Tag Archives: blessings

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?

 

 

god-blessings-transformation

You are worth more than gold

Last weekend, I returned to Philadelphia for a friend’s thirtieth birthday celebration. Last weekend also marked the fifth anniversary of my friend Jim’s death, and I commemorated that occasion with Mass and dinner with friends.

I had lived in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years and have friends there who have known me for most of my adult life.

One friend asked me if I had come to see any upside to the time of Jim’s illness and death. I reminded her that I believe every curse has a blessing, and I recounted some of the blessings from that difficult time.god-blessings-transformationJim used to tell me to “take it in” whenever someone paid me a compliment.

Low self-esteem had plagued me from an early age, and I didn’t really believed the positive things people said to me. Each time Jim told me to take it in I knew I was minimizing or dismissing a compliment—a habit so deeply ingrained that I was unaware I was doing it. He never seemed to tire of reminding me that people appreciated me, even though I was blind to my own gifts and talents.god-blessings-transformationBut in the process of caring for Jim, a switch got tripped, and I started to be able to take it in. I began to believe the compliments.

While Jim was received radiation, we met weekly with his radiologist and I would report on Jim’s reaction to the treatment. During one of these meetings, the radiologist said to me, “You are an accurate report.” “I am,” I thought.

I had realized during Jim’s illness that I can deal with most anything as long as I know what is happening. My reports were accurate, and I was able to take in the radiologist’s affirmation.

“You are doing the best you can for Jim,” the radiology receptionist said to me one day when I was particularly emotional and weepy. I took in her affirmation, too. I was doing the best I could, and Jim not only lived months beyond original expectations, but his life was good.god-blessings-transformationAbout six months into Jim’s illness, his neurosurgeon said, “If I was just looking at your scans, I would be deeply concerned. But talking to you and looking at you, you seem to be doing quite well.” “Thank you,” I said, and I meant it. I had come to realize that Jim was doing well at least in part because of the care I was giving him.

These little experiences began to add up, and I started to see myself differently. My self-esteem was being bolstered during this very difficult time. I was actually functioning fairly well, and I was doing the best I could for Jim.

While Jim’s brain cells were being destroyed by cancer, my negative self-image was also being destroyed and my brain cells were being reorganized into a more accurate report.

“You are gold,” Jim said to me one day. “Thank you,” I replied, as I took in his compliment and believed him.god-blessings-transformation

One particular day

I suppose most people can remember one particular day when something happened that caused a major life change. That day for me was five years ago today—July 8, 2011. My friend Jim had a seizure while sitting at his desk, hit his head when he fell, and was unconscious when found several hours later. A CT scan at the hospital, checking for a concussion, instead found cancer in three lobes of his brain; and not just any cancer, but a very, very aggressive, non-curable cancer. I knew nothing would ever be the same.

Jim had always believed that our life experiences brought lessons—and really difficult experiences brought really important lessons. During his cancer journey, he continually asked God, “What is the invitation in this?” and “What am I meant to learn from this?” His lessons ranged from letting go of important parts of his identify to allowing himself to be physically cared for to deepening his belief that he was in God’s hands. Jim became much more trusting while he was sick (although I think he maintained a certain level of skepticism when it was time for the daily injections I had to give him).

Every day we laughed and every day we were grateful. Even on bad days, when everything that could go wrong did—like the day Jim needed emergency surgery just three days after being released from the hospital or when he developed a blood clot the day before we were going to the ocean—even on those days, we found humor and gratitude.

In the face of a non-curable, aggressive cancer, it was actually fairly easy for me to admit I had no control. If a neurosurgeon, radiologist and oncologist could not get rid of the brain cancer, what could I do? Instead, I asked God, “What is the invitation in this for me?”

And God responded, “This is what you are to do: you are to love Jim unconditionally, forgive him without limit, and let him go.” They were words from a prayer I had prayed every day for ten years, and God was pointing out to me that this was my chance to practice what I had been praying —every day for almost nine months. I wanted to be more loving and forgiving and less controlling and here was a great opportunity.

While he was sick, we talked about my moving back to Michigan to be near my family, and when my sisters came to visit, he gave me to them. Two days later, he died a very peaceful death, at home with his dog by his side.

On that day of Jim’s diagnosis five years ago, I could not know the difficulties, heartbreak and sorrow that was to come. Nor could I know the gifts, joys and blessings.

When I look back at July 8, 2011, and everything that has happened since, I am both amazed and deeply grateful. Life has changed, and it is good.

 

Ten were healed

Our Gospel reading today was about the curing of ten people who had leprosy and the one who returned to thank Jesus (Luke 17:11-19). Sr. Anne Marie Lom asked (on Facebook), “Do you know people who have lived very difficult lives but seem to be filled with a sense of gratitude?”

Her question reminded me of a talk I gave during a women’s weekend retreat last January. I had been asked to speak on “Living in Gratitude” and to talk about my journey with Jim through his illness and death.

It may have seemed incongruent to speak of gratitude at that moment—not only had Jim died nine months earlier, but the very morning I was to speak I received word that our good friend Steve Dougherty had died.

Steve had been diagnosed with cancer in November and a few days after Christmas, he went into hospice. Steve was a very close friend to Jim and me for many years; he was with us throughout Jim’s illness and he was walking with me through my grief.

I started my retreat talk by sharing that I had received word of Steve’s death just a few hours earlier so I was probably going to be more emotional than if I were just talking about Jim. And then I shared the story of Jim’s illness and how we laughed every day and were grateful every day. I talked about our awareness of God’s abundant love for us and about how big our God is.

At the end of my talk, one woman said she imagined I must have had a wonderful life with very little hardship and that my easy life helped develop my deep sense of gratitude. “Not so much,” I said.

I then shared the story of a friend who grew up in an idyllic home where she was praised for everything she did. Her parents never denied her anything and they told her she was perfect in every way. When she left home at eighteen, she told me that she quickly realized that her parents had not told the rest of the world that she was perfect and deserving of everything she wanted; her adult life had been filled with unmet expectations and disappointment.

This friend helped me see that a lack of suffering is not a predictor of gratitude. Nor do I believe that suffering is a predictor of gratitude.

I think I am grateful because I know God’s fidelity and I can see how good God has been to me, how generous, loving, forgiving and healing. I know myself as blessed, and I am grateful.