… mourning

Maybe you can tell me how rivers grieve?Taescach

Beloved Taescach,

How is any being — even a river — to bear the loss of a soul mate? I so wanted to ponder this for you and with you, but first I had only more questions… does a river ever face loss? Who might the river mourn?

Luckily, I have you to fall back on. Sometime before we needed it, you penned the answer to these questions:

“A soul mate is someone who expands your soul’s capacity to love.”

And a river does love.

In fact, the river becomes itself through love.

The river accepts every >rock, >climate, and >valley encountered in following its calling to the sea, shaping its very course…

… >from that earth

… >with those given rains and snows

… >using the lay of those particular lands it must cross.

What nourishes the river’s ability to grow in love like this?

In other words, what is a river’s soul mate? A first I thought of bedrock, as it opens up possibilities for any stream…

… and yet a life’s underlying foundation is not distinct from that life, nor has it the vitality I see characterizing a like-spirit.

Then I remembered that there IS one kind of living companion found alongside every healthy stream and actually imported by river workers to heal wounded streams:  deep-rooted, woody vegetation. It’s a long name to whisper to your soul mate as you lie full length on a stream bank, but try saying it all in one single, sacred breath, as hydrologists do. Or simply smile up at the branches and sigh, “tree.”

This soul mating is a deeply shared, old development.

A river is capable of behaving like a river only if it has banks. Recent geologic research found that “until the evolution of tree-like plants, some 330 million years ago […] ancient waters flowed wide and shallow over the land.”

Water that’s spread thin and broad must move slowly. A prehistoric “river” was forced to conduct its life journey as an indeterminate slog.

AND the poor soil was inundated all the time — life forms (like trees) preferring drier conditions definitely did not feel loved by the waters (or even allowed to develop) until:

“… larger plants needing deeper roots stabilized river banks and forced rivers into narrower paths [… between] river banks that provide trees with easy access to water, without the constant risk of flooding.”

Rivers thrive on trees and vice versa.

In this way, each soul mate increases the other’s capacity to love through their own capacity to love… which is increased by the other’s capacity to love:

tree roots strengthen river banks which nourish tree roots

The co-evolution of trees and streams reveals exactly how a soul increases another’s capacity to love: through his/her own capacity to love.

The process is so interwoven and reciprocal that it’s hard to tell which act of love came first. A river nurses a tree’s roots by allowing them to sip water from the high safety of its banks, while the tree’s deep roots are vital in reinforcing the river’s ability to build those very banks. We’re the same way. Giving and receiving love, nourishing and embracing one another gives us greater self-definition and health, allowing us to care for one another even more deeply.


A singular loss

Taescach, you have lost an epic prairie tree from the bank of your river.

How can you survive such a loss? Once again, I turn to a river for an answer.

Not too long ago, flames engulfed the Cottonwood gallery along Tongue River about 30 miles north of where I live. Many wonderful trees were killed in the firestorm.

Two weeks ago — two weeks ago! — I was called to visit a bend in the stream where one burnt, particularly magnificent, particularly river-connected Cottonwood had fallen. Its mighty root system was ripped out, laid bare, and so intertwined with the stream that a giant chunk of the river’s bank was uprooted along with it. What remained was a huge hole exposing a heretofore private world of soil layers, ant tunnels, and tiny smooth pebbles.

The river bore straight into the vulnerable negative space, eroding itself. Raw.

I have a hunch you are familiar with this feeling.

Eventually — with much erosion, deposition, course changing, and slope adjustment — this river would end up stable once more. But only after a long time. And the new channel would be very different indeed.

Luckily, Tongue River, like you, has its soul mate to fall back on.

For even in death, the Cottonwood’s roots will heal the grieving river.

Hydrologists call this restoration technique root-wad revetment: embedding the fallen tree’s trunk and bare root-wad right into the river’s wound.

In beauty, splendor, and glory…

Please know that revetment is not the same as pretending you can plug the hole with some inadequate substitute and move on as if nothing happened. No. There has been a loss.

What revetment (originally “re-vestment” from re-vestire) DOES mean is “to clothe again.” Though something beautiful has been stripped away, the river can clothe itself once more in beauty — a different vestment, to be sure, but one still specific to the two soul mates. Still holy.

Here’s how:

  • First, trim away the fallen tree’s remaining branches. It’s an excruciating process, but those limbs and leaves were made to turn sunlight into sustenance — an alchemy they cannot and need not perform in the tree’s next incarnation.
  • Next, lay the bare trunk horizontal, turn it around, and bury it in the bank with the deepest roots facing outward, into the river it loved so well. What was above ground gets embedded, deeply stabilizing the bank, and what was hidden is now open to the elements. 

When raging, the river rushes directly against, in, and through the exposed root complex. The water’s exploration of the intricate geometry absorbs some of its intense energy, and the root-wad directs the bulk of the river’s flow toward the center of the river channel, away from the vulnerable bank.

During lower flows, the twisty, turny roots hide fishes and insects from hot sun and predator eyes. Slowly, through all seasons, the river and the many lives it supports can mend, thanks to the loving embrace of its fallen soul mate.


Like a Cottonwood, Jon gave you just what you need to grieve: two capacities for love, both expanded while you and he shared soil. When you feel your capacity eroding, you can lean on his — for your radiant words, actions, and intentions in this difficult time have let that beloved root system become part of you in a new, still soulful, skillfully appropriate way.

I am sending you love, Taescach, treasuring thoughts of you, thankful for your presence now as always,


More than a year later: I revisit this piece because I myself am in need of healing.

I look back at how Taescach  followed the same steps hydrologists employ to repair an injured stream.

Taescach and Jon’s other friends and family first focused on settling numerous vital but ultimately transient details — the “leafy branches” — of Jon’s life. Much of this necessary clearing away happens automatically after a loss, but some work usually remains, especially when the loss is a death: not only distributing the loved one’s belongings and canceling routine appointments but letting go of treasured plans and even interests that nourished that loved one but are no longer needed in your life.

After that initial reconciliation, Taescach began her more personal healing. She embedded Jon’s most visible and sturdiest aspect — his kick-ass, protector-of-right, risk-taking, fun-loving, warrior ethic — deep inside her.  The world might not see the “trunk” underpinning T’s intention to engage all of life with a fierce joy, but Jon’s famous essence remains within, always available. She felt fortified forever.

As for the deeper ways in which she and her beloved friend nurtured one another, those once-private “roots” are what Taescach has turned outward to the world. She reached out caringly to Jon’s family, paid rich tribute to his life through spoken and written word, and offered increasingly thoughtful acts of devotion to her husband and children.  She reset Jon’s precious roots of love into her life. In this new but still soulful way, the two soul mates continue to increase one another’s capacity for love.


Some engineers try to armor damaged rivers with concrete walls or wire baskets full of rocks. It doesn’t work. Hardening banks with artificial structures merely forces the erosion downstream. Root-wad revetment is effective because it incorporates nature’s own laws and materials.

The same is true for a human soul. Hard shells protect no one. Only love — that most compelling natural phenomenon — can handle the variable currents of life. This is what I’ve learned from watching Taescach turn loss into life, from seeing how she enlarges those around her as she grows in power and resilience. She armors herself in love. Like a river.

I am using her example to speed my own restoration after a loss, and you can too —  whether you’ve lost a beloved person, animal, place, ideal, or era and whether by death or other means — by considering these questions:

  • What branches and leaves power[ed] your beloved’s existence but did not directly, deeply touch your relationship? Let them go. A new chemistry is at play.
  • What’s your beloved’s most massive, obvious, central quality? Whether this trunk is a core value, an attitude, a set of skills, or a feeling evoked in all who set eyes on your beloved, plant it deep within yourself. Draw on it.
  • What were the secret roots through which you and your beloved cared for one another? Turn them outward. It seems counter-intuitive. But whether it be fully open giddy smiles, a private game, outdoor naps, or the ability to actually pull one another into the moment with a word, those things are most fully love. Clothe yourself in them and you heal not only your own soul but the world around you.

4 thoughts on “… mourning

  1. Leah

    It did…and does. Today, in fact, I returned for another dose of River-Shaman medicine. Thank you, again, Betsy. And love to you and Kirsten both!

  2. Pedro F. Báez

    Every time I read you, my first thought-reaction is: “SPEECHLESS!”. Yet, knowing intrinsically better, I must allow the truth to flow, like the magical fluid soul of all your rivers combined, finding the sea, and with it, its ultimate purpose: MAGNIFICENCE.

  3. Pingback: … with a very real boundary | Like a River…

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