A few summers ago, lightning sparked a wildfire on a hill overlooking our lake vacation spot in Washington. Our family watched from the hotel balcony as wildfire drama played out before our eyes. Black smoke billowed, and firefighters worked hard to control the growing blaze. A large plane dropped plumes of orange fire retardant. Smaller planes swooped down to draw water from the lake and deposit it on the fire. We’d never seen anything like this up close in our lives. It was scary.
When the hotel where we were staying cut power for safety reasons, Rob and I decided to pack up our family and try to head for home. The roads were jammed the entire way back. We didn’t know it then, but a couple hours later local roads closed. All vacationers had to shelter in place until the fire was under control.
I never really understood wildfires until I moved to the Pacific Northwest. The way the sun shines eerily through the smoke, the ash that quietly coats everything in your yard. Having lived most of my life east of the Mississippi, I used to think the only good wildfire was a doused one. That suppression was always the goal.
My years in the Pacific Northwest taught me that’s not always the case. For many forests, wildfire is key to health and survival. Old dead wood is purged away. Ash and detritus form rich soil for new plants to grow. Because of climate change and forest management and thickly settled areas, wildfires are complex. There’s no easy fix. Often the goal of fire workers is not suppression but management. Making sure the fire stays away from people, letting nature take its course in healthy ways.
Grief is a similar task of management over suppression. Grief burns a hot fire over our lives. Its heat threatens to eat up everything, and it will. If we let it. Many people try to suppress their grief, thinking the only good grief is a grief extinguished. They think that grief will destroy their lives if they offer it any space and air.
But suppression of grief can hinder good growth. New life can begin to grow when grief is allowed to take its course. In grief like in wildfires, the goal is good management. We can let sorrow do its purging work, we can lean into our grief, even as we protect those most vital parts of our lives from its ruin.