Tag Archives: grief

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.

 

 

create-prayer

Inertia

Inertia is not a word I hear often, but when someone said it the other day, what popped into my mind was: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. I don’t know when I learned Newton’s law of inertia —maybe fifty years ago—but it obviously stuck.

I hadn’t thought of inertia in a long time, but since hearing the word I can’t get it out of my mind. I’ve been thinking about how inertia works in my life, where I am in motion and where I am at rest.

Just days before my friend Jim died, he said, “I hope you start to sew again.” It was an odd, random thing for him to say—the wish of a dying man—and his words haunt me. Since his death more than four years ago, I have sewed a bit, but not started sewing in the way he meant.

Sewing is pure joy for me. In a very short time, I can transform a piece of fabric into a skirt or a dress. Sewing is magic and has always been a marvel for me.

create-sew

I recently saw a news clip about an art program inthe Detroit public schools. As a glass blower changed a rod of glass into a vase, the camera captured the amazement on the faces of the children in the class. I could relate because art stirs the wonder of the child within me. Sewing is an art form that delights and transforms me.

So why have I not been sewing?

create-prayer

“I started sewing,” I told my mother the other day, and I know she hoped I would say I was working on her curtains. I had bought the fabric weeks ago and prepped it, but then did not sew the curtains. I don’t know why, but I just haven’t been able to get started. Inertia.

On that day, though, I did thread the needle and do a little mending, small projects that have been sitting on my sewing machine table for months, begging for my attention.

I have inertia around my prayer, too. I spend time in quiet every morning, but am I really praying? I read scripture and Morning Prayer. I journal. But actually praying, having a conversation with God, an open dialogue, listening for God’s voice, God’s direction? Like sewing, all the pieces are in place, but I seem unable to jump in and do it.

My inertia, I believe, is caused by the losses of the past six years; being at rest is a natural part of the grieving process.

I see signs though that I am moving through my inertia. Studying Polish, gardening, baking and cooking are all activities I have resumed after a time of being at rest.

Threading the needle to mend may have been the first step toward sewing, and a week’s retreat this winter will hopefully rekindle my prayer life and help me to re-engage more fully in life.

create-prayer

 

Deep waters

“I don’t have any place to put that,” I said to my friend Steve when he told me he had decided not to take treatment for bladder cancer. Even with treatment, he was only expected to live a few months; without it, he would die very soon.

This was just eight months after my friend Jim died. Steve had been meeting with me during those months, walking with me through my grief. And now he was telling me that he was going to die. Sadness overwhelmed me. I had no place for this news.

Steve died a week later. I was numb, walking around in a fog so dense I feared I would not find my way out.

fog

 

In the three years since Steve died, two more close friends have died from cancer.

I don’t have any place inside me to put more loss, more sadness. Cumulative grief threatens to cripple me.

“Put out into the deep water…” Jesus says (Luke 5:4). Deep water? If the water of my grief gets any deeper, I fear I will drown. I am already in over my head.

I remember a friend recounting the losses of a woman she knew—first her husband and then one by one, each of her children died from some hereditary condition. “I don’t know how she goes on,” my friend had said. At the time, I could not imagine it either. How did this woman keep getting out of bed every day after losing her husband and children within a few years? How could she keep putting one foot in front of the other?

Now I wonder if my friend recounts my losses with same sense of incredulity. Is she telling others of my litany of losses and saying of me, “I don’t know how she goes on”?

I re-read chapter 5 of Luke’s gospel and noticed that Jesus got into the boat and taught the people on the shore before instructing the fishermen to “put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Jesus was in the boat. That detail had escaped my attention before, and I re-imagined the scene—not the fisherman alone putting out into the deep water, but Jesus was with them.

I am not alone in my grief; Jesus is with me

Put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch.

What am I to catch? I ask Jesus.

Perhaps the catch of living in this deep place of loss and sadness and grief for the past six years is a greater capacity for understanding others’ grief, a profound empathy. Perhaps the catch is that each death, each loss, is deepening the space within me to accept my lack of control and my own vulnerability.

Perhaps the catch is that my capacity to live in gratitude for what has been and in hope for what is to come is getting deeper, that grief has shaped a space deep enough to hold it all.

hope-stone