Tag Archives: grief

God-cancer-hope

Why words matter

The last thing you say to someone might be the last thing you say to him. These words came to me as a memory from the day my friend Jim had a seizure which left him unconscious. That day ended with a diagnosis of a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer.

In the midst of being told that Jim may never regain consciousness, I wondered, “What was the last thing I said to him?”

Fortunately, I had spoken to him shortly before the seizure and my words were positive.

I know, though, that I don’t end every conversation, every interaction on a positive note. Sometimes I speak out of frustration or anger. Other times, I am distracted or tired or…God-cancer-hopeThat question, though, from the day Jim had a seizure has stayed with me and is a reminder to try to end every conversation on a positive note. That is particularly significant because I work at a cancer support center.

One of the women who came to the center for a couple of years had not been around for a while. Phone calls and messages went unanswered. We knew she had stopped treatment and began to wonder if she was still alive.

Sometimes families don’t notify us for weeks or even months, so we often live in a kind of limbo. But, we learned of this woman’s death within a few days after she had died.

Remembering this particular woman, I wondered what had been my last words to her. I hope they were something that let her know that I was glad to see her and that I cared about her. I hope she felt accepted, consoled and even uplifted.

She had been very realistic about the path she had chosen. She knew that without treatment, the cancer would end her life. But, I don’t think she knew that the last time she came to our center would be the last time. I did not know that the last words I said to her were the last words I would ever say to her.

Some days, I am overwhelmed by the sadness of my work. People learning they have cancer, enduring treatment, anxious for results from scans, some of them dying—it can be so sad.

Other days, though, I am overjoyed by the good news of my work. People learning that the cancer is in remission or that they are cancer-free, optimistic that life holds promise, hopeful for a future they once feared would never come.

Balancing these emotions, this ups and downs of cancer and its many ripple effects, can be difficult for me. God invites me to hold both the joys and sorrows.

I am reminded of St. Paul’s words: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all things through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

Strengthen me, Lord.

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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?

 

 

retreat-meditation-God

To see as God sees

Retreats are wonderful opportunities for serendipitous moments of insight. Stepping away from daily living creates a space to be more open and aware, and to get a different perspective on what is right in front of me.retreat-meditation-God

The second morning of my recent retreat, I opened my prayer book and found a note a friend had sent a few years ago. I did not remember putting it there, but there it was.

My friend was reflecting on her desire to let go of wanting to be seen by others in some particular good light (good mother, good neighbor, etc.), and just to see herself as God sees her.

Her words touched my own struggle with my desire to be seen—just to be visible—and then also to be seen as good or successful or as possessing some other positive attribute.

My desire for others’ approval can motivate me to accomplish many things; it can also take up an inordinate amount of energy and leave me feeling anxious.

My friend’s note included a Celtic prayer:

“Be the eye of God dwelling within me.

Be the foot of Christ in guidance with me.

Be the shower of the Spirit pouring on me, richly and generously.”

The phrase “eye of God dwelling within me” caught my attention, and I spent some time that day and the next pondering what God’s eye would see through my eyes and also what God’s eye sees when looking at me.

For many years, I would not talk about my faith, believing it would be of little or no interest or particularly helpful or relevant. I believed that each person’s spiritual experience was as personal as mine. Plus, who was I to talk about how God blessed me? It sounded too bold—not humble at all.

My spiritual director gave me this definition of humility: Humility means telling the truth—being neither less than nor greater than I really am.

Her words deepened my pondering on who I am in God’s eyes, how God sees me.

The past seven years have been a time of great loss for me and each loss left me feeling more and more vulnerable. Being vulnerable is very uncomfortable for me, and I instinctively dealt with it by closing in on myself. With each loss, I added another layer to a protective shield around my heart, until my heart had become encased. In the process, I think I forgot who I am and whose I am.

In a dream one night, I had to climb through a barbed wire fence. Upon waking, it occurred to me that barbed wire is a fitting image for the protective shield around my heart—painful for me to climb through to be free or for anyone else to reach in.retreat-meditation-God

I prayed for the grace to dismantle the shield around my heart, to unwrap the layers of barbed wire so that I can see as God sees and be the person God calls me to be.

 

kindness-light-Advent

One kind word

During the holiday season, the cancer support center where I work sets up a Christmas tree at a local Mall, and in the days leading up to Christmas, people fill the tree with ornaments bearing the names of loved ones who have died.kindness-light-Advent

Each Saturday afternoon, volunteers staff a table by the tree.

The first Saturday, while a volunteer and I were setting up the table, a woman stopped to look at our colors of cancer poster.

kindness-light-Advent

Colors of Cancer

“Do you know about The Lake House cancer support center?” I asked.

No, she had never heard of it.

I gave her the short version of what we do and asked, “Have you been touched by cancer?”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “Yes,” she said, “My mother died from pancreatic cancer last year.”

She then picked a purple ribbon and wrote her mother’s name on it. Her daughter took pictures as the woman hung the ornament on the tree. I invited her to our weekly bereavement group, and she said, “I need it.” We hugged, and she went on her way.

“Even if no one else stops today,” I said to our volunteer, “this has already been worthwhile.”

One person, given the opportunity to acknowledge her loss and voice her grief. One kind word. One hug. One person consoled.

Of course, she was not the only person to stop, to remember a loved one, shed a few tears, hang an ornament, accept a hug—and then move on. There were others throughout the afternoon.

The next Saturday, one of the volunteers who staffed the table told me about the first person who stopped that day and shared her cancer story. Like me, this volunteer felt the power of this opportunity to offer a kind word and a hug. “I knew then that I was meant to be there,” she said.kindness-light-Advent

Life is made up of encounters like these—opportunities to listen to another’s pain, to honor it and to offer hope. Small things, really, but small things that can made a big difference.

Mother Teresa said, Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

I believe that every encouraging small thing makes a difference, even if it is just for that one person.

Advent brings our attention to small things—Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah, Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem and staying in a stable. They had no power or fame and lived simple lives; yet their lives had far-reaching consequences.

Sometimes, I can feel like I am not making much of a difference, and then I meet someone who is suffering, someone who just needs to be heard. That is something I can do. And that small act can make a big difference to that one person.

Every act of kindness, every word of encouragement and every moment of hope brings light into darkness—and bringing light to darkness is the message and invitation of Advent.

kindness-light-Advent

Advent wreath

gratitude-thanksgiving

Gratitude

Recently, I facilitated a day of reflection for members of the cancer support center where I work. The theme was gratitude.

It may seem paradoxical to invite people to be grateful when they have cancer, because being grateful during difficult times can seem unimaginable; but I think that difficult times are when we need gratitude the most.

I shared this quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:

Yes, my primary mission has been to bring death out of the closet because everyone needs to view death as an opportunity. Death can show us the way to live. It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.

Death is a natural part of life, most easily seen in nature at this time of year, but a diagnosis of cancer or some other serious illness can also shine a light on our mortality.

gratitude-thanksgiving

When I was the director of a lay mission program, I spent Thanksgiving one year at St. Philip’s Mission in Swaziland, Southern Africa. The Mission is on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, as rural as can be. The AIDS epidemic was raging throughout the country, and the Mission’s orphanage reached capacity soon after opening.

One of our missioners told the story of visiting the hut of a dying woman. Her three young children were at her side and the eldest, a girl of six, used a syringe to give her mother sips of water.gratitude-thanksgiving

Soon after that visit, the woman died and her three children moved to the orphanage.

During that Thanksgiving visit, we gave each child a book.They reacted with surprise and delight. “For me?” they asked as they lovingly cradled their gifts. It was as if they had been handed a precious diamond.

Their joy and gratitude brought tears to my eyes as I thought about my reaction to gifts I had received. Was I ever this grateful? Did I ever allow myself to be so humble that I could delight in something so small?

It occurred to me that their deep awareness of death led them to a deep sense of gratitude. Knowing their mortality helped them live fully.

It is a dance, this movement from death to life, from sadness to joy.

Since I moved to Michigan a few years ago, I had many moments of sadness and deep grief. And then, I will spend a day with my family or have a random encounter with a cousin or reconnect with a place in Detroit that was significant in my childhood—and I am filled with joy and gratitude that I made the move.

Taking a day away helps me to see how blessed I am, to be grateful and to trust that the best is yet to come.