Category Archives: Loss and Grief

Death, change and loss

hope-grief-cancer

Giving voice to grief

Upon hearing that Saul and Jonathan had died, David lamented:

Alas, the glory of Israel, Saul, slain upon your heights; how can the warriors have fallen! Saul and Jonathan, beloved and cherished….how can the warriors have fallen…I grieve for you, Jonathan, my brother…. (2 Samuel 1:19-27)

Reading David’s words, hearing the grief pouring out of him, reminds me of the importance of giving voice to our sorrows.

But after my friend Jim died, I could hardly put two words together, let alone compose a lament as David had done. Then, one day a few months after Jim’s death, a voice on my car radio sang the words that released the floodgates of my grief:

Oh I swear to you

I’ll be there for you

This is not a drive by

(Train, “Oh I swear to you”)

A drive by—that is what it felt like. Where I had thought Jim would be around forever (or, at least another twenty years), that was not to be. He was gone—no longer there for me—and all the swearing in the world would not change that. It did not matter what either of us might have wanted, I was left to deal with the reality that he was no longer with me.

I pulled over to the side of the road and sobbed.

Those three little lines tapped into my grief and expressed a sense of betrayal I did not even know I was feeling.hope-grief-cancerEvery time I hear this song, I still sing along on the refrain, my voice loud and full of emotion. It still feels like a drive by and this refrain helps me to give voice to my grief.

In 1984, my friend Gerry was diagnosed with leukemia; without a bone marrow transplant, he knew his death was imminent. He chose two songs to be played at his funeral, and although thirty-one years have passed since his death, I still think of him whenever I hear these songs:

 Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow.
But if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow.

Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on….

(Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”)

and

What did you think I would do at this moment
when you’re standing before me with tears in your eyes
….
I’d fall down on my knees
Kiss the ground that you walk on
If I could just hold you again….

(Billy Vera & The Beaters, “At This Moment”)hope-grief-cancerDavid’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan seems raw and immediate, but perhaps he took some time to process his grief before he wrote.

Giving expression to our sorrows can open us to a different perspective; sadness can sit side-by-side with gratitude and hope.hope-grief-cancer

 

 

 

 

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God-friends-cancer

I love you more than…

I love you more than you will ever know.

Those were among the final words my friend Ted spoke to me when we were together just before he died from esophageal cancer two years ago.

I told him that I knew how much he loved me, and I believed I had a pretty good idea; we had been good friends for more than thirty years. During his illness, we spoke every day, sometimes two or three times. I knew he loved me.God-friends-cancerMy friend Lisa recently told me of the death of one of her guy friends. She was devastated by this loss and inconsolable in her grief.

Good guy friends are great gifts. They are also not all that common—which makes them even more precious.

My friend Jim used to tell me that he believed I had good friendships with men because I grew up with brothers (one older and one younger). He believed that growing up with brothers taught me to accept both the gangster and the vulnerable sides of a guy.God-friends-cancerI would agree and add, “My brothers taught me to have realistic expectations of men.”

One of the relationships I kept up after I left the FBI was with an agent named Bob Hickey—formally known as Robert J. Hickey, Jr. For ten years after I left the Bureau, Bob and I got together regularly, even though he lived in Washington, D.C., and I was in Philadelphia. Our friendship was important to both of us, and we dedicated time and energy to keeping it alive.

Bob encouraged me in my running, and we often ran the Mall in D.C.  I remember a run on one of his visits to Philadelphia; I wanted to quit, and he kept urging me to go on. The run ended at a bridge over a railroad track, and running up that hill seemed impossible. “It’ll build character,” Bob prodded, which was just the dare I needed to dig deep for the last burst of energy. It is also a line that has inspired me when I have faced other challenges.God-friends-cancerThen I moved to Canada, and Bob married a woman who seemed a tad bit jealous of our friendship. I tried to reassure her that while I loved Bob dearly, I did not want to marry him, and that I was happy for them. But, things were different after he got married.

Bob loved all things Irish—music, dance, literature—and he loved to visit his relatives in Ireland. The last time we spoke, I was planning my trip to Ireland in August. He was happy for me.

Bob died last summer. Since learning of his death, I have been recalling wonderful memories of our friendship, and I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude. Just thinking of him makes me smile. Like Ted, Jim and the other men who have blessed my life, his friendship brought me great joy.

I love you more than you will ever know.God-friends-cancer

 

God-hope-cancer

Reality check

Working at a cancer support center offers many opportunities to hear people talk about hope. Most often, people hope for a cure—or at least remission—of the cancer that has taken up residence in their bodies.

It takes courage to endure chemotherapy and radiation, which disrupt daily life and can be painful (sometimes very painful). Often the treatments work and the cancer is cured or goes into remission. But sometimes the treatments don’t work. What happens to hope then?hope 4Recently, a woman came in after her oncologist had informed her that the treatment had not worked. Months of painful radiation and chemotherapy had failed to stop the growth of the tumors in various parts of her body. The doctor recommended a different type of treatment—something experimental—and this woman had made an appointment to discuss this new treatment.

Before that appointment, though, she wanted to talk about her situation. “Even if I take another round of treatment,” she said, “I know I will be right back here at some point, maybe in three months or six months, but this is where I am going to end up.”

I remained silent, but inwardly agreed with her that it seemed unlikely that the cancer was going to go away.

“My question is,” she continued, “how do I talk to myself about this? How do I wrap my head around the fact that I am going to die?”

Good questions.

I applauded her courage for even facing this reality.God-hope-cancerIn the three years I have been in this job, I have only met a few other people who were willing to admit they were going to die and who wanted to try to figure out how they could best live until they died. Mostly, people seem to deny the reality; they keep hoping for a cure or remission until the moment they die.

And sometimes, even when the person who is dying accepts it, their families and friends refuse to admit it, depriving the person of expressing what they need to at the end of life.God-hope-cancerWe then talked about hope.

What is she left with, she wondered, when her hopes for remission have been dashed? I suggested hope for something else—for inner peace, for gratitude for the life she has left, for the ability to see goodness in the midst of struggle.God-hope-cancerOne thing I have learned is that if we allow our fears of dying to shape our lives, we can never really live.

God invites us to live every day trusting in the kindness of the people around us and in the goodness of God. That looks different for each of us every day. Some days, it is easier to be full of hope and joy and gratitude; other days, even finding one small gift or grace can be a challenge.

My father used to say, “No one gets out of this life alive.”  I hope I always remember that and live in the freedom it brings.God-hope-cancer

mindful-grief-transformation

It is not all right with me

I went to San Francisco a few weeks ago for a workshop on grief. One of my intentions was to notice what I notice. Whether I was walking the grounds of the retreat center—hearing birds and seeing flowers, trees and bugs—or sitting in a workshop session, I tried to be present and mindful.mindful-grief-transformationWhen the presenter spoke, I tried to pay attention to the words that caught my attention and the images and memories that came to me. When others shared, I listened attentively and also noted my reactions and feelings—trying to pay attention to what was stirred up inside me.

The whole weekend felt like one continuous prayer where I was trying to be open to God’s invitation to gain insight and freedom. I was there to learn, not only what the workshop had to offer, but also what God was offering to me.

I had brought with me my losses and grief—and also hopes for insight and transformation—and hope does not disappoint (Romans 5:3-5).

It is not all right with me was a prompt I used for one of the workshop’s writing exercises. It was from a list of “protest” prompts which included:

I say it matters

Enough

I will not live small

No more

I will not pretend

I survived.

We were instructed to write for ten minutes without stopping, to keep the pen moving and let flow whatever flowed.

In part, I wrote, “It is not all right with me that anyone not take me seriously, that I be ignored or discounted. It is not all right with me that my opinion be dismissed or my beliefs be minimized….It is not all right with me to have the value of my experience doubted or belittled.”

Since returning home, I have read my journal entries from the workshop several times, and this section of my journal keeps catching my attention.

I tried to recall the last time someone did not take me seriously or dismissed me or my beliefs, and I realized that I am the person who does this. I am the queen of “yes, but…” when someone compliments me or asks me to share something. I demur, believing others have much more to offer than I.

I am guilty of discounting my experiences, of dismissing my mindful-grief-transformationopinions and minimizing my beliefs. I am the one who tends to belittle my experience and doubt my own reality.

It was an “aha” moment about complicity in not taking myself seriously. No matter how much affirmation I get, I tend to minimize my experience and accomplishments. It was also a moment for self-compassion, another theme of the workshop.mindful-grief-transformationI pray to be open to the invitations God offers for transformation and self-compassion. I pray to be more trusting in the positive messages from others than the negative messages I tell myself. I pray to lean into God and allow God’s love to fill me. I pray to say, “Yes” without adding the “but.”mindful-grief-transformation

 

 

 

 

 

 

grief-community-ritual

Healing and hope

Recently, I went to San Francisco for a workshop called Entering the Healing Ground: The Sacred Work of Grief. The workshop combined several things I love: poetry, writing, dancing and singing.

It also involved something I don’t particularly like: sharing my personal story with a group.

I am okay with talking about my public self, and I have gotten better at sharing some of my personal story, but there is a whole other layer buried deep inside that I rarely touch and even more rarely share. Dipping into my shadow, admitting my weaknesses and revealing my secrets—ugh.grief-community-ritualThis workshop invited me to dig deep and root around in the darkness where I hide my most private self. It invited me to touch my pain and to allow others to see the real me—not just the strong, independent me, but also the vulnerable me who has been hurt and experienced loss.grief-community-ritualThe facilitator talked about self-compassion, which was exactly the message I needed to hear. I know I need to be tender with my brokenness in order to coax my hidden self into the light.­­­­­

The workshop sessions began with drumming, dancing, singing and poetry. The facilitator talked about community, ritual and grief.

And then we wrote.

Each writing exercise began with a prompt. Over the course of three days, these prompts help me go deep within:

  • I remember
  • It is true
  • It hurt me
  • I survived
  • It is not okay with me
  • I miss

After each ten-minute writing session, we read what we had written to two other participants, and then we were given the opportunity to share with the larger group of twenty-four.grief-community-ritualI usually don’t speak in group settings; I listen and learn from others but rarely take the risk of speaking.

However, I am trying to move against my resistance.

At this workshop, I waited until the last opportunity on Saturday to share with the large group. Then I took a deep breath and read what I had just written prompted by I survived.

My writing was about something from my childhood, something I have only shared with a few close friends. I felt exposed and incredibly vulnerable—ugh.

That evening, I spent some time alone. I knitted, prayed and took a walk around the retreat center grounds. That is my pattern—to withdraw and isolate when I feel vulnerable.

There I was at a workshop focused on accepting our brokenness and grief, forming community, trusting—and when I most needed to be with others, I withdrew.

The next morning, I returned to the group a bit more self-aware, open and ready to dig a bit deeper. Writing on Sunday morning to the prompt I miss revealed an unhealed grief, and it was cathartic to release my sadness through tears.

grief-community-ritualThe weekend was a rare opportunity and I felt incredibly blessed to have participated. As we were leaving, another participant said, “A great gift brings great responsibility.”

What will I do with this great gift?

 

 

affirmation-dog-vulnerability

Asking for what I want or need

My dog Detroit is very good at letting me know when someone is at the door or the phone is ringing or there is a squirrel in the yard. Even though I assure her that I know these things and she does not need to bark, it does no good. She will bark incessantly until I answer the door or the phone—or let her out to chase the squirrel.affirmation-dog-vulnerabilityShe seems to think it is her job to warn me of these perceived threats.affirmation-dog-vulnerabilityBut in other situations, Detroit is likely to sit quietly and wait for me to intuit what she wants. Sometimes, I find her lying by the back door waiting to go out or sitting by the pantry that holds her treats. Then I say to her, “Use your words.”

It seems to me that she is good at telling me when she thinks I am in danger, but not so good about telling me what she needs or wants.

I wonder if she learned that from me. Has she watched me sit home waiting for someone to ask me to go out? Is she tired of being hugged because I am afraid to ask for a hug from anyone else?

Sometimes on Saturday mornings when I am cleaning the house, I turn on pop music and dance while I clean. If Detroit comes into the room, I might pick her up and dance with her. I can almost hear her say, Get a life.

I admit it: I am not good at using my words to ask for what I need or want.

What words do I use to let someone know I want a treat—whether it is something sweet or a hug or an affirmation? How do I ask to go out, to be with others and have some fun?affirmation-dog-vulnerabilitySince moving to Michigan four years ago, and leaving behind people who knew me very well, I have been even more challenged to ask for what I want or need. Admitting I need or want anything makes me feel vulnerable, and feeling vulnerable is one of my least favorite things.

After I was here for about two years, my spiritual director commented that it didn’t seem that I was initiating social contacts. She was right. My grief and sadness at all I had lost or left behind had incapacitated me from initiating. I just did not have the energy to risk rejection.

And I could see how harmful that was. I was spiraling deeper and deeper into myself; it was a grand pity party.affirmation-dog-vulnerabilitySince then, I have pushed myself to ask friends to go to concerts or out to dinner, and I do more things on my own, like visiting art galleries.

But, I know I have a ways to go in asking for what I need or want. Telling Detroit to use her words is a great prompt for me look at how well I am doing at using my words.

 

God-Easter-hope

From death to life

Holy Week and the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) have long been my favorite time of the liturgical year.God-Easter-hopeI love hearing the Passion twice in one week and watching the pageantry of Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday. The rich symbolism of the Easter Vigil touches my heart and invites me to renewal in a unique way. The baptisms and confirmations of people choosing my faith as their own always strengthens my faith and makes me more hopeful.

Since 2002, Holy Week has the added significance of being the week my dad died. It was Monday of Holy Week (March 25 that year), and every Holy Week Monday is now a memorial day for me.

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday in 2002, the hospice nurse called and said, “Your dad is ready to die, but your mother won’t let go. You have to come home.”  I explained that I was coming home for Easter and already had my ticket for Thursday. “No, you have to come now,” she insisted. So I changed my ticket and came home the next day, Palm Sunday.

Contemplating Jesus’ Passion and death that year, while my dad was also dying, brought new, deeper meaning to the mystery of death and resurrection.

Once my mother let go of my dad, once she truly said good-bye to him, he died within an hour. The nurse was right; he was ready.God-Easter-hopeThen five years, ago, my friend Jim died on Tuesday of Holy Week (April 3 that year), adding another memorial to an already meaningful time.

On Palm Sunday 2012, almost nine months after his diagnosis of brain cancer, we knew Jim was close to death. He ate his last meal that Sunday afternoon, spent the next day in bed, and died early Tuesday morning.

Their deaths, occurring during this holiest time of the year, has deepened my understanding of the Paschal mystery—how death is part of life and how new life can come from death.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24)God-Easter-hopeI ask myself what fruit has been produced by their deaths—and the deaths of others I have loved.

One fruit is my deep awareness of how fortunate I am to have loved and been loved. I know myself as blessed, even in the absence of those I love.

St. John Chrysostom said, “Those whom we love and lose are no longer where they once were. They are now whenever we are.”

It is true that my dad, Jim and all the other people I have lost are no longer present in physical form, but I carry them in my heart, and they are with me in a different way. I think of them often, and their lives and deaths help me to live each day in awareness of the fragility of life and in gratitude for all that is.
God-Easter-hope