What Trees Can Teach Us About Life, Love and Loss

May 1, 2018 | by Rev. Dr. Terry L. Irish, D. Min., BCC

In January and February 2017, California received such an abundance of rain that the drought plaguing us for almost a decade was practically wiped out. One very sad consequence of all the rain was that ancient trees were uprooted and destroyed.
Of special interest to my family were the giant old growth redwoods on the north coast of California, like the “drive-through" tree which decades ago had the middle carved out to allow cars to literally drive through it. Yet, because of its size, the tree continued to live and grow.
Sadly, last year’s storm weakened its root system, and this mighty giant collapsed and was lost. It, like so many other old growth redwoods, had thrived for hundreds of years.
As I was thinking about these majestic redwoods, my mind went back nearly 30 years — to the late 1980s — when my family moved to Crescent City, California, to pastor a local church. Just a few miles south on Highway 101 was a place called the “Trees of Mystery.”
One of the most famous offerings at the Trees of Mystery is a free, guided tour of the redwood grove situated right behind the restaurant and gift shop. Early in our 12-plus years living in Del Norte County, my family took that guided tour.
I will never forget my experience partway through that tour, when suddenly, our guide slipped between two of the giant redwood trees that had grown to be hundreds of feet tall, and had been alive for around 2,000 years. He then invited us all to step between these trees that were growing very close to each other.
A cathedral tree is a group of trees that have grown out of the remains of a fallen tree. They grow from the perimeter, forming a circle around the remains. They are a family, growing strong and tall because of the sturdy foundation left behind from the member that was lost.
Encountering the rare and spectacular cathedral tree is a breathtaking experience — an impossible experience to adequately describe to someone else. It is truly unforgettable.
At first look, it appears that there is no life in the huge, open expanse, but nothing is farther from the truth. In the ring formed around the outside, this cathedral tree had given birth to 30 or more new redwood trees, each of them now some 2,000 years old as well. Each of these "new" trees was between 250 and 300 feet tall.
Despite their immense size, it is still possible to walk on the ground surrounding the trees, finding it barren and empty. The only way to recognize the glory — to appreciate the majesty and beauty of the cathedral tree — is to look up.
When I looked up, I saw an entire ring of trees over me, reaching to the sky — an unbroken family of trees that owe their very existence to the cathedral tree, who sacrificed itself and died. In its place are several dozen redwood trees standing in a majestic ring, circling the cathedral tree — the mother tree responsible for their life.
To the family members and friends of those who have lost loved ones to cancer, each of your experiences was a unique, heartbreaking, breathtaking experience, impossible to adequately describe to anyone who has not walked the cancer treatment path you walked with your loved one.
Your cancer experience is unforgettable, leaving you with memories that have changed your life forever. The indelible mark your loved one left on your mind and heart will never be forgotten. But you are not alone. Through the life of your loved one, and now their memory, your circle of support has grown.
Just like the cathedral tree, the family circling around your loved one's memory is full of friends, family and now, the doctors, nurses and staff members who have helped care for your loved one here at City of Hope.
And as with the cathedral tree, for healing and wholeness to finally be yours, you must step into your loss and go through it. Your bereavement has two parts: Grief, which is personal and private, and mourning, which is a public, shared experience.
Just as bearing witness to the majesty of the great redwoods, you must also continue to look up, no matter where you are on your journey or in the grieving process. Keep looking up to see the love and support surrounding you. Just as surely as there is light shining down from the ring of 2,000-year-old "newly" formed redwood trees, so too is there light, hope and support for each of you as you move through your loneliness and loss.

Terry Irish is a chaplain within the Department of Supportive Care Medicine at City of Hope.

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