Category Archives: grief

Isolation Journal: Week Eleven – Grief

As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones.
Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the difference that comes between them.
There are two things which [human beings] can do
about the pain of disunion with other [humans]. They can love or they can hate.

Hatred recoils from the sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price
of this resetting of bones. It refuses the pain of reunion.

But love, by its acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds.
– Thomas Merton, “A Body of Broken Bones,” New Seeds of Contemplation

While people are dying in unimaginably large numbers, we are trying to go back to “normal” because it is our right and because we can’t afford to do otherwise. The racism in our country has jumped out at us while we are at our worst. Tragedy upon tragedy. Violence erupting. I don’t have many words today. Just feeling for the world’s pain.

A poem for the day:

06829de08fa5d9ce005e35242be8860fGrief
is the stuff
which drives us
to poetry
and short sentences.
Sorrow
for the world’s woes….
We barely find the will to speak.
O dear planet –
sisters,
brothers –
how we wish to hold you,
how we long
to cradle and rock
’til you are soothed.
“Love,” we sing.
We cast our life-preserving, life-restoring prayers.
O dear planet –
sisters, brothers –
words will not suffice.
Even prayers don’t do it –
only acts of love have the power of transformation.
Songs sung in unity come close.

How do I open my solitary, fearful heart
to your rage, your pain and despair?
How may I not drown in its torrents?
Grandmothers,
we call on your powerful love.
Great-grandmothers,
we call on your strength.
Ancestors,
we need your perspective and hard-won wisdom.

Holy One,
only you know how
to hold the cries
of rage, of anger,
hatred and retaliation.
100802115_1219493608412007_1974709581971980288_nOnly you
know how to
sing to us,
how to stitch us up
after we are torn to pieces.
Dear One,
the tearing is awful and ugly,
revealing all that we’d rather hide.
Teach us
how to see the wounds
and not cover them.
Teach us
how to heal the deep injuries,
without hiding our brokenness.
Vulnerable now,
don’t let us tidy up the mess.
Let it be seen
and felt.
Time to weep.
Time for honesty.
Only love –
the kind that knows and sees woundedness with honest eyes –
will do.
Then,
may the sacred thread of Spirit
begin the long process of
stitching up
our tattered souls.

Love, Reality, and Vulnerability,
Karen

Favorite thoughts of the week:

Pentecost, Prejudice, and Pandemic by Diana Butler Bass

If We Had a Real Leader by David Brooks

From Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“…it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

From Nina Jonson, Robbinsdale, MN (Facebook post):

“My heart is as heavy as the air this morning, as heavy as the clouds of smoke.

It is not enough, but here is a prayer I shared with the children, youth and families from our church yesterday.

Everything right now takes away breath. Fear sucks it from our lungs. Viruses drag it out of our reach. Smoke wraps around it poisonously. People forcefully eject it from our throats. I have no answers today, but for those who can breathe, let every breath be a prayer.
Breathe support to the family of George Floyd.
Breathe love into our community.
Breathe justice into our streets.
Breathe peace into our country.
Breathe calm into our children.
Breathe safety into our black, brown and indigenous siblings.
Breathe joy into the space around you.
Breathe strength into our elders.
Breathe patience into yourself.
Breathe compassion into each other.
Breathe dreams for a better future into reality.
May it be so.”

 

Isolation Journal: Week Four (I think that’s right…maybe….)

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing.
We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem,
but the truth is that things don’t really get solved.
They come together and they fall apart.
Then they come together again and fall apart again.
It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room
for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

– Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Things do seem to have fallen apart and there is still room to fall some more. We feel like we’re on one of those elevators that begins to fall, stops, then falls some more and stops again. We don’t know if we’re at the bottom yet. I look around at this precarious juncture, feel terrified, and think, “Maybe it’s time for a cup of coffee” or “Time for another Hallmark movie or Britcom.”

Often, during this roller coaster ride (yes, mixing metaphors is allowed during lockdowns) it is easier to distract oneself, to find tiny avenues of comfort (coffee, movies, blankets, showers, food, walking) rather than to stop, sit still, and take in this moment’s reality. This week, with the support of some of my favorite people* – online and by telephone – I’ve had the opportunity to sit still and take in the moment. Despite my internal resistance and intense addiction to distraction right now, I’ve had moments of collective stillness and illumination with these folks, moments of deep peace.

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from Sufi Scribe, Facebook

On this day, there is global heaviness unrelated to the pandemic – it is both Good Friday and the third evening of Passover. Humans will take themselves through very painful memories concerning suffering, human failings and cruelty, and will recall those few women and men who found a way to be compassionate and present even during such times.

Moments of illumination, where we can find them, help us to shake off the cosmic heaviness and the “briefings,” “summaries” and alerts coming through the news media. One part of us takes in the data, the news, while the moments of stillness, acceptance, groundedness, and turning toward the Sacred help us to take in something else.

This morning the Friday Summary that popped up in my email was very grim – illness, death tolls, lack of resources, potential food shortages, economic meltdown, political stalemate and so on. As I took my shower following that mental jolt, the phrase that popped into my head was from Byron Katie’s “Four Questions” – “Can you absolutely know that it’s True?”

Katie points to the same reality as Pema Chodron – but she arrives there using a different set of tools. Katie suggests that you identify your stressful thoughts using her “Judge your neighbor” worksheet. Once you’ve written out your fears, stressors, and bald faced complaints, you apply the four questions to what you’ve written. The first question: “Is it true?” The second question sometimes brings one up short, “Can you absolutely know that it’s true?”

For example: If I write, “The world is falling apart. Everything is horrible.” Is it true? Yes. From my perspective, this is true and the news says it’s true. But can I absolutely know it is true? Hmmm…. Well…I suppose not. People are being extraordinarily heroic, sharing resources, sharing their lives and livelihoods. The earth and its creatures are having a IMG-0376hay day. Mountaintops are visible, waters are running more clear. Goats, deer, and sheep (even javelinas) are romping through towns unobstructed by traffic. And actually, now that I think of it and look around, it is a sunny day, flowers are blooming, I have fresh water to drink, I have adequate food, I have shelter, I even have enough TP for the next week or so – and chocolate. So, maybe I can’t absolutely say it is true that everything is horrible. (There are two more questions and interesting turnarounds on the worksheet. Check it out.)

But for the time it took us to write this stuff down, to apply the questions and sit with them, we have held our fears and faced them. We’ve looked at them from one side and another. And we’ve come out in another place. Even in much more dire circumstances, there is some miraculous transformation which can take place as one applies these questions – to any and all situations.

Pema Chodron writes:

“Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
“If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.”

So, my summary of Week Four of my journal is that:

  • I’ve had moments of mindlessness – distraction to the point of forgetting which way I was going and why more than once (I also found my measuring tape in a most unlikely place).
  • I’ve had some very low moments of grief. The overwhelming death toll numbers in New York City, illness numbers here in the Navaho Nation, and the death of John Prine was an individual low point – he has been one of the sensitive and accurate narrators of life during my time – and I have just always liked his melodies, humility, hope, humor and grit.
  • IMG-0335I’ve had irrational fears (Do I feel odd? Am I getting sick? Did I remember to bleach the door handle after I washed and bathed the groceries?) including a dream about bugs and worms getting into the house, the food.
  • And I’ve had moments of joy – phone calls from grandkids, kids, friends, and walks with Johnny. I’ve even had some moments of enlightenment – thanks to my favorite shamans, gurus, ministers, and friends.

Several years ago, when I was really grieving and struggling with my sister’s cancer, my daughter sent me this quote from Pema:

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation
can that which is indestructible be found in us.

I cried and cried and was deeply comforted by this truth. We can’t get to the core of things by floating around carefree. We find the indestructible connection, we find the eternal by coming face to face with our own impermanence.

As a collective, we have the opportunity to face this together. I am so grateful for taking this journey with all of you.

Love,
Karen

P.S. Another unlikely “winner” we’ve noticed during all of this. Trampoline sales appear to be skyrocketing.

IMG_0379

* Some favorites this week (in no particular order):

Contemplative Monk on Facebook (Bob Holmes)

The Four Winds Society (Alberto Villodo) on Facebook – livestream shaman updates

-The Psychology Babes on Facebook

Rumi, Saadi, Hafiz (Poems & Quotes) on Facebook

Netoflight.org (website)and Facebook (Sharon McErlane) – have enjoyed livestream events

Isolation Journal: Week Three (needing some Love)

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.

Give me the joy of you saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
–     from Psalm 51

IMG-0220I am in a religious-y mood today, which probably makes sense. In two days it will be Palm Sunday which marks the beginning of Holy Week, the most solemn week in the Christian tradition. Passover begins next Wednesday – the Jewish celebration of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and God’s sparing of the children of Israel from a deadly plague. It is a religious-y time. Undoubtedly, much will be made of the experience of suffering and the ultimately hopeful messages in these traditions in the week to come and parallels to our current situation will be drawn.

I am no longer tasked, though, with helping to make sense of such things for others (as I was in my ministry). I am, like many others who are now mostly retired, left instead to simply live the experiences life brings me from day to day. Primarily, the task for me now is to find meaning in the rhythms of the day. This is a challenge for those of us who have found our worth in serving others, or just in doing.

IMG-0266Most of this week has been quiet, with moments of true contentment in our sweet little life. We putter around, we clean and cook, we chat, we go for our walk. We had one joyful delivery of food and one mildly frustrating delivery (the frustration lies in the lack of control over things). Spring – nearly summer here in Arizona – brings beauty and new life. John and I are also celebrating 10 years of being back in contact with each other in just over a week – a reunion for which we are grateful each day.

We are all also living under stress and new circumstances – which change somewhat every hour. We have new rules, new routines. We have new challenges and fears. And we are bombarded with numbers, stories, theories, and fears by the dozens. We see people rising to heroics and people hoarding and buying handguns. We wonder where to look for wisdom and leadership.

So, today, I am sad. There’s no one particular reason. Mortality and the exhausting efforts to stay healthy have worn me down a bit. The world’s grief is palpable, loss is palpable. Danger lurks around every turn.

IMG-0248Oddly, I think part of it is also that my birthday is coming up, too. In adulthood, I have often had an emotional “dip” around my birthday. I don’t think I’m sad about getting older at birthday time. It feels like a grief about how life and gifts and things aren’t able to soothe the soul. Grief that stuff like food, presents, activities don’t deliver joy or healing.

When melancholy sets in like this, I’ve found only the most basic steps will help.

  • Being gentle with oneself. Curling up with a blanket and a book or movie, taking a hot bath, having a cry as needed, then a nap. Sometimes writing helps, music helps.
  • Subtle, real nourishment. Comfort food helps only a bit, but real nourishing food – like soup or stew – seems to help the healing along.
  • It helps to tell a friend that you’re feeling blue, feeling low. It especially helps to talk to a friend who won’t try to fix us, who will just walk with us and be with us as we find our way.
  • Words and prayers like the ones in the psalm, above, help me. This psalm has been one I have resonated with since my early 12 Step days. The words recognize that the one speaking them is off kilter – perhaps based on actions, or perhaps based on attitude – but they remind us that the Sacred is waiting, in fact invites us, to reunite and get back on track. Divine Love is waiting for each of us (as needed) with open arms. And I have learned again and again and again that there is nothing (yes, nothing) that can separate us from this Love.

I think we all need to give ourselves a little break right now. A break from high expectations. At least a momentary break from the rigors we are putting ourselves through. Spiritually and emotionally, we each need to be held for a moment in this divine Love and Compassion.

This reality brings to mind a chapter in a beloved book, Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott. In this memoir, Anne tells of the death of a beloved friend in her eighties and how it had really brought her to a low point. It was springtime and had been rainy, but her friend, Nashama, suggested that they go for a walk – so they did. Lamott writes:

Suddenly…the ground and vegetation at our feet began to get a little watery, and then we began to hear sucking noises, swampy quicksandy sucking noises, and pretty soon my overpriced walking sandals had been swallowed up by mud…

“Let me help you there, little lady,” I said. “I’ll go up first and then give you a hand.”
        …
“Is this a good idea?” she asked. “Are you braced?”

“Yes,” I insisted, and pulled her toward me, and she lifted up off the ground and moved upward a couple of feet, until I started sliding back down toward her and we both landed noisily on our butts in the mud….

I was laughing so hard that I felt maniacal and not at all sure that I wasn’t about to cry. But I felt like air was bubbling into a place inside me that hadn’t been getting much lately….

Against the sparkly black screen behind my eyes, all these people appeared, like people in a come-as-you-are fashion show, strangers to each but beloved by me. There were all the sick little kids we know, and all the friends who had died…and the old people in my family and church who had grown so suddenly frail.… And I thought to myself, “Well, no wonder you’re this sad.” The silence of the marsh was…profound….

When Neshama and I finally got up to go, I was still sad, but better. This is the most profound spiritual truth I know: that even when we’re most sure that love can’t conquer all, it seems to anyway. It goes down into the rat hole with us, in the guise of our friends, and there it swells and comforts. It gives us second winds, third winds, hundredth winds. It struck me that I have spent so much time trying to pump my way into feeling…solace.… The truth is that your spirits don’t rise until you get way down. Maybe it’s because this – the mud, the bottom – is where it all rises from…. At the marsh, all that mud and one old friend worked like a tenderizing mallet. Where before there had been tough fibers, hardness, and held breath, now there were mud, dirt, water, air, mess – and I felt soft and clean.   (Traveling Mercies, Pantheon Books, NY, 1999, pages 257-265.)

Go easy on yourself and your loved ones right now. We are all raw and hurting. No wonder we are all so sad underneath it all. Life is tough in a big, real way. But love – human or divine – can bring us through. Turn toward love, turn toward the Source of solace, and you will find that you are held.

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The bumpy and mysterious journey of grief and remembrance…

I believe in love and I live my life accordingly
But I choose to let the mystery be

– Iris Dement

Fairy garden Judy Burns photoI’ve been reluctant to put pen to paper recently. I guess because writing means I need to check in and ask myself how it’s going. In the past weeks, the answer has often been, “Not well. Still hurting.” So, I have put the task of writing off and simply tried to put one foot in front of the other.

About two months ago, my sister died of a rare type of cancer. Next to my parents (who have both died), this sister was the “constant” in my life. As my friend, Grace, recently said of her sister, “She was my memory.” My sister had been through all of my childhood stuff – some of it fun, some of it painful – with me. Like war buddies, we each knew the other’s formative trials and tribulations (most of them, at least). (I have two other sisters, who are a little bit older than she. They are equally wonderful, but they were nearly grown by my childhood and didn’t share our house for long.) She also was the person with whom I shared some quirky, childish traits. Whenever I was excited that a new children’s story was being released on film – like the newest Harry Potter – I knew my sister would be equally, if not more excited. We each put on Harry Potter Halloween parties over the years and had more fun than the children.

The past few weeks, I have been sort of perking up and getting on with life, and then my birthday came along. I can’t tell you how many bereaved friends have told me over the years how difficult first holidays are without their loved ones. I hadn’t really thought about birthdays. But it took me by surprise and hit me all over again. No sister to call and tease me, to wish me a happy birthday. I’m terrible at remembering birthdays (except maybe my kids’ and husband’s) – she only forgot my birthday once in 58 years – the year her husband had a stroke.

As we went through this long process of her cancer and its treatment, somewhere way in the back of my mind, I felt, “I’m familiar with grief, I’ll be okay.” I knew we could walk through this as a family and that we would all go on after my sister was gone – though I couldn’t imagine life without her. She is/was a person of such deep faith that I knew, she knew, that she would ultimately be fine (though she was pretty bewildered and pissed off about the timing of this thing). A belief in some kind of eternal existence was comforting and knowing that she was no longer suffering gave us a moment of relief when we lost her. But when we got over the initial relief and felt the actual parting and loss, I remembered then that one cannot “skip over” grief. You don’t ever get completely experienced and familiar with it. The feeling of loss was full, deep, overwhelming.

If one skips over it, grief is going to be there lurking in the background, underneath everything we do. It is that proverbial deep valley that that we each have to walk through if we want to know sunlight again. Whew! I’m still walking that road. I come up to little green hilltops and think I’ve moved onto the next chapter and then the road (as on my birthday) takes a steep plunge. I’m committed to allowing myself the space and time to see the full journey of grief through.

Philosophically and spiritually, my sister and I were on different pages, but as I said, we each had a sense of an eternal “self” that continues on. So, I talk to my sister now. When my dad died, I “saw” him in crowds and dreamed of him for many years. With my mom, I have felt her strong presence in sublime moments in nature – sunsets especially, at which she often cried. With my sister, now, I have the growing sense of her sort of “working on my spiritual team.” Her energy supporting me, her spirit swirling around here and there, making sure I’m okay and even nudging me onward. I’ve had only one dream of her. She was in the next room and I could hear her voice. It was very comforting.

In conversations with scientific and pragmatic friends over the years, I’ve been challenged, occasionally, for having that ongoing sense of presence and being. As I was explaining to a very scientific friend last week, some of us “know” things through data, method, and intellectual understanding. Some of us “know” things intuitively, through our senses, feelings, and experience. I know that it is too “woo woo” and doesn’t fit for some and I’m not expecting anyone to agree with me. Yes, it is possible that it is all imagined. No, I can’t give you any proof. But I’m okay with that.

The fun thing is that my sister was like me in this regard, times ten. She was totally okay with the magic, the reality of the unseen sparkle of the Universe. We are and were both child-like in this regard. And if it is good enough for my big sister, it is good enough for me.

Fairy in garden Judy Burns photoSo I’ll keep talking to her, sipping our favorite tea, planting fairy gardens, wearing the bracelets she made me and my butterfly t-shirt. I’ll plant the eucalyptus seeds that my daughter gave me to remind me of her neighborhood, and read her favorite poem (that my other daughter read at her memorial service) every Christmas. And perhaps I’ll toast her with a glass of butterbeer and get out my best robe and wand every Halloween and we can see what we can conjure up together.

(Photos by Judy Burns 2012)