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Grief Revisited

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Grief.

I’ve been feeling it again lately.

On December 2nd, David’s birthday, I found myself crying. That’s unusual. Several birthdays have passed since his death and they haven’t caused such a reaction in me.

But that day I missed him.

I was feeling particularly tender and vulnerable. Continuing to live in this uncertain, “in-between” place was affecting me.

And there was something more.

A little over three months ago, in the predawn hours, I awoke to a message on my phone from a good friend from the past. Lisa had reached out to me because her husband had just died. Shocked out of my groggy half-awake state, I texted back that I was here if she wanted to talk.

Lisa and her husband Kevin had been good friends of ours in the early years of our marriages when we lived in Connecticut. We’d stayed in touch after moving away and even wound up living in the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina. Occasionally we’d meet halfway for family camping trips.

We had this history together.  We’d begun our marriages around the same time. Had both experienced the years of longing for a child and waiting and hoping and waiting some more. Finally rejoicing in each other’s gift  — a son for me, a daughter for Lisa. Our friendship was comfortable and comforting.

Listening to Lisa that morning, my own grief came back to me just as clearly as if I were reliving it with her. I remembered how I’d felt as if a hole had been ripped through my heart. How else can you describe losing your best friend and most intimate partner? The person you tell everything to, share everything with. The one who knows you better than anyone. The love of your life.

Yes, I understood that pain. I could empathize. But what surprised me is how easily I felt this grief again. I remembered how bottomless and debilitating it had felt. How at times I’d thought I couldn’t possibly heal.

More than anything in that moment, I wanted to take that pain from my friend.  Even if it meant I had to relive it for her.

Because I have crossed over this threshold, I know I can survive it. And much more than that — I know that joy and love and fullness of life exist even in the midst of such pain. I already know this.

But Lisa doesn’t. At least not yet.

I got off the phone that morning asking, why so much pain? Why must we experience so much pain?grief-loss1

I don’t really know the answer to that question.

But I do know that if I close my heart off to feeling as a result of my deep loss, I will close myself off from the greatest adventure and fulfillment of my life.

Here’s what is clear to me:

That grief and the healing power of transformation are connected.

That compassion has grown in me because of my own grief.

That grieving is not a singular event . The door to my heart has been broken open; I can’t go back to allowing myself not to feel.

That all of it is sacred and trustworthy. Even the painful stuff.

And I can trust the One who remained with me through the deepest darkness of my grief.

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Many of us are grieving at this time of year. Some of it is due to the upcoming Christmas holiday, which can magnify our loneliness and pain, especially when we’ve lost loved ones.

Some of the grief, I believe, is due to this recent presidential election. I know I have felt anxiety and a real sadness for those who are vulnerable, including Mother Earth. There’s a collective grieving happening. I’ve heard this from others as well.

For me, the call is to live with greater compassion. Even, and especially, if it means feeling the pain of the other.

As insight meditation teacher Tara Brach explained in a recent talk on Bodhisattva for Our Times, going through your personal grief brings you to the universal.

She says, “Let grief transform you. Then make a conscious choice to be a light.”

That in itself is reason enough for me to allow myself to feel the pain of grieving. I want, and I choose, to be a light in the darkness.

“We’re all in it together and we can trust that even in the long, dark nights of winter our hearts are turning toward the light.” (Tara Brach)

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Pieces of My Heart

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David would have been 65 today. There was a time I could not have imagined he wouldn’t make it to 65. The fact he didn’t even live to see 60 seems outrageous. Or at least it did.

Now I wonder, what does age mean? And what are years? They all meld together to create this wonderful expression of our short lives on this earth. Because we really are here so briefly. But if we live with our hearts open, it’s an amazing life. And who we are lives on through the hearts of others. That may seem like a worn-out phrase, but I can vouch for it. Love, in some mysterious way, connects two beings beyond the threshold where two worlds meet.

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I know that I carry David in my heart. Just as vividly and lovingly as I did while he was alive. And sometimes, just as I did when he was alive, I take for granted the incredible support and influence he has had on my life. Yet the effects live on.

He was the first to recognize my inner strength and courageous spirit. He showed me my good qualities and, thankfully, my faults and weaknesses, too. I changed and grew because of our relationship. Through David I experienced God’s unconditional love. And that’s enabled me to risk leaping into the unknown, to leave behind my home, and to take others into my heart along the way.

But in the intimacy of living with an open heart lies another risk — the risk of feeling the sadness of the heart connections I’ve left behind. It seems I’m leaving pieces of my heart everywhere these days. But, just as I leave pieces of my heart behind, I take other pieces with me.  I’m learning the language of the open heart on this journey. My heart opens wider with each lesson.

It happened in San Antonio.

Especially that short month I spent serving Women’s Global Connection. Transitioning to WGC proved to be a grace-filled decision. A decision that brought me closer to what I came here seeking and that blessed me in so many ways. Located on the extensive campus of the University of Incarnate Word and The Village, a retirement home for many of the Sisters, WGC exposed me to the larger Incarnate Word community. To deeper connections with some of the Sisters and with the WGC staff so committed to its sustainable projects in Tanzania, Zambia, and, my special favorite, Peru. To the peaceful, prayerful oasis of the campus chapels. And to an awareness that “everything is a spiritual experience,” as my new friend Sr. Mary T. taught me.

When I packed up and headed north on I-35 last Tuesday night to spend Thanksgiving with my cousin Joyce near Austin, I was already missing these heart connections. People like Sylvia, Sr. Brigid, Sr. Mary T., Sr. Carmelita, Sr. Alice, Tere and Terrie, and many others who found their way into my heart and made my brief time with Incarnate Word Missionaries so special.

Although I expected to be at Joyce’s only a few days before heading on to El Paso, that changed when I got some surprising news. The house for volunteers where I’d planned to live won’t be available until December 15.

Once again I find myself waiting in this “in-between” place. My mind scrambles to come up with ideas for where to live in the interim. I start to feel anxious. So, I do what I know I need to do.

I go off by myself to be quiet and listen for guidance.

In the stillness I feel the loneliness of not having a place to settle. I’m tired of traveling with my belongings packed in my Subaru. I feel like a homeless child, wandering and wondering where she belongs. I question. I pray. I wait.

A book lying on my bed attracts my attention: Legacy of the Heart, by Wayne Muller — a gift from Sr. Brigid. It opens to this:

“…the journey to our new home need not always lead to a separate country or place. Sometimes it leads us to a still, small voice within our souls, a place of belonging as sure and quiet as our very breath…

Belonging begins in that deep, quiet place where our spirit lives within us. ‘Take sanctuary in me,’ says the voice of God. Do not depend on circumstances to create or sustain your place of belonging, but rather make your home in the unchanging breath of the spirit that lives within. Claim your home, claim your belonging with each breath.”

A stronger, and higher, part of me knows this truth. Home doesn’t rely on physical space. My true home lives within me. In quiet moments, I have touched that place. A place where Love connects all the heart’s pieces.

And then I know with certainty that I can never truly be separated from anyone or anything that I have ever loved. No matter where I find myself.

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A special card from Sylvia

 

Learning to Bend

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Waterfall alongside stone etching on the River Walk

This morning after attending Mass at the San Fernando Cathedral, I decided to stroll the River Walk here in San Antonio where I’ve begun my lay missionary service. Tourists roamed along the canal lined with shops and restaurant after restaurant after restaurant. I couldn’t help but remember the last time I visited, I was one of these tourists, vacationing with my husband and son.

My life is hugely different now. My roles changed completely. How could I have known then that I’d be back several years later, David gone from this life, Davis attending college in upstate New York? And me, a lay missionary?

It sounds bizarre even to write this. Almost surreal.

But even though I find myself in this unexpected situation, I feel strangely peaceful. And that’s saying a lot, because at the moment, I’m uncertain what my role will be here. Currently, only two moms and their children are living at the transitional housing program where I’m serving, and one of them will soon be moving out. Exactly what I’ll be doing is still evolving.

This, too, is unexpected. I honestly thought I’d show up, be surrounded by a brood of energetic kids begging me to play with them, and I’d pull out my crayons and jump rope, which I brought along in expectation, and everything would fall into place. Not so.

And that brings me back to why I was on the River Walk this morning. With a day free to do as I please and no one in particular to do it with, it seemed like a good idea. Suddenly I came across words etched into the stone wall that struck me.

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I’d been praying to stay open to ways that God was showing up in all of this. These words loomed up in front of me, speaking to my heart in a way I couldn’t deny.

If you know me, you know I love trees. Trees have been a metaphor for many of my life’s lessons, not the least of which is how to bend in the storms. Hold onto life no matter what raging wind shows up. Adjust to all types of climate change.

I recognized myself in those words. Certainly I have learned — and am still learning — how to bend and adjust. I also recognized all the ways I’ve been spiritually held during those “adjustments.”

No sooner had I snapped a couple of pictures and wandered off when my cell phone beeped that I’d gotten a text. It was from my son. He’d just been to a church service where the pastor had talked about losing his own dad at a young age. Moved by this pastor’s words about his mother’s influence during that trying time, Davis sent me one of the most beautiful messages of gratitude I’ve ever received.

David, Davis, and me — connected once again in an unexpected moment.  By an unexpected loving presence reassuring me that learning to bend can be a good thing.

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A Tribute to My Son

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Here’s the real reason I’m able to follow my heart. My son. Without his full support, I couldn’t leave my home and my life behind in Virginia. All it would take would be four words from Davis: “Mom, please don’t go.”

It’s not like he needs me. He’s 20 years old, after all, and quite capable and responsible. Since Davis left home to attend college, he’s asked very little of me. I know he can survive, and thrive, without me. But a powerful and tender chord tugs at my decision. A chord connected to an unspoken bond that has deepened over the five years since his dad died into something both precious and precarious. Precious because both of us know how much we mean to each other. Precarious because we also know anything can happen to the other. At any time. With no warning.

No one — absolutely no one — comes close to how important my son is to me. I can’t imagine loving anyone more. So, before I committed to this decision to apply to serve with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Texas, I asked Davis what he thought of the idea. I genuinely wanted to know his concerns. He didn’t hesitate to support me. If he had any concerns, he didn’t express them. Davis simply wants me to be happy. Just like his dad would have wanted. No one supported my choices, my independence, as much as my husband David did. Now Davis is doing the same. How I could be twice blessed to have such men in my life is beyond my comprehension.

But here’s what I think. Davis is an “old soul.” If you believe, as I do, that some of us come to this earth more evolved, then you’ll understand. Since the age of four he’s been saying things that have made me pause and wonder, “Where did that come from?” Occasionally I find myself asking, “Who’s the adult here?” Maybe you have a child like this. One whose words can sometimes stop you in your tracks. I mean in a good way.

My little "old soul" and his dad

My little “old soul” and his dad

Several months after my husband died I finally entered that stage of grief called anger. If you’ve experienced a painful loss, you may be familiar with this stage: lots of complaining, resenting all the responsibilities I had to handle alone, second guessing my decisions regarding my young teenaged son, huffing and puffing at the supermarket shoppers who parked their grocery carts in the middle of the aisle (David used to do all the grocery shopping), shouting and swearing when dinner didn’t turn out quite the way I’d expected (David had been a superb cook and I regretted not standing behind him taking notes at the stove).

I remember one particular incident when my voice had lost all control. I was in my bedroom ranting and raving about something I had to do — although I can’t recall now what it was about. You know those moments when you hear the pitch of your voice and you know that whatever comes out of your mouth is not going to be good, but you’ve gone too far.

Davis stepped into the room, sat down on my bed, looked at me, and calmly said, “Mom, Dad’s gone. We can’t bring him back. You might as well stop fighting it.”

His words silenced me. That wise, sweet voice struck my heart. In that moment, I got it. I understood what I was doing to myself. And to him. He’d put an invisible mirror in front of my face, and I didn’t like what I was seeing. Grief, and guilt, consumed me.

There have been many other moments since where Davis has witnessed my faults and limitations. It’s unavoidable when you’re part of a family. But it doesn’t seem to matter what side of myself I show my son. He still loves and accepts me. And he always forgives me.

To know Davis is to know what a special gift he is. In so many ways. Not the least of which is his miraculous birth. After 12 years of trying to conceive. Three miscarriages along the way. Lots of tears, prayers, and spiritual seeking, ending with a child more perfect for me than I could have imagined.

As one of our family friends said recently, “You guys make a great team.”

Yes, we do.

Thank you, Davis. Thank you for being who you are. And for allowing me to be who I am.

I know that is all God asks of me. Of any of us. To be who we really are. And I realize it takes an immense act of humility to give back what God has given to me, warts and all. Thanks to Davis, I just might be able to believe that my warts aren’t so bad.

Mother and son

Mother and son