as a huge and obvious talent for writing. Blessings always, Deborah.

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    1. Deborah, thank you for your kind supportive words. Although we’ve never met in person, I feel our strong sisterhood of the heart. That photo of Vic was the last on a 36 roll of film (remember film?). He was tired of having me click photos to be used to promote his book, so he ducked under the branches of that red maple, stuck his face through the leaves, and gave me a wry grin. Luckily I had one click left. More than any other, that photo captures my projection on him. Thank you for sharing my book with someone who can benefit from it. Knowing that lifts my spirits and motivates me to keep working and sharing.

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  3. Thank you for saying about OVG Elaine – I will look into it. I THINK I may have picked up your post from FB? ‘the rabbi ….walked into a bar’ – however I came across it, I’m glad I did. Appropriate also that this post appears on this day of the Equinox, new moon, Rosh Hashana – All Hail to the Green Man!

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    1. Thanks so much, Bea. Somehow we get through these experiences and learn and grow from them. I find the world offers me help when I open my eyes and heart to finding it.

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    1. Thank you, Jan. I’ve been a student and practitioner of Jungian Psychology for many decades, so saying this piece is highly symbolic is a big complement to me and just what I intended. Thanks for sharing, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Synchronicity is what comes to mind Elaine when I read your words. More than 20 years ago I was considering training in Jungian analysis but financial circumstances prevented me. It’s been a passion for a long time. The Green Man is a significant figure in things concerning rebirth and regeneration.

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      2. You nailed it, Jan. I’ve steeped myself in mythology and symbolic understand since around 1970. My late (I hate saying that because he isn’t “late” to me) husband’s first book was called ‘Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making,’ so it’s fitting that my inner connection with him involves synchronicity experiences. He was a physicist, but also mystical and a student of Jung who had many synchronicity experiences. His book (still well-known in Jungian circles) came from attempts to reconcile the mystical and the scientific world.

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