Tag Archives: grief

New life

Holy Saturday is a day of quiet anticipation, a kind of limbo, when we are suspended between death and life.

It is a day that invites me to remember times when I have lived in that liminal space between death and life. Those are usually times when I have failed at something and have taken a step back to regroup—or have been so devastated by disappointment that I am incapable of moving forward and need to pause to pull myself together.

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The Holy Saturday experience is a model for living in trust, believing that all those pauses in my life—those times of disappointment and loss—are really stepping stones to something new and different.

Richard Rohr, in Everything Belongs, uses the image of Jonah inside the whale to describe that pause.

We must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit upon a new shore and understand our call.

Rohr’s words remind me to ponder those times of transition, when I was suspended between death and new life, and how they turned out to be springboards for a deeper understanding of my call.

The story of Jonah has always been a favorite because I relate to his attempts to escape his call, thinking he could outrun God. I, too, tried to outrun God. But even as a young woman, I imagined Jonah shaking his head at me and saying, “Learn from me. You can’t outrun God.”  

Surrender is the word I associate with Jonah, but I was taught never give up. Like Jonah, giving in to God was a hard lesson for me to learn.

Over the years, though, I have had quite a few experiences of being inside the belly of the whale, suspended between what was and what will be— opportunities to throw my hands up in surrender and admit that God holds all the cards, to accept life as it is instead of how I wanted it to be.

Actually, I am in one of those times right now. The nonprofit where I work recently merged with a larger organization and we are assuming a new name and new identity. What has been will be no more—and what will be has yet to be revealed.

We are in transition.

Letting go of what was can be a challenge, especially for those who have a long history with our organization and feel invested in what we have built. Disappointment at losing what was and fear of the unknown future can create anxiety.

Accepting change and adjusting our expectations is a process that takes time.

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Holy Saturday extends the invitation to enter into that process of transformation from death to new life—looking back with gratitude for what has been, letting go of expectations connected with the past, accepting what is and looking forward to what will be.

I pray for the grace to let go of the past so that I can welcome new life.

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Unconventional grief

In Chapter four of A Resurrection Shaped Life, “Mending Loss and Sorrow,” Jake Owensby introduced me to the term “unconventional grief.”

            “Unconventional grief occurs when the person we’ve lost is still right in front of us. A loved one may drift into dementia or sink into addiction. A person we once knew can be spirited away from us by brain injury of mental illness. The one we love is gone. And still sits at the Thanksgiving table. This kind of sorrow is not the same as anticipating someone’s death…unconventional grief involves continuing to live with a person who has become a stranger or to whom you are now a stranger” (Page 56).

I was familiar with the concept.

In 2002, my friend Jim did something completely out of character. “Who are you and what have you done with Jim?” I asked and then added, “You must have a brain tumor.” He blamed his action on being tired, but I was not convinced.

Jim was a man of routine. He was predictable, dependable.

So when he acted oddly on that day in 2002, I knew something was wrong.

And from then on, he began to act out of character more frequently—until he eventually became a new person whose life looked significantly different from his old life. His old routines were replaced by things that had once held no interest for him.

One day, I compiled a list with two columns—Old Jim and New Jim—to show him how he had changed. He looked at the sheet of paper and agreed he did not do things he had once done but could not seem to understand why it was an issue. It was as if his brain could not process the information.

And he refused to see a doctor.

By 2006, Old Jim was pretty much gone, and I was left with New Jim. And although the loss was real, I did not know how to grieve it.

Five years later, Jim was diagnosed with glioblastoma—brain cancer.

I described Old Jim and New Jim to the neurosurgeon and asked if this tumor could have caused the change. He explained that the glioblastoma had only been growing for three to four weeks. “But,” he added, “There is something in his right front lobe that is not glioblastoma and that could be a slow-growing tumor that has been there a long time.” He asked if there was a history of benign brain tumors in Jim’s family. In fact, Jim had an uncle who died from complications from benign brain tumor surgery.

I believe that every curse has a blessing. Glioblastoma was definitely a curse, but throughout Jim’s illness, we experienced many blessings. The greatest blessing, though, was that the treatments that were entirely ineffective on the glioblastoma somehow returned Jim’s brain to its pre-2002 condition. Old Jim came back!

I grieved Jim’s death, but have only recently begun to get in touch with those lost years, that time of unconventional grief.

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Is the parade passing by?

A friend recently invited me to her community theater’s production of Hello Dolly.

I tend to avoid musicals—too unrealistic for me. All that singing and dancing in the midst of poverty and despair is not how I remember the poor people in the neighborhood where I grew up or in neighborhoods where I have lived since.

When I saw Les Miserables, I remember thinking that most of the people in the theater would probably be afraid to walk through my neighborhood, yet they seemed to enjoy watching this upbeat depiction of oppression and wretchedness.

I worry that portraying poverty and human misery so light-heartedly can assuage the guilt of those who have the power to make societal changes. (Look how happy those poor people are; singing and dancing their way through despair—why change anything?)

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But, to support my friend, I decided to move against my resistance and go see Hello Dolly.

This particular community theater is no-cut, so the cast was large and included people of all ages.

I quickly got caught up in the music, costumes and pageantry of the play. It was all quite cheerful, and I found myself smiling as I searched the faces of the cast for my friend.

At some point, though, I realized the story was about Dolly’s desire to move past grieving her husband’s death.

In one scene, Dolly says to her deceased husband, Let me go. It’s been long enough.

I, too, have sometimes felt chained to my past and have pleaded to be let go. I want to be set free and move ahead, but sometimes the link to the past is so strong that it seems inescapable.

And, it isn’t always a relationship that holds me back. Sometimes (and perhaps more often) it is an unhealthy or unrealistic belief about myself—my own lack of confidence—that can keep me trapped.God-vulnerability-faith

When Dolly sang, I’ve decided to join the human race again before the parade passes by, I could feel the tears well up in my eyes.

Then Dolly admitted that no one else’s life is mixed up with mine, and I felt found out and exposed.

Through this upbeat, light-hearted musical, this play was speaking deep truths to my soul and inviting me to examine the current state of my life and just how free I am.

Am I open to mixing up my life with others? Or am I keeping to myself?

Am I participating in the human race? Or am I sitting on the sidelines?

Is the parade passing me by?

Grief can take on a life of its own, and great loss can make it difficult to re-enter life fully. But, I know it is possible, and Hello Dolly invited me to let go and live more fully.

Perhaps Les Miserables and other musicals portraying oppression and poverty work the same way on those who have the capacity to effect social change, exposing vulnerabilities and offering insight for transformation. Maybe I judged too harshly.

 

 

 

 

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Moving on

Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a regular part of my spiritual life. Reviewing my thoughts, words and actions, looking at where I need to make changes and admitting my shortcomings to another human being helps me live more intentionally.

One transgression I don’t ever remember confessing is envy—because I tend to be quite content with my life.

Recently, though, I heard myself saying words I regretted the moment they out of my mouth. I knew I needed to apologize, but before I did, I wanted to understand what had prompted this comment.

I prayed for insight.

Pondering the situation, I realized I envied the woman I had spoken to; I was envious of a part of her life that reminded me of what I used to have but have lost.

Five years ago, I moved “home” after having lived away for almost forty years. That move changed my proximity to some friends and the things we used to do together. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that part of my old life until I heard this woman talking about a trip she had recently taken with her friends.

I was happy for her and the fun she had, but a week later—and not even thinking or talking about her trip—I said something totally irrelevant and rude. I was speaking out of the past, a past I have lost and apparently still mourn.vulnerability-grief-hopeUnderstanding doesn’t change or fix what is wrong, but it helps me to apologize sincerely and to figure out what adjustments I need to make to act differently in the future.

In this situation, my words led me to reflect on developing more friends in my new home—or perhaps initiating more with my family and the friends I do have.

When I moved home, I decided that I would not expect people to accommodate me—to make space for me in their lives—because I did not want to have unrealistic expectations. I knew that their lives had gone on without me while I chose to live away.

Developing realistic expectations can be tricky because expectations that are too high can lead to disappointment and expectations that are too low can lead to—well, I think in this situation, loneliness.

I realized that a fear of disappointment or rejection led me to develop extremely low expectations.

As I look back on the five years since my move, I can see that some of my attempts at initiating have been rejected and I have been disappointed on occasion. But more often, family and friends have embraced me and responded positively to my suggested activities.

Building a new life has been a challenge, and even though I am deeply grateful to be living near my family, my rude comment tells me that I still have a ways to go before I am totally content with my new life. Admitting that is the first step toward changing it. Letting go of what was also helps.vulnerability-grief-hope

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Love lost

A few weeks ago, the movie Letters to Juliet popped into my mind and I couldn’t seem to let it go. I’d seen it before, but I decided to rent it.

The movie is based on a non-fiction book about notes posted on the wall outside the house of Juliet of Verona and the “secretaries” who respond to the notes. I have never been to Verona, but apparently there really is a house called Casa di Giulietta—Juliet’s House—at Via Cappello, 23, Verona, with a courtyard where people leave letters.love-hope-fearThe movie is about an English woman who abandoned her Italian lover fifty years earlier and returns to search for him.

As I watched this movie the other night, I remembered a man I had met more than thirty years ago.

I had gone with a friend to upstate New York to support her at the Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice. I was against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, so I resonated with the anti-nuclear message of this group.love-hope-fearBut the encampment challenged me in ways I had not expected, and my discomfort intensified throughout that first day. I was too conventional for this kind of demonstration and found myself thinking of how I could get away.

By the end of that first day, my inner voice was saying, Leave now and don’t come back.

My distress continued into that evening, and I went for a run to regain my equilibrium.

We were staying with my friend’s cousin at his farm. The countryside was beautiful—rolling hills, farmlands and forests. The run was somewhat strenuous, but it felt good to exert myself physically as I grappled with my emotional dilemma.love-hope-fearAnd then on a steep hill, something snapped in my back and pain shot down my leg. I stood on the side of the road, bent over in agony, sobbing—and far from where I was staying. Somehow I managed to hobble home and then crumpled to the living room floor. Someone brought me an icepack and aspirin.

For several hours I just lay there, feeling relief from staying still.

At some point, a man came into the living room and introduced himself as Ross, a friend of the people I was staying with; he lived in their renovated chicken coop.

For the rest of that day, Ross kept me company. He was a landscaper by trade, but a poet by temperament. We talked for most of the night.

The next day, my host took me to a chiropractor; one adjustment eased the pain enough that I was able to sit in a car for the ride home.

Ross wrote beautiful, romantic letters to me and even came to visit. He was smitten; I was scared.love-hope-fearI said the distance between Ithaca and Philadelphia was too great—and our relationship ended before it really got started.

And yet, there he was in my memory as I watched a movie about love lost and found.

 

 

 

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Being open to the presence of God

Sometimes my liturgical seasons seem to get their wires crossed—I experience Lenten contrition in August or Easter joy during Advent. This year, I am resonating more with Advent than with Lent.

Advent begins with the image of the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). That is what I am experiencing as Lent begins—walking in light. The darkness of the grief that has gripped me for the past six years seems to have lifted, and my spirit feels light and free. Instead of donning sackcloth and ashes, I feel like laughing and dancing.

Joy and gratitude have taken up residence; contentment reigns. For as long as this feeling lasts, I want to enjoy it.Lent-God-spiritualitySo, about Lent.

True confession: I am addicted to chocolate and rarely go a day without it.Lent-God-spiritualityOne year, just after college, my housemate and I gave up chocolate and alcohol for Lent. I thought giving up alcohol would be more difficult, but it was not. At the grocery store, I repeatedly noticed candy bars on the checkout conveyor belt. How did that happen? I would wonder, knowing full well that I must have put them there, even though I was completely unaware that I had done it. Giving up alcohol for Lent? No problem. But chocolate? No way.

I have a desk drawer at work designated as the snack drawer—it is stocked with chocolate in a variety of forms—granola bars with chocolate chips, chocolate covered almonds and straight-up chocolate candy. It is not a secret stash, and anyone is welcome to dip into this treasure trove of sweets.Lent-God-spiritualityOne Lent, a staff person said she wanted to give up chocolate and asked if I would be willing to join her. She wanted me to empty my snack drawer because she feared the temptation would be too great for her. I explained that I give things up for Lent to become holier—or at least more focused on God—and giving up chocolate would only make me grumpier.

My fasting for Lent tends to be more about giving up being judgmental or being critical or being impatient—more attitudes than actual things. Changing my attitudes seems to have more potential to be transformational in my spiritual journey than changing my eating habits.

My Lenten reflection book encourages making Lent “a penitential season,” and says the purpose of penitential practices (prayer, fasting and almsgiving) is “to open oneself more fully to the presence of God.”

This Lent, I want to fast from judgmentalism, scarcity, stinginess and fear—and feast on  abundance, joy, trust, generosity and gratitude. This Lent, I want to bask in light and live in freedom.Lent-God-spirituality

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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