Friday, May 3, 2013

Breaking Open

Each month I reflect on what life brings & allow that to lead me to an appropriate blog entry.  Usually the prompt comes from some personal encounter or conversation.  However, like most of you, over the last few weeks I have watched the Boston bombing horror unfold.  It is remarkable how so many of us are touched - even from a distance - by such an event.  We find ourselves reflecting on how "I've walked right down that street," or "I stood & watched someone at the finish line of a marathon."  Shocking & senseless tragedies like this remind us of the fragility of life.  As a parent I find myself with a deeper ability to empathize as well as a heightened sense of worry & fear.  We find ourselves grieving for people that we have never met.  This may seem strange until we recognize that while we are indeed grieving for those families we are also grieving for ourselves.  Our culture is one that largely denies grief and so many of our losses go un-grieved.  We are encouraged to "be strong," "move on," and consoled that "they are in a better place."  It is when we are profoundly affected by some seemingly distant tragedy that we must recognize the inadequately & un-grieved losses in our lives.  We would be wise to heed these reminders to slow down, sit with our grief, appreciate the everyday glimpses of beauty, and cultivate a spirit of gratefulness.    

So now, just a few weeks later, the lights are already beginning to fade.  The country's attention is moving quickly to new stories of tragedy & loss.  This is when I imagine the long, arduous journey of grief is really beginning for the families of those who died, for the scores who are reconstructing their sense of self without a leg - or both.  The cameras are gone.  The house is empty and quiet.  The void becomes unavoidable.  And so, for the people of Boston, for all of us, for the strength & resiliency of the human spirit I offer this reflection on grief that I delivered last spring at a night of remembrance for a cancer support agency.

All That We Let In: Breaking Open with Grief

The arrival of spring is usually welcome with its warmth, its songs, its fragrances.  And yet many of us here may find it bittersweet to participate in the changes of spring without the physical presence of those who have been so important to us.  And so, as we gather to remember them – we also gather to re-member ourselves.  Perhaps more accurately we gather to acknowledge the remembering & re-membering that we do every day.  We gather to name our losses, to share our suffering, to open – together – to the overwhelming waves of grief that we so often try to hold at bay. 

You are indeed courageous for being here today.  For we are rarely encouraged to express our grief – much less embrace it.  It tends to make those around us uncomfortable, awkward, distant.  And we, too, are frightened at times that we will lose control, that we will be overcome, that we will find ourselves in the words of poet Mary Oliver, unable to find “foot-hold, finger-hold, mind-hold.[1]”     

Of course, there are appropriate times for holding our grief at bay.  There are errands to be run, work to be done, relationships that must be tended.  And also, we need a break – time for rest and renewal.  Yes, there is a time for every season – even a time for healthy distraction – a welcome lifting of the weight that threatens to crush us.  Life still requires much of us – even the bereaved – and yet our grief requires much of us, too.  It needs attention, it needs intention.  It needs to be named, opened, explored.  And so we gather today to create a safe, sacred space to let the waves wash over us.  We learn when swimming in the ocean that we must lean into – even dive into – the waves so that we are not knocked down & sent tumbling out of control.  And so we must periodically – in times like this – lean into – dive into our waves of grief.

As a chaplain I encounter suffering daily – physical, emotional, spiritual pain, grief in so many forms.  I hear the questions – the really big questions.  I used to think I was supposed to respond with answers, to offer certainty and reassurance.  Now, I know better – I imagine each of you here, as you grieve and have supported others in their grief, has learned that most answers offered by others ring hollow, that we can’t give another person hope.  And yet we can still do something of tremendous meaning.  We can sit with each other in silence, walk beside each other along the journey, we can listen as others ask the questions, and we can “live the questions[2]” together.  In the words of singer/songwriter Emily Saliers, “I don’t know where it all begins, I don’t know where it all will end, but we’re better off for all that we let in.[3]”  

Better off for all that we let in you may ask?  We are often tempted or even taught to close ourselves off from the bad stuff.  And yet it is only by remaining open – yes, open even to the grief of loss - that we then also remain open to healing.  After all, Kahlil Gibran reminds us that our joy and our sorrow are inextricably intertwined.  “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”[4]

So, your experience of grief, your questions of loss, may be quite distinct from others around you depending on what season you find yourself in.  Perhaps your grief looks like the fall with her leaves scattered on the ground around you resembling a room in your home left untouched/unchanged; memories still so colorful that it may not yet feel like an ending.  Or you might find yourself in winter – where it’s barren, cold, all seems lifeless, you are closed off, zipped up, and hunkered down.  Maybe you would name your grief now as spring – with glimpses of beauty returning but there remains a chill in the air, an uncertainty lingering regarding whether or not the new buds will indeed bloom or be victims of a returning frost.  It might even look like summer – there’s a new intensity to your days, activity and life are bustling again, and yet there’s a dryness in the air, and those violent afternoon storms keep interrupting your sunny days.  

Whatever the season, may you continue to find the courage – like you have by being here today – to be open to what your grief is saying, offering, demanding of you.  Kate Braestrup, a wilderness chaplain with the Maine Park Service, offers this wish.  “If your heart must break – may it break open.[5]”  And so I offer these wishes for you:  Now that your heart is broken, may it break open rather than apart…

Open to…a hand on your shoulder from a person too wise to speak
Open to…the condolence card from a friend too scared to call
Open to…the song that brings tears rushing back
Open to…the music that washes you clean
Open to…doors that need closing
Open to…relationships that need mending
Open to…granting forgiveness
Open to…receiving grace
Open to…questions that have no answers
Open to…answers that you do not want to hear
Open to…feeling - something, anything to get beyond the numbness
Open to…change, small steps forward, to get beyond the stuck-ness
Open to…the anguish in the face of a stranger
Open to…the joy of a holiday season
Open to…the fall leaves that signal endings
Open to…the spring blossoms that declare new beginnings

I don’t have many answers but this, I believe with all my heart, is true: We are indeed better off for all that we let in.  May it be so.

[1] The Swamp, A poem by Mary Oliver 
[2] Letters to a Young Poet, a book by Rainer Maria Rilke.
[3] All That We Let In, A song by Emily Saliers of The Indigo Girls.
[4] On Joy & Sorrow, A Poem by Kahlil Gibran
[5] Marriage & Other Acts of Charity, A book by Kate Braestrup