Costs of Grief

I am migrating through a terrain that I’ve never walked. A murky, sometimes soul-bending, walk that with all my good planning I could not plan. I’ve struggled and I’ve laughed. I’ve prayed and I’ve gone to sparring.

It’s occurred to me a few times that much of this path is about grief–and not my own. There are many names for it. Attachment pain is a related one. Mourning. Stagnancy. Sorrow. These are synonyms for grief.

It makes sense and it’s unsurprising that the griever will pay their costs. But it’s terribly unsettling that grief has a way of charging everybody around. When you accompany a person through grief, even from a distance, it will cost you.

It doesn’t require your all but the unworked workings of others draws upon you. The grief of others who you’re in relationship to, even when that relationship has converted to the perfunctory, will cost you. You will pay emotionally and in other ways.

I’ve known of grief and its costs. You pay for the affection that seeps and spends and is, at some good point, finally absent. You pay for the moments of reckoning when you see little anniversaries come without the presence of the departed. You pay for not hearing your name in that person’s tone of voice again. You pay for a memory that grasps but doesn’t always capture. You pay for returning to the same old sacred spaces feeling new emptiness.

It’s like an expense that you can’t place perfectly on a budget, like a charge with its own deep subtraction but no place to categorize. You expect to be charged through the unwieldy experiences of anguish. Saying goodbye to someone. Feeling the rip that accompanies a transition.

The surprise to me is that these are not payments that are subject only the one who grieves but also to those that person is around. People I know will pay because of my pain. People I know will spend because of my sorrow. People I’m around will be taxed by my posture in relation to what’s gone.

There are costs to losses and not all of them are known. Some of the costs are unseen. Some of the costs are there but not yet known. So, it’s a surprise that’s dawning on me, an unknowing that I’m beginning to know better.

And I’m still frugal. I’m still upset to have to pay. I’m still struggling with this expensive terrain. Even as I look up and ahead to see the ending of a rocked path with sprouts of green and slices of yellow and all kinds of possible brightness.

When Someone Matters

One way to know that people matter to you is how long you keep them–in your head, in your heart, in your spirit–when they bother you, when they hurt you. It’s one thing to drop and run. It’s another thing to be tripped by the fact of their mattering.

If you drop and run too fast, who you thought mattered didn’t. If don’t quite cut and run, if you don’t bolt, and if you move slower out of connection, something else may be happening.

If your feet are clogged by the dry and wet grasses of disappointment, anguish, and sorrow, perhaps you were good at a little word called love.

If you think of your students long after the ringing bell; if you consider the comment made and how pained it made your listener; if you remember, hours later, that interaction and its biting chump into you, perhaps you have evidence that you have loved.

Perhaps what happened in those relationships actually matter. Maybe what you built, created, and cultivated made a difference. Grant it and grieve.

One Moment at a Time

After I jumped into a relatively surprising on-call, I met a kind family during the long night. Just days later, the small futures we spoke softly about came true.

As in many cases, I don’t see families once they’re gone. I “say it all” when we’re together because that’s all we have. I’ve learned to be fully me, to minister with my best skills, to discipline myself to what’s true to that moment. When the moment is gone or the family has discharged, they’re gone.

But I often want to keep speaking with them when things change. When they’ve left and I haven’t seen them again. It may be truer to say that I always “have more to say,” not that I want to keep speaking with them. My view is that I have said all that I need to say usually. But that’s another post.

For one family that I met last Friday late, I want to say in short-form: It doesn’t always matter what you did or didn’t do. At least, in this moment, it matters that you’re here, now, in this moment. It matters that you’re facing this current set of challenges. There will be time for all your befores and all your afters. I want to sit with you and hold this moment.

Of course, your past matters. The unresolved always matters. But you will get to that. For now, for right now, sit in this moment. Feel the bones of your bottom in the chair. Take the breath that you haven’t since you heard the news, since you rushed to the hospital, since you left and, days later, returned for this seeming goodbye.

Sit in this. You aren’t alone. I’m here. And when I leave, someone else will keep the care going.

Value to be Gained

I was reading a story that has been in the making for a while. The topic was the bankruptcy of Sears, an originally Chicago company that has a more than century-long history. I’ve read a number of stories and articles about Sears over the years. Something about its demise illuminates the ways in which iconic institutions transform themselves and, even still, diminish and die. There’s something in that ending arc that’s worth respecting.

In my reading of stories, and this recent one in particular, I have remembered KMart commercials. I’ve recalled flipping through thick catalogues as a boy, searching the pages for stuff my mother wouldn’t and couldn’t buy. I thought about the time seven years ago I went into the Sears on 79th Street, near Stony Island, just because it was still open and how I shopped for vacuum bags and then went into a sister’s store where she sold fragrant oils and African cloth.

I have slowly reviewed the ways Sears could be the huge business it was, sell so many things, and, as slowly, crack into forgetfulness. I’ve watched Sears linger. I’ve grieved, in a way, at the death of a business so meaningful. And even without knowing why I’ve felt so endeared toward the store.

I’ve thought about all the years and all the people who have worked there, made careers there, been given first jobs there and about how very little is written about those folks. I’ve thought about the highlights from the cratering of Sears centering on the named executives. I’ve been disappointed that after one hundred plus years, the stories last told are about the high-level figures who made the most money and seldom, if ever, about the people who sold washing machines and light bulbs and winter clothing.

Even with my slow thinking about this store’s end, I don’t have many memories of the place. We shopped at Everblack–also called Evergreen Plaza–where Montgomery Ward held premium real estate. My big brother took me into Oaktree for a black suit, a peach shirt, and tie with images of something like grapes. Mama took me and Mark to McDonalds sometimes in the pavilion where they’d later play live music on the weekends. I bought a girl I liked a gold bracelet at Chain Reaction one Christmas, and the Original Cookie Company knew me for several of those splendid pizza-sized chocolate chip cookies. But I didn’t really sit with the decline of the Plaza. I drove by as they demolished it, but I don’t remember thinking through that change. Perhaps it was in the driving by, in the re-viewing, in the re-visiting that I grieved in a stretched out way for Everblack.

Now though, I’m sitting with the death of Sears and what it means. I don’t live near a Sears. It takes too much effort to pass by the 79th Street location just to witness that old building sitting like a shell  and to see this storied company’s death. Death is not a legal term. The company couldn’t compete, couldn’t maintain or re-engineer itself for the times, despite new leadership, changed strategies, effective-for-a-time consultations and re-organizations. Sears had to die.

I’m sad about it. Sad in a way that I can’t quite articulate. Sad, perhaps, because it’s one of those institutions that predated me that is now dying prior to me. And I hope to live a long time! Sad, perhaps, because it is something that was born before me that will not outlive me. Sad, perhaps, because I shop at the places that have contributed to the death of this store and company. Then, again, as the story said, Sears could return:

It may be that we haven’t seen the last of Sears. But insomuch as we may be losing a storied brand that holds some cultural value, there is value to be gained back in the form of insight.

Endings gift us with insight. Losing grants us space to mourn. Sometimes we notice and use that space. Sometimes we pass by it as we scroll down the day’s newsfeed, acting as if that title didn’t connect with an unwanted loss. So I keep considering where my grief begins.

I know the name and role of Julius Rosenwald is a part of my adult reflections on Sears. Rosenwald’s support of historically Black schools and centers of learning have developed in me profound respect. I used to walk around the corner to see his old home, to “pay my respects,” and to keep the appreciation for what he did alive in me. It may be there that my grief begins. Not that Rosenwald was single-handedly responsible for the success of Sears as we knew it. That may be attributed to him, but there is no such thing as single hands in business or anything else, is there?

My grief is related to Rosenwald but I’m sure that’s not the length of it. And I also don’t yet know the “value to be gained.” I’m not sure of this loss’s insight. I’ll have to wait. I’ll have to see. I do know that I have lost before. I know that all losses have eventually brought me something, even something small, and, in that offering, has been generous to me.

This loss–and all my losses–can be trusted for that. They are brutal, losses, and some of them intend to wipe away the easy comfort a person has with the world. Losing a job or closing a company or ending anything may mean changing the trust you have in your footing. You lose trust, but you still can trust that something else is coming. It may be insight. It may be grace. It may be a lesson. It may be a quality. Loss will take something from you, no doubt, but taking is never all that loss does.

In the meantime, you wait and when you can, you wait with hope. I’m right there waiting too.

Park Swings

I heard Nina Li Coomes, a poet from Japan and Chicago, and her poem–which I got to by her essay in my inbox through the On Being newsletter–made me think of you. It made me think of your brother, too, but the thought of you came first.

Her poem was written to her unborn daughter and for a moment the title of the poem, spoken at a Chicago slam which Nina won, felt implausible to me, felt foreign to me because of my deep experience with you boys, felt distant to me because your mother used to say all the time how she thought I’d soften if I ever had a daughter and how she wanted to see that softening.

Presumably I’ve spent a lot of time hardening. Well, I should be honest that it’s not a presumption. I have hardened. I could insert the things I’ve said in a dozen ways before to explain that calcifying of my heart, that drying of my spirit, and provide departure points that begin with you, extend with your brother, and deepen in the country of loss that I live in while being a father whose own father exists in memories, in pictures, in videos, in the mouths of loved ones, in the twinkle of my mother’s eyes.

But I have softened and I thought of that softening today. I thought of it last night as I melted over the pain joy blanketing me in the quietness of a wonderful day to be a father. I softened all over again as I thought about why going to McDonald’s is so hard for me, why white and brown vans send my heart into its own swirls, why passing by parks and playing in parks with you and your brother the way we did yesterday is a trip full of complicated pleasures. These softenings remind me of the days when I held my father’s steep, chiseled hands, when he took me and my brother to eat, to play, to run, to be free. Thinking of them let me think of the hardening.

Nina’s words brought back my scholar and peer’s words while we were swinging on the swings, your brother commanding me to push and him watching you and you doing the same, smiling just the way you did when you were your brother’s age when we played in our park across from the Obama home, and me pushing you both by using the back stretch that ends of a sanchin kata that you haven’t learned yet, one you’ll do better than me. I was being a good dad and it was a way to spend the day with you and with my good dad on his birthday.

Nina’s poem had a line. You know lines because you possess many of them, keep your own like a poet awaiting his debut, inching up to the stage at Busboys, breathing lines at Louder, testing phrases at the Hyde Park Blvd bus stop, whispering them while you review a kata just before a promotion. Her line made me think of your line, which made me remember a moment that you discussed with me and your mother late one evening, after bedtime came and went.

You were distressed and that distress etched something in me that made me want to shield you. We talked it through. You and your mother had talked it through before. I heard some of it and stayed out of it. I waited until I was brought in so that you could do your thing with mommy. Then, we three discussed it. And we kept at it. I hardened in the moment because I’m used to hardening. I’m not bad at hardening. I would soften later. We would keep speaking over themes like the one you raised that night. We would edge toward the swing, lift ourselves in it, and eventually press ourselves into the blue.

Second grade would be a long grade for you (and me), longer than the others so far. It would be the grade where I heard difficulties emerge for you that were never difficulties before. It would be the grade that would show me the poverty and richness of my fathering skills. It would be the grade when me and your mother worked through how to become even better at something we do well.

It would be the grade that would deepen my longing for my own father, when I would write for him and offer my words to the sky for him to read the way I pushed my sons on swings during the holiday when their father felt free with them and, surrounded by friends over poorly coordinated leisure that worked out fine, despite his little fears that felt less strong.

You and your brother will keep swinging. The smiles in your faces tell me that. I’ll be one of the ones behind you, pushing, pausing, pressing you to extend yourselves, kick your legs, and dig into the movements of freedom. And we’ll all be engaging in that extending and kicking and digging. We’ll all be freer for it. One swing at a time. One smile at a time.

You and your brother can fight about who will write the poem. I have my thoughts about who will win.

What You Should Not Say

Do not tell me

there will be a blessing

in the breaking,

that it will ever

be a grace

to wake into this life

so altered,

this world

so without.

Do not tell me

of the blessing

that will come

in the absence.

Do not tell me

that what does not

kill me

will make me strong

or that God will not

send me more than I

can bear.

Do not tell me

this will make me

more compassionate,

more loving,

more holy.

Do not tell me

this will make me

more grateful for what

I had.

Do not tell me

I was lucky.

Do not even tell me

there will be a blessing.

Give me instead

the blessing

of breathing with me.

Give me instead

the blessing

of sitting with me

when you cannot think

of what to say.

Give me instead

the blessing

of asking about him–

how we met

or what I loved most

about the life

we have shared;

ask for a story

or tell me one

because a story is, finally,

the only place on earth

he lives now.

If you could know

what grace lives

in such a blessing,

you would never cease

to offer it.

If you could glimpse

the solace and sweetness

that abide there,

you would never wonder

if there was a blessing

you could give

that would be better

than this–

the blessing of

your own heart

opened

and beating

with mine.

This is from Jan Richardson’s latest book, The Cure for Sorrow, a collection of blessings she wrote after the unexpected death of her husband. I’m thinking through an upcoming summer unit with new chaplain interns, thinking through a writing prompt friends gave me, and considering the integration of loss, of words, of self and of care. I commend the book to you if you consider such things yourself.

Words to Remember From Joyce Rupp

I have needed to be compassionate toward myself when I was hurting. I have also needed to offer compassion and kindness to others. One of my best sparks for love and for forgiveness of old relationship hurts came from an image of myself at the Last Supper table, seeing my “enemies” seated next to me, all of us being loved equally by God. Another image that gave me courage and also freed me from mistakes and wounding behavior of the past was that of a beehive in my heart with golden bees making “honey of my old failures.”

Images have also reminded me how valuable a sense of humor is for healing. Mary Lou Sleevi portrays the widow Anna, in the Gospel of Luke, as the image of a woman who could laugh through the tough things of life: “Anna comes to Her Moment laughing. Those eyes have twinkled as she wrinkled…Her face the free expression of all that’s inside.” Perhaps, most of all, images have helped me to name my need to surrender and to trust God with my life. In order to be healed, I need a desire to let go, to get on with my life, rather than cling to the pain and memory of my old wounds. Some see surrender as negative because, for them, it implies a patriarchal approach to God, a giving in to a “higher power.” I do not envision it this way. I see surrender as a natural part of the cycle of life and, thus, it includes the spiritual path as well. I have learned much about having to let go of control by observing seasonal surrendering such as the plowed fields of spring accepting heavy rainfalls, summer’s fruitful days giving way to autumn harvesting, and winter’s wind whirling snowflakes into banks of beauty. My surrender does not seem passive to me. Rather, it feels like a strong trust in a loving One whose wisdom stretches far beyond mine. God can empower me, work through me, and weave patterns that I do not dream possible. I experience this as a great gift of love.

Dear Heart, Come Home (p. 127-128)

Soul Stuff: Entrusting Yourself

I shared this quote as part of a presentation I led last week with physician-fellows in palliative care. They are finishing up a year with their fellowship; they’ve come to palliative care from a variety of disciplines. For three years I’ve been shadowed by different fellows, working side to side to care, to listen, and to participate in the sacred sendings of patients.

Palliative care doctors are a good group of people, and our work as chaplains borders a neighboring region if I can put it that way. Unfortunately palliative docs are often thought of as last resorts and though that view is changing, their import is only beginning to emerge for addressing pain, discomfort, and the large matter of the unanswered. The affinity between their work and ours in spiritual care makes me think of the word integration.

My talk was on cultivating patience in the medical intensive care unit. The MICU is my primary pastoral context these days outside of my supervision of ministry students, and I pulled materials together for a similar group last year. Toward the end of our discussion, I was reflecting upon the wonderful work of Rachel Naomi Remen, whom I’ve quoted before on the blog.

Dr. Remen is among a small circle of life sustainers for me, especially from this last calendar year. She works with caregivers, teaches physicians of the body and physicians of the soul. And she helps me see better some of the portions of what’s ahead in my own future. That said, this quote was toward the end of my presentation with the staff from My Grandfather’s Blessings:

An oyster is soft, tender, and vulnerable. Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive. But oysters must open their shells in order to “breathe” water. Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on. Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this. It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel. It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live. But it does respond. Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain. A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering…Sand is a way of life for an oyster. If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.

I hope these words and anybody’s words which sit in your ears give you an anchor in the oceans of your life. Being an oyster, being a giver of hope, being a caregiver can irritate you until you release your own soft nature. Remen doesn’t likely mean by soft nature anything but a positive description of the best part of you and me.

When my training supervisor wrote my evaluation from February to September, he remarked upon my growth that he’d seen from two years, though he’s only supervised six months of that time. He gave a high compliment when he said that he’d seen me soften over these months, over these years. I had read these words but forgot about them until the other week. In working on this presentation, I reread that the oyster softened, too.

May your nature only soften. May it never harden. May you be as soft as you need to be to produce the pearls that await the context of your own soul. May every sand grain get used to your softness rather than your softness falling into hard, gritty sharpness. Don’t clamp your shell. Don’t give up. Don’t harden.

Men We Reaped

One of my favorite people saying things that matter at an event I couldn’t attend some time back. I come to her memoir each year in a different way since I’ve gotten it.

Jesmyn Ward possesses a joy that doesn’t come through in this, but so much does come through this. Her new book is out; she’s being celebrated having gotten a genius grant! Many blessings to Jesmyn. May the deep truths she discusses in this memoir, even as she launches into every next thing, abide with us.

May her tomorrows be blessed with all she needs to stay strong.

Wisdom, Major Deaths & Transformation

I was reading Fr. Rohr’s meditation the other day. I should say that when I read it, I was thinking about grief already, thinking about loss. It was the week prior to my final goodbye at New Community where I served for a touch over eleven years. Even though I made the change for good reasons, it was still a change.

That change was laced with loss and that loss meant grief. I am grieving that loss, grieving that change. Of course, there are other changes and losses, too. I, like you, am grieving more than one thing at a time. I try to stay in some touch with those losses to respect them, to hear them, and to learn from them.

Fr. Rohr was discussing Walter Brueggemann’s observation that the Torah, the Prophets, and the Wisdom Literature (three scriptural categories in the first testament of the Christian scriptures and the three parts of revelation making up the Hebrew Bible) represent the development of human consciousness. These three parts of biblical witness present what it means for humans to be, to become. Fr. Rohr was underlining the importance of these three types of witness in life.

We need to be reminded of our original createdness in God’s community (Torah is our instruction in that very truth). We need to live close to those voices that help us look beyond ourselves, our egos, and our small commitments (Prophets do that). We require for living well criticality that helps us see honestly how to live toward the self and others (Wisdom offers those guides).

It was in this brief reflection that Fr. Rohr said,

Wisdom literature reveals an ability to be patient with mystery and contradictions—and the soul itself. Wise people have always passed through a major death to their egocentricity. This is the core meaning of transformation.

I find it taxing, staying true to transformation. It’s hard to be faithful to transformation because in being faithful to that change, I’m signing up for continued self-noticing and continued self-growth. I’m setting myself in places where I plan to notice others and plan to grow others. I plan not to die in one sense. In another sense, this is absolute death. This is surrender. It’s scary. It’s major.

If you’re feeling your own grief, passing through a death (whether it’s minor or major to you), name it as a part of your transformation. The contradictions that scar your soul, the mystery that leaves your heart hungry for more than what’s in front of you, name them as sources of revelation about not only your death but your life. Your steps, your paths, and your journey are leading somewhere, and it’s called transformation.

Try your best to trust. Even the attempt is a death. It is also the emergence of life.

Sitting in Pain

Sitting in pain. That’s a phrase I hear often. I see people doing it, sitting in pain.

Sometimes you can look into a person’s face and see it. Pain takes many forms. It’s good at masking itself, staying hidden, but it leaks out too. It’ll snatch the face you were trying hard to hold. Pain will break the exterior guarded smoothness of your made-up self. Pain has a way of having its way.

I think what honors pain–and I do think that pain like other feelings should be honored, respected–is giving it due room. When it comes, you can’t make it go away. You can’t force pain to leave. Even drugs numb the senses rather than remove the pain itself. No, pain needs space. Pain that’s respected is pain that’s given space.

Clear the field of your soul. And if you see pain rising in that field, give it the whole place. Sit with that pain. It may take over, hijacking your life for a while. It may feel scary, burdening you with new fear. It may be suffocating, taking the breath and life out of you. But pain, after its done, will pass. Then, you’ll see what’s next.

Giving & Receiving Hugs

I approached her the way I would anyone in her situation. Softly. Gently. Quietly. My head was bowed. It was a form of what I’ve explained to my wife is my chaplain walk.

The woman was crying. It’s not all she was doing but crying sums it up. More broadly she was at the side of her dead father. I had already been with him. Now, I got to meet his daughter and stand with her to witness life once father is gone.

I came to her side. I asked her if I could touch her shoulder. I did so, recognizing the tender permission you give to a stranger you realize is only there for you. You may never see him again. You may never have to explain yourself. You may never have to re-live that moment. So you say yes with a shrug that can be interpreted as a grief heave, even though it’s the answer to his question.

My hand was on her and at some point, she turned to me. She asked me if I could hug her. My arms were already open. That opening was not planned, though it was intentional somewhere in my soul. My posture knew what it meant to be there, knew those tears. I knew something about that woman’s grief. And we both gave and received each other’s hugs.