Stages of Grief: The Cosmic Swirl

So I started the required reading for Grief 101: On Grief and Grieving by Kubler-Ross and Kessler. I eyed the cover for a few weeks, then read the back. Today I opened it and scanned the table of contents. I tend to cherry-pick before committing to a book, but I can tell I’m avoiding this one (y’think?). Every time I’ve peeked at it, it appears to offer a healthy dose of comfort and confirmation for this strange, strange world I’ve entered. Perhaps it even offers a lifeline out to a better place. But like an intelligent pig revisiting my favorite mudhole, I’m in no hurry to get cleaned up.

I think I’ll just deal with the simple list of the five stages. Who hasn’t heard about these a million times already? Sorry to be snarky, but it all sounds so cliché, like a simple roadmap through a complex minefield. All I have to do is trust the guide (I’m not the trusting kind). It’s probably unfair, and I’ll fall in love with this book later, but right now, I see it this way:

Kubler-Ross & Kessler is to the complexity of grief as Dr. Oz is to the complexity of the human body

We are unique, we are not cardboard characters or cartoons. You can’t just reduce this cosmic swirl of intense emotions, memories, and spiritual transcendence to five easy steps: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

It’s like a horoscope or racial profiling. How I hate stereotypes. “Oh! Of course. You’re a Libra. No wonder!” Or, “Aha! I get you now. You’re an angry black man.” How we all love to reduce everything around us to handy labels and neat little boxes.

I’m sure this book attends with much care and respect to the unique shattering and remolding process that each unique being endures after a loss. Otherwise, how could it be so highly acclaimed, right? Only I don’t want to walk into its syrupy trap. I don’t want to reduce this pain to manageable steps and start walking that simple path. Apparently, I don’t want to heal by anyone else’s blueprint.

Gee, I guess I’m in the anger stage still, huh? It’s been three months now since Dad passed on to the great mystery beyond his mortal coil. How long are these five stages supposed to take? Wise people have said to give it a year, so maybe I’m right on track (365 divided by 5 is 73 days), so I’m progressing, right? I’m definitely angry and I think I’ve let go of the denial game by now. Perhaps I can accelerate the bargaining stage or something. For sure I want to skip the depression stage altogether.

I apologize to all who have been immensely helped by this book. Please forgive my attitude, but right now, at this unnameable stage I’m at, I’ve got to say, “Never mind. I think I’ll stay right here, thank you.”

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I Lost My Dad. Then I Found Him.

Adoration. Competition. Resentment. Disappointment. Revelation. Adoration.

If I had to boil down my 62 years as Dad’s daughter, this relationship map sounds good at the beginning and the end, but what about all that stuff in the middle? Doesn’t sound like a very happy journey, does it? Nope, not if happiness is the goal. But if understanding, growth, and kindness are the goals, this might be the best journey I ever took.

Here’s the unexpected revelation: As I worked through all my feelings about my father’s passing, I realized with quite a shock that he too has been on that journey. First, he was my adored king of the world when I was little, and he adored me back. Then he had to compete with me for air space when I began voicing my opinions and holding my ground. We moved on to resent each other for failing to hand over the unconditional love we both needed so badly. Our disappointment in each other cemented over the years as we consistently failed to rediscover that simple place of kindness and adoration. The years of resentment and competition dug deep trenches between his side and my side.

Then he died.

I figured by now, at 62, that I had long ago relinquished my childish wish for closeness with him. We were comfortable with the amicable distance we had created, and forbidden topics were easily kept out of sight. So I assumed my grief would be short and sweet. Then he would fade into a manageable, respectful distance.

I didn’t expect to feel wrenching waves of regret that we didn’t find our way back to each other, that I didn’t try harder for that. I didn’t expect this deepening pool of compassion for him to claim my thoughts and render me nearly speechless. Most of all, I didn’t expect to feel him there with me so much, in ways that he was never there with me when he was alive, except when I was a little girl.

And here’s the cool part—the revelation. He was just as stuck inside himself, taking care of himself, as I am now, but now he’s set free to love without any worries for himself. People say that when we die, we go to be with God. I know they’re right. I can feel my dad loving me now the way God does, the way I always wished he could and, I’m sure, the way he also wished he could.

And I adore him.

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The Awl and the Door

Seems like almost all my posts lately have been about mortality. Here’s a little break.

Parshah Re’eh (Deuteronomy 12-16) is packed with structures and laws put in place to protect us from each other and to guide us into a closer relationship with God. One section of this parshah gets my full attention every year. This year, I found something new in it.

Chapter 15 explains that if a kinsman fell on hard times and sold himself in slavery to another, the slave-owner by law must not only set him free after seven years, but send him out loaded with livestock and plenty of food and drink to start a new life. But if the enslaved brother has come to love the owner and his family and prefers his life with them, the owner will pierce his ear against the wooden door with an awl and that’s that. The slave is his slave for life. The same goes for a female slave who makes that choice.

The Haftarah portion is Isaiah 54:11-55:5. The high point for me in previous years has always been verse 54:17 (“No weapon sharpened against you shall succeed”), probably because I’m such a worrier and I find that image hugely comforting. But this year, I carried the story of the eternally devoted slave with me as I read the passages, and verses 55:1–2 fairly roared from the page for my attention:

Ho, everyone who is thirsty, go to the water, even one with no money, go, buy and eat; go and buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you weigh out money without getting bread, and exert your efforts for that which does not satisfy?

Certainly, there are plenty of other verses in the Haftarah that complement Parshah Re’eh’s teachings, but this little section of Isaiah helped me to see the slave’s decision in a new light. I always admired the slave for choosing love, devotion, and humility over material goods and independence. That is a tough choice. But I confess, I also suspected him (or her) of selling out a little. “Hey, it’s comfortable here at my master’s house. I know what to expect, I’m safe, I have my place well defined, and I’m treated well.”

What if setting out free and clear, all debts forgiven, with enough food and stuff to start anew might generate a more satisfying existence? I would have struggled terribly, chafing at the bit, with this choice if I were that slave.

I believe the answer is sparkling up at me in Isaiah’s words, a gem waiting to be scooped up and treasured. Guess what? I am struggling with that choice. I am that slave. Opportunities abound daily to turn away from the peace and wholeness I have found in God’s living water. I stray, I look back, I look forward; I lay plans and play the What-If game inside my head.

And I am learning, despite my preference for independence, fresh starts, and the gold ring just outside my grasp, that the humble slave’s choice is indeed a beautiful thing. When that awl is sharpened to pierce my ear to the door, it won’t be a weapon at all. And it will succeed where all else has failed.

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The Wider Hope of a Universalist

I grew up in the teachings of a Unitarian Universalist church. Didn’t learn much about God there but a whole lot about the brotherhood of Man and all the different world religions. The greatest gift from this legacy was an expansive trust and faith in the intrinsic goodness of humankind. I still carry that firmly clenched in my being, despite many disappointments along the way. However, the greatest disappointment growing up this way was a complete lack of transcendent vision beyond the tiny boundaries of this life.

After a startling, life-changing encounter with God, I searched through several Christian and Jewish congregations for answers. I carefully listened to the teaching and immersed myself in the community each time, ready to put down roots and blossom. Each time, some kind of cosmic door shut before me, and it was time to move on. Every time this happened, it was caused by an act of rejection.

The Pentecostals taught that unless you spoke in tongues you were not saved. Even though I had been deeply changed and awakened by an experience involving speaking in tongues, I knew there was something wrong with that restriction. I watched a very sweet man humbly asking for this gift week after week on his knees, believing he would not be accepted by God until he could speak in tongues. Broke my heart to go, but it was time.

I had great hopes for the Messianic Jewish avenue, but it became clear after some time that they embraced the same core tenets as the Evangelicals, who taught that you couldn’t be saved unless you believed in Jesus a certain way. You could call him Yeshua and cling to the Jewish truths undergirding your faith, and the restriction here was less narrow. But this exclusion of anyone outside the mindset was just as real. When that became too much for what I believe is the nature of God, I had to go, with great sadness.

Turning to Judaism was a relief. There was no talk of earning salvation, but after centuries of anti-Semitism, it was understandable that a non-Jew would have to convert in order to be a welcomed member of the community. The rejection there was simple: you could join up as long as you did not believe in Jesus or Yeshua. I was not and am not able to do that. With many fond backward glances, I took my leave.

Since then, I have been studying and praying at home, weighing all I learned in each place. I have been thinking quite a bit about the Wider Hope (universalist) view that everyone is saved, including animals. I wonder about the opportunities God may have for us to embrace him and trust him when we are crossing over from this life to the next reality. I think that once I am divested of my physical self and its attachments and cares, I will be grateful that God is fair. I will be overjoyed that he is real, that he will decide our fate with justice and love.

I have to ask this question: If God hates evil, and his very existence is the anithesis of evil, wouldn’t it be consistent with his nature to rescue all his creation from the clutches of the evil one, even if only a certain few of us go on to live with him forever in the way we all hope for? In my feeble understanding, it rings true (and not just optimistically) that those of us who will be lovingly laid to rest will applaud with great joy for those who will go on with God. We may be surprised and delighted to see who is chosen, much as we applaud our Nobel Prize winners and sports champions. All will be saturated with the weight of Glory.

I pray that you are as encouraged and comforted as I am by these thoughts, as we face down our fears and doubts and continue on the path God has laid for us to his love. Knowing and trusting that Great Love in this life is all the paradise I can imagine for now.

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Mourning, Mortality, Psalm 39, and Tish B’Av

Preparing for Tish B’Av tonight, as a non-Jew I have never done the fasting this sombre holy day requires. I know I have a lot to learn about all the reasons for us to remember this day with great mourning and prayer for not only Israel but for all of us, for God’s mercy to protect us from tragedies like this. Here is a great summary of the tragic events throughout history on the 9th of Av:

So, this year my heart calls me to fast and commit myself to mourning the terrible destruction and countless precious lives lost. I feel it like a tide pull in my DNA that there is much more to mourn that I have avoided for too long—our cruelty, judgmentalism, and intolerance toward others, even to those we love the most. I don’t have to look far to see this in action, which is precisely why I always avoid too much self-inspection and keep myself as busy as possible doing good deeds and congratulating myself for my excellent motives. Hah!

This will be a Psalm 39 day, and one we need to live through in order to even hope to become more generous, kind, patient, steady, and faithful people. Perhaps it has a lot to do with our view of our own and our loved ones’ mortality. If we can find a way to stop spending so much of our spiritual and psychological energy on protecting our lives, the lights might go on, and the shift in thinking we crave could take place.

“My heart grew hot within me, in my contemplations a fire blazed; then I spoke out audibly: ‘Let me know, O Hashem, my end, and the measure of my days, what it is; may I know when I will cease.’ . . . all is but total futility—all human existence.” (Psalm 39: 4-6)

It’s no accident that the Haftarah for this week’s Torah portion of D’Varim is Isaiah 1:1-27. Despite all the dire warnings, it ends with a call to repent and return to God to be made whole again. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? That’s because it is, when you take the fear of death out of the equation.

As always, my daily reading of George MacDonald’s poetry slates today’s reading with this cry for help:

Lord, let my soul o’erburdened then feel thee
Thrilling through all its brain’s stupidity.
If I must slumber, heedless of ill harms,
Let it not be but in my Father’s arms;
Outside the shelter of his garment’s fold
All is a waste, a terror-haunted wold.
Lord, keep me. ‘Tis thy child that cries. Behold.
(George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, July 25 reading)

Add a PS to all of this—the wonderful Prayer for Resurrection in the liturgy of daily Jewish prayers:

“As long as the soul is in me, I thank You,
Hashem, my God and the God of my forefathers, the Master of all Deeds,
The Master of all souls.
Blessed are You, Hashem,
Who restores souls to dead bodies.”

As Pippin would say, “Well, that isn’t so bad.”

And we can agree with Gandalf, “No. No, it isn’t.”Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 9.30.54 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-25 at 9.31.07 PM

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Our Relationships

I love a good romantic story where two people, who clearly were meant to be together forever, somehow find each other successfully and weather all the storms of doubt and distrust to walk off into the sunset, holding hands, their faces alight with delirious hope. Why is it that in real life, at least one of them is often walking dangerously near the spirit of dread?

No other relationship in our lives is more attractive, worrisome, pivotal, or essential as the one we have with our chosen beloved. It seems that there is always some kind of tweaking needed, as if deep veins of gold should be discovered more quickly to confirm the value of our choice.

gold miners1

Many times, when a relationship shatters or fails to even start, at least one of the participants discovers a disappointing lack of treasure. You dig and you dig and you look and you look, but there’s just not enough gold there. He doesn’t have enough manly stamina, she can’t maintain her attractiveness, he ultimately fails the devotion test, she isn’t grateful enough.

gold miner2

I always wonder what God thinks of these relationships strewn about the vast junkyard of dashed hopes and false starts. Does it matter to Him what we do with each other’s hearts when we tinker with eternal commitments and discard or devalue them?

“What is frail man that You should remember him, and the son of mortal man that You should be mindful of him?” asks Psalm 8 (Artscroll Tehillim). Why should we worry about God’s opinion when we’re just shopping, just testing the waters? I’m sure He doesn’t want us to rush into anything until we are absolutely certain, until we have prayed, inspected, evaluated, waited, and prayed through it again.

Maybe these so-called relationships “of ours” aren’t really ours at all. Maybe it’s not about what we “make” of them, whether they are long or short, whether we are loyal, committed, wandering, or unsure. What if that loser guy you ditched after three weeks of testing became a lifelong friend? What if that girl who didn’t quite measure up to your standards stood by you in a time of crisis? What if each time we give some of our heart—even just a guarded, tiny part of it—the tenderness, the yearning, the hope becomes part of each person involved?

Perhaps there is more to this relationship business than meets the eye. We’re so quick to say “it’s over” and “I’m moving on,” but perhaps each person we connect with stays with us in ways that we can’t fathom. Maybe these relationships hold much more value and depth than we realize. Some of us may not ever “have” a bashert, a soulmate. And some of us will “have” many, even though we don’t recognize them as they float in and out of our lives.

If these connections are not ours, but God’s, then ultimately it’s not about whether we have succeeded in landing the spouse or partner of our dreams. It’s about gratitude for the moments we have hoped together, shared ourselves, and learned more about love from each other.

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What We Learn From Those Who Have Gone On

I have a tendency to pre-grieve the loss of my loved ones. Granted, there is not much sense in that, and it brings on premature sadness, when the sadness of the actual loss is sure to be of a much deeper color, unrehearsable.

George MacDonald lost two of his children to childhood diseases, back when that was much more the norm. I suspect sharing such a momentous loss with so many other parents takes precious little of the pain away. He writes, in his March 14 entry:

Oh, my beloved, gone to heaven from me!
I would be rich in love to heap you with love;
I long to love you, sweet ones, perfectly—
Like God, who sees no spanning vault above,
No earth below, and feels no circling air—
Infinitely, no boundary anywhere.
I am a beast until I love as God doth love.

To me, this turns grief on its head, in a way. If I had lost those babies, I would probably be in a mental ward somewhere, or desperately driven to fill up all my time with volunteering and working—anything to keep the pain away. Yet here, MacDonald confesses that even the devotion and tenderness he has for his children is no better than a beast’s compared to the love of God, the perfect, infinite love of God.

And isn’t it true that our idea of our love and our loved ones is infinitely perfect, but the reality of our love is cut from a blighted cloth—instinctual, unwise, shortsighted, possessive, agonized? I suspect those who have gone on to be with God know the difference. I wonder if they watch our struggles to love with fond, pitying eyes.

Christian, Jewish, George MacDonald, love, loss, death, grief, God

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