Thursday, April 9, 2015

When grief gets stuffed, we get stuck

Why is it that many people, especially men, have such a hard time talking about emotional pain? Why is it when it comes to grief and loss, many of us never turn to others, certain that bearing our own pain quietly is better than opening up to others and sharing just how awful it is to lose something or someone we love? Why is it that an increasing number of Americans would say they have no one in whom they feel they can really confide?

The most poignant answer for me comes from personal experience. I was 13 years old and a boy scout. In my troop the older boys liked to swear, drink, and talk about girls. Across town there was another troop. Their scoutmaster was a colleague of my father at the local university, and his three boys were members. I loved getting together with this troop. 

The older brothers, Peter and Daniel, both Eagle scouts, were these two tall slim guys who were attentive, cheerful, and focused. Their younger brother Jason was my age, and I marveled at what kind of older brothers he had. For Peter and Daniel hosted activities for us younger teens. 

One of my most vivid, joyful memories of being 12 and 13 years old was getting together periodically with this troop to play capture the flag over the varied landscape of a giant park and then afterwards gather together to work on an engaging service project. With them, I experienced an intense sense of community and service and good-natured fun.

Unlike the gatherings of my own troop, there was no bravado nor sneering as the tone was set by Peter and Daniel. I just knew these guys were special. They were kind, thoughtful, and fun. In Bakersfield, California, role models like this were few.

I’ll never forget that early morning when my father approached me. I can still remember just how the living room looked and where I was standing when he said, “Alan there’s something I should tell you. Peter, Dan, and Jason were coming home from a ski trip Sunday night. There was a terrible accident. All three of them were killed. I thought you should know.” 

All I said was ‘oh’--I didn’t know what to say--and then my father walked away. 

As I stood there alone in the living room, I thought I probably should feel something because this was terrible, really terrible. But I didn’t feel a thing. I understood that I would never see these three great guys ever again but somehow I didn’t mourn their deaths or grieve the loss of the community that they created for me... for years--actually decades.  

After that morning when my father told me about the horrible accident, I never mentioned Peter, Dan, and Jason to anyone until quite recently. I did what many of us are taught by example--I retreated to an emotional isolation that allowed me to suppress my experience of grief and hide my own vulnerability in which resides my capacity to really love. 

Then a few years ago, I woke up one morning and the faces of Peter, Daniel, and Jason were right in front of me. They were smiling at me, and I began to sob uncontrollably for hours. 

I cried for their parents, their devoted parents whose marriage didn’t survive. I cried for Peter, Daniel, and Jason, how their three lives of tremendous potential were cut short. And I cried for their gift of community that touched many young people, a gift that I experienced as suddenly and irrevocably taken away. And this last thread of grief that opened me up at the core: I cried for me, I cried for what I had loved and lost. And I cried for how I distanced myself for so many years from their precious gift. As I sobbed, I could feel the wall of my heart being lifted.

Since then, waves of grief have come. I have come to see that Peter and Daniel and Jason are not lost to me. Once I grieved their deaths and entered the pain of what their loss meant for me, I realized that I never lost their gift, I only lost sight of it by the clamping down of my heart in emotional isolation. Ever since I began truly grieving their loss, my faith in fostering the kind of community I experienced with them has grown. Now it is as if their spirits walk with me as I seek to actively foster community that provides the necessary safety for play, adventure, and connection.

Since my last post on “Whose love shapes you?” last week, six friends or parishioners have lost their mother or father.  And several others have lost loved ones in the past month. So grief is on my mind and heart.

What do you love? What do you love that you have lost because you have yet to grieve? Perhaps it wasn’t an experience of community but instead a vision you shared with others, maybe it was a kind of innocence, or your fidelity. What do you love that you have distanced yourself from, that you need to reclaim by finding a way of opening up the inner sanctuaries of your heart?

There’s a Sufi teaching about three horses that we ride over our lifetime: 

The white horse is the horse we ride as we grow up and are learning. This is the time in our lives we are in preparation for participating in society but aren’t yet fully there.

The brown horse is the horse we ride for much of the rest of our lives as we make a living, build a life and household, support the needs of others including children if we are parents.

But there is a third horse that comes and goes...

The black horse is the horse of grief and mourning. At some point, everyone will ride the black horse. Sometimes we must take a ride early in life and sometimes we can make it through a significant part of our lives before the black horse makes its appearance. 

If you are someone who is currently riding the black horse, take your time. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t simply turn away from the pain of your loss but find ways to honor your grief. We can’t simply jump off the black horse at will, it takes attention and courage and care. Sharing with loved ones is an important step.

Once we’ve rode the black horse in our lives, we are naturally more compassionate towards those who are now in that saddle. 

Sometimes the black horse rides alongside us, waiting for us to hop on to grieve the loss of a cherished individual but we simply don’t grieve for years, or--as in my case--even decades. 

I believe the measure of a religious or spiritual life is how much love is being nurtured in your heart. The only honest way to tell if your spirituality is leading you forward is whether you are connecting with and bringing forth love and leaving love and justice in your wake as your life unfolds.

As our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Passover this week, retelling the exodus story, that extraordinary journey of freedom, may our own journey through grief lead us to the freedom to respond to what is tragic in our midst.

So many of us are capable of steeling ourselves to get through significant pain and suffering, but the question isn’t whether you can endure or withstand great pain. What matters is whether you ride the black horse when the time comes to open your heart to what is tragic in our midst. 

And so much is tragic and broken in our world. May our grief connect us to one another and what needs attention in our community, nation, and world.

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