Sunday, November 4, 2012

Grief and faith

"Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others."  Pema Chodron 
As most of you probably know, I am spending this season of my life waiting to learn whether or not a bone that was recently found belongs to my daughter, Michaela, who was kidnapped 24 years ago this month, at the age of nine. I write more fully about this in my other blog,, but of course this waiting time has brought a lot of things to the surface for me. There may be certain things about the wait itself, certain things about the possibility of getting an answer after all this time, which are specific to what I am experiencing. But I think that more than anything it has just brought to the surface the simple reality of the grief that has been part of my life for almost 24 years now. At any rate, I have found myself making certain preparations, "just in case," although I have no idea "just in case" of what. Many of them have been material, like cleaning off my desk at work. Why this, I don't know. It's as though some part of me is preparing for a long journey to a distant land I have never visited.

Also, the spiritual has been calling to me, and this has been very varied, from the Christian roots of my past, to the eastern spiritual teachings whose seeds have grown in my heart without having been named. I hope that nobody allows the fact that I wander up and down many paths to negate the validity of any of them, or to make you think that my journey isn't worth anything just because I am not following a particular map.

These last couple of weeks, I have been listening to Buddhist teachings during my commute. I must admit I am having a hard time wrapping my head around a lot of this stuff. First, it's pretty new to me, the Buddhist and Hindu religions. I don't know the terminology, I don't have the background. I finally figured out that one of the basic reasons I am having a hard time understanding these things is because they are all teachings about the practice of an essential part of these religions ... meditation. And hey, I don't meditate! It's not even that I don't understand what they are saying, but it's kind of like physics is to me. I hear and even understand the words, but I can't grasp what they mean it because I haven't seen it, it isn't part of my experience, and I haven't felt it, so I can't really believe it. I don't meditate. I can't. I don't have the time, or the inclination to be still or quiet. I live in a really busy household where I am certain to be distracted, if not actually interrupted. If nothing else, I will probably be beset by a sudden urge to go to the bathroom. So I don't, I haven't tried to, meditate. Maybe one day I will.

These teachings have not been fun to listen to. Next week I think I will go back to entertainment and distraction. Either that or I will finally learn Spanish. But this week I have listened to two different teachings. One is Pema Chodron's "Bodhisattva Mind." I don't know how I would expect to understand this teaching if I don't even understand the title, but it said it was about the experience of suffering, and how to use it to help others. So I thought it might be good. Most of it is a bit beyond my grasp, or my will to grasp. There is so much niceness and kindness wound up here, so much quiet and calm, when what I really want to do is yell and scream and carry on! But at one point somebody asked a question about grief, and Pema responded that it is a good thing if you can take time from life to allow yourself to grieve. Well, I have wondered about this. If I find out that my daughter is not alive after all this time, what will I do? What will I need? Will there be an essential difference between that and the grief I have been living with for the last 24 years? The fact of the matter is that I have to work, and have little paid time off. So will I say, okay now I know, and then get up and go back to work in the morning? After all, this would mean less for me to do. If Michaela is not alive, that means she is at rest, at peace, not in pain, not hurting, not crying herself to sleep at night. I will not need to work my heart out incessantly trying to find her or at least to let her know that yes, I am still with her in my heart; she is not alone, she is not forgotten. So logically, it should be easier for me to carry on than it has been these last 24 years. Right?

But will it be? I don't know. I have never been to that place before. But somehow I don't think it is ruled by the laws of logic.

The greater question for me is, what does it mean to grieve? What does grieving look like? If you take time off to grieve, WHAT DO YOU DO? I don't understand!

My mother passed away in 2004. I remember that the day after she died, I woke up in the morning wailing and sobbing. There was no thought to it. One moment I was unconscious in sleep and the next moment I was sobbing loudly, and there was nothing in between. But I remember the sensation, the sensation that I always seem to get, that this isn't helping anything. All this noise and carrying on is just upsetting my husband and kids. The crying just makes my nose stuffy so I can't breathe. So stop it, Sharon.

This is it. This is how I live. This is how I have lived for the last 24 years. Even right now, sitting here writing this, I feel a lump in my throat and tears well up in my eyes, but I know I will not allow them to stay. I will swallow them, sniff them away, because what good does it do?

I just really literally do not know what to do.

The other book I have been listening to is "A Path With Heart" by Jack Kornfield. This is actually a very good book. I don't recommend the audio version because Kornfield assumes that Buddhist-teacher monotonous intonation which makes me want to throw a brick through the window. But there was enough in here that was valuable enough that I purchased the print version so I could get it in a friendlier and easier to remember version. But here is a little bit that I transcribed from the audiobook:
"Most often opening the heart means opening to a lifetime's accumulation of unacknowledged sorrows, both our personal sorrows and the universal sorrows.... The grief we have carried for so long from the pains and dashed expectations and hope arises. What we find when we listen to the songs of our fear or rage, loneliness or longing, is that they do not stay forever. Rage turns into sorrow. Sorrow turns into tears. Tears may fall for a long time, but then the sun comes out, and the memory of old losses sings to us. Our body shakes and relives the moment of loss, and then the mourning around that loss gradually softens, and in the midst of the sound of tremendous grieving the pain of that loss finally finds release...."
Again I ask, is this true? I have had times like this in my life when grief has surfaced. When I was pregnant with my youngest child, as my heart opened to her I began to experience the grief I had suppressed. But that didn't make it go away. It didn't resolve it. It's still here, 19 years later. I think I may understand it a little better with my mind, but my heart has danced with it, wrestled with it, and it's still there. Every grief I have experienced since then, however small, still recalls the echo of the primary grief. Every sorrow has Michaela's face behind it. Every threat of potential sorrow brings that feeling of sinking, and an "oh no not that" feeling, followed by me telling myself, "no, it's okay, we survived this before, we can survive it again, nothing happens without a reason, and we will be okay."

While I was listening to these teachings from these paths about which I know little, a message from a path I knew well came back to me. I was talking to my friend, Chris (I have a lot of friends named Chris by the way). Her 17-year old daughter was killed in a car accident a few years ago. She is an exceptionally wonderful woman. I keep Michaela alive, at least partly because she is still lost and we need to find her. Chris keeps her daughter Tricia's memory alive in the world, just to do it. But we were talking about grief, and about faith, and somehow a song came up that we both know well. I have wept many tears to this song. The music is completely evocative of the grief in my heart, and the lyrics are, well, an affirmation of the fact that the grief is here, it's staying, it's not going anywhere, but somehow it is ... well, it's just what is, and its inescapable presence does not cause us to lose our faith. "I'd have thought by now, you would have reached down and wiped our tears away, stepped in and saved the day. But once again, I say 'amen,' and it's still raining." Well, you just have to listen to it. "Praise You in the Storm," by Casting Crowns.