Stepping Off the Merry-Go-Round
Waiting in the Midst of Grief
My best understanding of grief is that it is circular, not linear.
In 1972 when Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross wrote On Death & Dying, we were invited into a new language around -- and insights about -- grief. In this book, Dr. Kuebler-Ross gave us hooks and resting points for understanding and communicating with one another in our seasons of grief. She described grief in stages: denial, bargaining, anger, sadness/depression and acceptance. Although I am forever grateful for this work of opening doors to help us in our understanding of grief, this image of stages hasn’t always felt exactly true. It hasn't been enough. Stages of grief implied that we were to engage grief as a linear exercise or as a check list. Over my life, grief has not been like that. Places and moments of grief come around and back again.
Loops of two or three or even four stages can sometimes be circling round me at the same time. These cycles are never really measurable or orderly. In no way predictable, rarely if ever do these circles feel very manageable. Sometimes, when I’m able to pay attention, these loops can be seen as who and what they are. Just circles. Other times, they feel all-consuming. Somehow, it's as though these loops swallow me up and become my identity, become all that I know myself to be. One place or stage leading into another. Sometimes stopping and staying, sometimes feeling like a whirling dervish, round and round again.
This current looping place where I have been grieving is bargaining, anger and sadness. One loop feeds or dumps or belly-flops into the other. Bargaining. This unrealistic time of wishing, believing, hoping beyond hope that something will change. This bargaining with the universe that this awful, life-changing loss didn’t really happened. Bargaining can even be the emotional exercise of hoping myself into believing that what has been lost will be found again. But what has been lost cannot be found. It does not, it will not return. Next is anger. In this place I find myself revisiting this impossible-loss that hasn't/that won't be changed and what is now truly my reality. In facing this stark, ugly truth I can become immersed in rage. When the energy runs out of being consumed by anger, what is left for me is only sadness. And somehow, somewhere along the way an impossible, unrealistic hope returns and then the grief cycle begins again.
Advent has found me ready for a new season. My wounded and weary heart feels similar to these growing-darker days. AND I believe in my wounded and weary heart of hearts that just by entering into the season, there are songs and rituals that can bring a loving, resting place for this old, suffering spirit of mine. O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
This journey to Bethlehem is not one that can be experienced by looping round and round. Staying on this merry-go-round will not bring peace or healing. A merry-go-round won't take me anywhere. It will only go round and round. It won't lead me where I am praying to go in these coming days. There is a star to follow. There are hills and valleys to cross. Left foot, right foot I am invited, called, bound to step out into the story that is greater than my pain. Left foot, right foot I am seeking the One who created and is creating still. I seek to follow the One who knows me and my story as well or even better than I do, the One who calls me by name.
Beginning in the Dark
“We often find ourselves in the dark-- good or evil or in between, of our own or another’s making.
Our work is to name the darkness for what it is and to find what it asks of us: whether it is darkness
that asks for justice to bring the dawn of hope to a night of terror, or for a candle to give warmth
to the shadows, or for companions to hold us in our uncertainty and unknowing, for a blanket
to enfold us as we wait for the darkness to teach us what we need to know.”
~ Jan L. Richardson from Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas
Before we step out into this season of Advent it may be helpful to stop for a minute or two and take inventory. It may be helpful to stop before we begin. In this time of stopping, let us be mindful of what has brought us to this particular time and place in our lives. We know well our brokenness and pain. We know the grief that is ever with us.
But / and have we thought about what else is here in this moment and time? What do we carry that might be too much for this journey? Is there anything that we can unpack, and perhaps leave behind for these coming days? Are there loved ones who are holding us close and maybe even holding us up? Can we invite them along for these next steps, these next days?
Jan Richardson is a dear friend. Poet, preacher, pilgrim who I have been graced to know since our seminary days at Candler. Jan’s words from Night Visions invite us to take stock as we begin this Advent season. She tells us what our work may be in these coming days, “to name the darkness and to find out what it asks of us.” Tenderly, mindfully, prayerfully we are invited into this soul work. I hadn’t really thought about what my grief is asking of me. By doing that perhaps a shift may come. By beginning a dialogue with my grief, I am invited in in a new way. I am invited into a new way of experiencing it, of interacting with it, of companioning side-by-side with my grief. This is no longer a passive time in my life, but instead a time of turning and entering into (what has always been) the heart of the matter.
In her poem “Wild Geese” Mary Oliver has a beautiful phrase, “tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” I wish I could do that now, with you. It is in speaking and hearing the small and great parts of our stories that we truly hear one another’s hearts.
By sharing and reading this blog, you too may be going through a time of loss and grief in your life. Whatever it is – the loss of a loved one, a relationship, vocation, or dream, may this Advent bring you a season of remembering what has always been true for you as well as a deep welcoming of God’s faithful promise: Emmanuel, God-with-us. In our despair and brokenness. In our wanderings and wonderings. God’s promise is to be with us in those moments, especially those moments. By sharing this journey may you be reminded that truly, more light is coming.
Light Comes in the Darkness
My Aunt Sis lived all but eight of her years of her life in her beloved, great state of Connecticut. She was a Yankee, through and through. Even in her final years here in Atlanta's sunny south, try as she might, Helen Louise couldn’t budge her accent (saying “um-brell-er” and referring to her precious brother as “Clahk”). We all knew the truth that even though Aunt Sis rooted for the Braves her heart was always with her beloved Red Sox.
Aunt Sis taught so many of us to love lighthouses. She collected pictures of them most all of her life. She collected postcards and puzzles, magazine covers and books. I grew up appreciating the beauty of lighthouses -- these outposts standing tall in the bright, blue sky on the edge of the water. During the day, they were beautiful towers -- rising high over the rocks down below. But the truth about lighthouses is that their greatest worth can’t be seen in the daylight. They shine at night. Their reason for being is served best in the dark. They are most powerful from miles away. Their purpose is shining brightly over the water - just a long, steady movement of light on the horizon. From a great distance lighthouses light the way for many a wayward vessel navigating the waters through the darkness. Warning against danger. Guiding and leading the night-travelers from harm’s way. Helping the weary make their way home.
I wonder what the story is of the very first lighthouse. Was it built by one who spent time on the water and had witnessed first-hand the damage that happens when someone crashes on the rocks? Or was the first one built by someone who spent time on land and wanted to save sisters and brothers from such damage and pain? I don’t know. But either way, I’m comforted. Lighthouses are built for those who are “out there somewhere.” They are built with the concern that comes from a spirit that wants no harm to come to another.
It is in that compassion that grief’s healing is often held. That message of recognition of another’s pain and the gracious, kind-heartedness of another when they recognize your story and choose to travel just a bit with you on the journey.
Storms blow in predicted or not. Loss comes into our lives. There is loss that we can see coming or sometimes loss that blindsides us and leaves us reeling. When the winds blow and we feel tossed and turned, it is comforting beyond measure to see a light beaming across the water. Light coming from a lighthouse far off, but close enough to make that life-saving connection. This light tells us that there are rocks ahead, and we need to be careful. This light beaming across the water shows us that we are not alone. Someone is watching out for our welfare. Someone is there even when we can't seem them, helping to guide us safely home.
Traveling This Tender Advent
This year's Advent finds my spirit in a tender, grieving place. This year promises to be a different season than maybe anytime in my life. I know that I'm not alone in my grief. Dear friends have lost loved ones recently. Friends and families are experiencing deep, deep sadness from loss. This year grief is companioning of us into the holidays. Always we are learning. Each season, each year we are learning in new ways. But some learning seasons are easier to enter into than a holiday season feeling overcome with grief. Changes have come to my life that have left me feeling disoriented and lost. What was up is now down. What was clear is no longer so. And in the midst of all of this, Advent comes.
For this season, I hope to write daily blogs. As we make our way to Bethlehem, I am especially mindful this year that my heart awaits the promise of more light to come.
Many of us enter into this year's Advent with heavy - yet - perhaps more than ever - expectant hearts for what is yet to be revealed. If you are also going through a time of loss, or if you know someone who is, I hope that these daily writings resonate from the inside-out to you. I hope that these words can remind you that you are not alone. None of us is alone We are not alone because God journeys with us. Emmanuel, God-with–us sharing with us this Advent journey.
For this Advent journey, my intention will be to weave together seven different themes, threads for each day of the week. Beginning tomorrow and continuing through Christmas morning, we will be walking with these seven companions:
Sundays - (wisdom that holds us in our) words,
Mondays - waiting in the midst of grief,
Tuesdays – light that comes in the darkness,
Wednesdays - songs,
Thursdays - (following our) compasses,
Fridays - (three) spiritual practices,
Saturdays - (being tethered to) guides.
For those of us acquainted with grief in this holiday season, this Advent may be especially difficult. And here we are, entering in. Left foot, right foot we begin this journey. One by one and two by two we begin this journey. In our gatherings and in our carolings, in our expectations and intentions as we make our way on this December journey, I wish you peace and hope ...and most of all I wish you lovingkindness along the way.
"Writing more often than not helps me find my way home." Lesley is an ordained minister in the UCC and co-parents two remarkable young men, John Brogan and Sam.