Category Archives: loss

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)