Grief – Stay With It

 

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Scrolling through Facebook the other day, this post of a friend caught my eye:

We can’t leap over our grief work,
Nor can we skip over our despair work.
We have to feel it…. Historic cultures saw grief as a time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid”
– Richard Rohr –

It was a poignant reminder for a very wobbly time of year for me. I have blogged about grief and loss numerous times. In “An Uninvited Guest: Reflections on Grief”, I outlined why the Christmas season holds a lot of triggers for me. Since that post, life has continued with crazy highs and lows – the loss of a house that I loved and a faith community that I thought would always be ‘home’. I have said goodbye to a city I treasure and the precious individuals it holds, some of those goodbyes have been gut-wrenching as they held a finality that we didn’t see coming.

I am not outlining these circumstances to evoke your sympathy. Far from it. Rather, I am writing them down because as living creatures we all identify with grief and sorrow. Someone explained grief as the feeling you have when you have been winded – everything stops and you wonder whether you will ever breathe again. No wonder that we do all we can to try and usher this uninvited guest out of our house. And maybe that why we create hyperreal spaces and experiences?

After my mum passed away a lot of well-meaning people (especially those who held tightly to a more ‘triumphant’ form of Christianity) made a lot of comments and queries about ‘moving on’. “Time heals,” they would say, “and you will move on.” I heard what they were saying. I appreciated their concern. They wanted me to join the dance again – that dance of oblivious happiness. And I do dance again – but it is not the smooth Cha Cha from the first half of life.

Nowadays, grief pays a regular visit. I no longer feel shocked. I no longer try to usher this guest out of my house. Rather, and probably to the horror of some, I welcome this visitor. I sit with it and share in the memories. Grief has dramatically changed the way I look at the world. I feel so much more connected and grounded because of it. I know I have a level of compassion that I never had in my “black-and-white” paradigm. I also wonder whether I ever really understood what love meant in the first half of life? That is a rather ironic reflection considering I spoke on so many platforms about love.

Grief changes us. It transforms us from the inside out. When we refuse to ‘leap over our grief work or skip over our despair work’ we grow. Things that were once so important and that are still heralded as desirables, like success and influence, no longer hold much appeal. Grief teaches us that we have life, that life is precious, and the response to life is gratitude …

“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow –

I also reflect on my faith. Grief challenges the platitudes, the certainties, the absolutes. Many years ago Grief came calling with a friend … Doubt. I was horrified back then. There was no room for grief, never mind doubt, in my early ideological framework. Now I smile to myself as I write this. How wrong I was. If anything, grief and doubt have deepened, enriched and strengthened my faith – through these guests I discovered an all-gracious, incarnate God who undergirds our universe.

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But grief is not pleasant. Grief is painful. It still brings with it times of panic and anxiety and a deep desire to escape. No one goes looking for it – grief find us and there is no place to run. So we have to take courage, we have to stop, turn and stay with it. No one can outrun or remain immune from grief.

Dear Reader, if you, like me find the Christmas season a little more difficult than those around you, please know you are not alone. The heartache you feel, for whatever reason, is real and there are some things in life that sit with us and us with them for a long time. I would recommend that you do not go this alone or isolate yourself – this link provides some keys in coping with grief in the holiday season. A season that for many holds a marred joy … where we can feel pain AND we can sing carols … where we can smile at the delight of the young AND mourn the loss of those who have gone before us … it’s all part of sitting with an uninvited guest while still dancing our life dance … with a limp …

As I finished this blog another friend put up a post – needless to say, it is the perfect way to end:

“We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled. It is hard, painful, unbidden work. No one goes in search of loss; rather, it finds us and reminds us of the temporary gift we have been given, these few sweet breaths we call life…. It was through the dark waters of grief that I came to touch my unlived life, by at last unleashing tears I had never shed for the losses in my world. Grief led me back into a world that was vivid and radiant. There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive. Through this, I have come to have a lasting faith in grief.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow –

Much love to you all this Christmas.

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Oh The Places You Will Go … And The Places You Must Leave …

“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.” Brennan Manning

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I remember walking through the doors of a house we had built in semi-rural Melbourne. It was a home that in years ahead would be the place where many friends and family members would gather – a place of welcome, tears, laughter, food and stories. I loved that home. It was a place that I wanted to grow old in. But it was not to be. The day came that a SOLD sign went up outside the gates, boxes were packed and I took one last look at the magnificent garden that had been a labour of love for my partner, my dad and I. It was so hard to say goodbye.

There are people we meet and places we belong to that have us convinced that they will play a significant role for the rest of our lives. But that is not always the case. Dr. Seuss was right – there are many places you will go, but in life there are also places you will have to leave. Places that can no longer hold who you are. Places that have changed. Places that become unsafe.

This can be incredibly difficult when the commentary in these places is one of welcome, belonging and unconditional love. Places where you have been led to believe that you matter, only to have that change in a moment, can have devastating repercussions. Let me share a story with you – and, yes, the name of this person has been changed.

I knew Harry from when he was little. He used to be in the same Sunday school class as one of my children. I did not know him well – enough to say hello and recognise the various family members. Harry grew up in the faith community I came to as an adult. He had only ever known this place as a spiritual home and the people were his spiritual family. He grew into a young man who became part of the youth group; a strong, dedicated leader, adored by those he cared for on a pastoral level. It all changed overnight.

Harry was gay. It took him a very long time to come to grips with his orientation and the consequences this would have in a conservative religious setting, not only for himself, but also for his family. It was handled kindly at first. Harry was allowed to continue leading, even amidst complaints from concerned parents as word got out. Eventually, Harry fell in love. This was problematic. Harry could no longer lead and was ‘relieved’ from all his responsibility. In an instant he went from a contributing member of the community to a ‘problem’.

Harry tried very hard to keep connected and involved – an impossible task in an environment where someone like him is viewed with great suspicion and concern. Sheepish smiles and general avoidance was probably the only way most community members knew how to handle Harry’s exile. He tried desperately to convince people that nothing had changed – he was still the same Harry they had known, loved and trusted for nearly twenty years. But for Harry, like many others, his status had changed from ‘human’ to ‘issue’. His parents received sympathetic looks and offers for prayer. They rejected them all. Harry’s decision to come out and live authentically, and to fall in love, now meant a whole family somehow found themselves on the margins. The family eventually left the church.

“There are other churches he can go to,” was the comment made when concerns were raised. I wonder whether people really understood the heartache of being forced out of your community simply because of being true to who you are? I wonder whether anyone understood the pain of rejection that Harry had to face and how this haunted him for years to come? I wonder what these concerned parents, that complained about Harry, will do and say when one of their children or grandchildren come out to them?

There are some places we hope will hold us and truly ‘see’ us in times of vulnerability, but that is not always the case. We can stay, endure and hope, but that comes at a price. For LGBTIQ people raised or existing in non-accepting or homophobic spaces, the price is highlighted in the horrific statistics of mental health, self-harm, rejection and suicide. It is extremely difficult to ‘hang around’ in a setting that questions your very identity.

The wheels of change grind very slowly. For many conservative religious people, someone who identifies as LGBTIQ and ‘Christian’ still remains an oxymoron, someone they think who has made a ‘lifestyle choice’ that is against their understanding and interpretation of the Bible. In these settings, the fear and distrust of a community has already condemned that person.

As I have observed my social media feed over the last month of Australia’s Marriage Equality ‘debate’, I am hopeful in that there are many more folk who are seeking to understand, read and educate themselves – they are eager to ask questions and listen to the many stories. I am also discouraged by so much misinformation and continued acceptance of “ex-gay therapy” by religious and political leaders that hold influence. Like a friend of mine says, “Ex-gay therapy and homophobia are like the oxygen in these settings. There is no true welcome there.” If you are an LGBTIQ person in these places, please be careful, they are not safe.

We made a choice to sell and leave our home and place of belonging. It hurt like hell. Yet it holds no comparison to the momentous grief for people like Harry. They most often have had to leave the places of spiritual belonging by no choice of their own. By their very identity they have become the scapegoat that carries a community’s angst and phobias under the guise of orthodoxy and dogma. The place they had loved so deeply is no longer safe.

This blog post is dedicated to the ‘Harrys’ of the ecclesiastical zoo all over the world. It is dedicated to the many people whose stories of heartache have pierced my own heart and who I am honoured to call friends. I want you to know that there are many who see you and who love you … just the way you are. I want to acknowledge the grief you have had to face in leaving behind your spiritual home. I want you to know that your tears have not gone unnoticed. Your lament is heard, I believe in the highest heavens, and the One who became the ultimate scapegoat stands with you on the margins. You are the prophetic voice of protest to a religious world that lost its way when pursuing its ‘rights’ became the focus, instead of the Gospel. You are brave.

It took Harry several years to recover from what he had to walk through. But Dr. Seuss was right, he did find new places to go – places of true welcome and embrace. He did find safe spaces and friends, communities who shared his faith. He did find skilled counsellors who listened and walked with him as he chiseled out a path for a different tomorrow. He also exceeded in his studies and chosen career. He is still with the one he fell in love with all those years ago. Harry is proof that life can be gut wrenchingly hard and life can also be beautiful.

Do not give up, dear friend. There are places you must leave and grieve – and these places do not know it yet, but the loss is ultimately theirs. There are also many new and amazing places and people that await your arrival … Oh The Places You Will Go …

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The Avoidance Crisis

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life …”
– Mark Manson –

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Last week I blogged about death and how we live in a society that avoids this subject to the point of delusional insanity. The response was overwhelming. What became clear amongst the many messages I received was that our collective existential angst has created a social and cultural avoidance crisis. It is difficult for us to acknowledge that life can be very painful and challenging and that we have very little control over it.

Avoidance has helped us cope and survive in life. We naturally choose the path of least resistance to escape danger or suffering. Our early childhood lessons were often about learning what, or who, to avoid in order to make it to adulthood. We have an inbred protective reflex when exposed to adverse stimuli and that is beneficial – unless it becomes driven by anxiety.

Anxiety can cause us to protect ourselves from things we perceive as threats, but often these very threats are important life experiences. We may think avoidance is a cure, not realising it can actually heighten our distress. We begin to be consumed with the very thing that we are trying to avoid. There are many examples of this. People suffering from eating disorders trying to avoid certain foods, so food and calories become their obsession. People suffering from social disorders trying to avoid encounters with others and feeling continually panicked. My previous blog on death discussed our society’s avoidance of talking about death, underscoring a primal fear that drives us to all sorts of unrealistic beliefs or behaviours, both in religious and social settings.

Mark Manson’s quote above is so accurate: “The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.” The more dogmatic and hostile we become in areas of our lives, the more we are struggling to avoid something unpleasant, perhaps a shadow side to ourselves. It’s an internal struggle and a form of suffering. That is why vulnerability is such an important transformational tool. When we learn to be vulnerable we begin to recognise that avoidance is not the answer. In fact, avoidance comes at a very high price as we barricade ourselves from life’s inevitabilities and our own flaws.

Facing our fears takes courage. In a society that is caught in an avoidance crisis as it pursues experience after experience to feel ‘better’ or ‘happy’, it takes guts to stop, reflect and become counter-cultural. We need to learn to build our tolerance to things that are challenging, painful and uncomfortable. It is in the full embrace of life, with all its ups and downs, laughter and tears, that we experience what it means to be truly human and to build relationships that are genuine, healthy and have longevity.

Dear reader, take a moment to think about your life. Are there areas that you are avoiding that desperately need your attention? Are you sidestepping conversations because even though they are important and should not wait any longer, you know they will be difficult and awkward? Are there shadows you need to face that you have denied?

Avoiding avoidance is risky. Will it all go well when you stop running and turn around? I don’t know. “It all going well” is not what life is about. Life is raw, risky and at times filled with peril. We become vulnerable and our Jenga blocks, sometimes built on lofty ideals and a protective guise, can all topple over … and then we have to rebuild … one honest, humble, vulnerable block at a time …

“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
– R.D. Laing –

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