Weathering Grief

by Cheryl Jones

Archive for the month “January, 2014”


Ruby Bridges by Norman Rockwell

Ruby Bridges by Norman Rockwell

Last night my choir, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, performed a benefit concert for the Ruby Bridges School in Alameda, California. We’ve done that for the past few years and it’s always great. I love our service concerts; prisons, schools, homeless shelters, nursing homes. I sound altruistic, but really, I admit, it’s a little selfish. It feels good when the music touches people down deep and that’s always true when we give it as a pure gift!

Anyway, I was up there in the alto section, robed and ready. The curtain opened and suddenly my heart put two and two together. This “bunch of misfits” (as the director Terrance Kelly likes to call us) would not have been possible, let alone flourishing, without people like Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King Jr., my dad (he would be so embarrassed to be in the same sentence that way). People showed up, they risked, they walked into enemy territory with no weapon, they went to jail or school or lunch counters and the main point was that we humans needed to be together, not separate.

That’s what Ruby Bridges said last night. Some day, when we are in trouble (and we will be) we will not care what the person looks like who helps us.

That made me think back a few years. My mother was in the intensive care unit for a bleeding ulcer when she hemorrhaged. Blood coming out of everywhere and, through the tiny window in the hall, my wife and I saw person after person rush to her bed. It seemed like the whole staff of the ICU was crowded around that tiny bed (that was very close to the truth, as it turned out). I had just arrived at the hospital and before my wife spoke, I knew things weren’t good. “It’s bad, honey,” she said and moments later, they rushed her out, literally running to the OR. Her nurse, the one we liked the best, came out and gave us the details, betraying his lack of confidence in her chances for survival.

It’s funny what you do at a time like that. I called the section leader from the choir to let her know I wouldn’t be at rehearsal (!) She said, “I can’t believe you’re calling me,” or something like that, and I said, almost as an afterthought, “ask people to pray, please.”

I pray, but in a pretty “equal opportunity” way. “God, whatever you are, whatever is true, please walk with me to the best outcome. Please support me (or whoever I’m praying for) for the greater good.” Stuff like that. Having tried on Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Native American practices, and many others ways of looking at the Mystery, I find they all lead to the same place in me, so I don’t discriminate. I knew already that when you ask an interfaith gospel choir to pray, well, you are going to get nearly every kind of prayer known to humankind and that’s part of what I love about the choir. I was immediately glad I had thought to ask.

The days passed and somehow, she lived. Medical personnel found it hard to believe and dropped by her room just to confirm she was still kicking (that was definitely a figure of speech at that point). One told her that he didn’t expect to ever see again in his career someone who lived through what she did. The doctor told us right after surgery that things were a mess and he didn’t even know exactly whether he had succeeded but then, several days in, told her, “well, I guess you’re going to make it.”

All of this was coming back to me up on that stage. I was looking across at Ruby Bridges, who walked, alone, into a river of white kids, the first child, at six, to integrate that southern school and she was surrounded by a sea of at least 50 children, every color, clamoring around the stage and high-fiving our director as they looked up at us, every religion and spiritual tradition, every color too, and a diversity of sexual orientations, reflecting what Ruby Bridge’s courage had helped create.

“Pray for my mom.”

I called the section leader back a few days later to tell her it looked like my mom was going to make it. I told her it was a miracle (I could think of no other word). Then out of my mouth came, “It looks like when we all pray for the same thing, God says, ‘All my people are together; I guess we should give them what they want.’”

Cheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. Most recently, she has launched a radio show called Good Grief, talking with people who have created something transformative from their experiences of loss. You can learn more about her at her website,

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Grief season

dr_photo_08I was 42 when my first wife died. It was the end of October, 1995, right before Halloween, right before day of the dead.

My two year old went trick or treating with my parents that year, because I was doing my version of sitting shiva, having been moved by the tradition when Jewish friends of mine introduced me to it. Every night for a week we opened the house, sang, told stories, ate food, appreciated all that Joanne had been to us and all we had shared together. That was during what I would soon begin to call the euphoric period. Instead of feeling her absence, I felt her presence everywhere. I could find nowhere she wasn’t. It would be almost 2 months before I would crash into the simple fact that her body had quit, that I would never see her or touch her in this life again.

For the first few years, I defined the grief season as beginning October 24 and ending January 25, her birthday. Soon enough, though, other deaths would blur the lines, punctuating the entire year, and I stopped thinking of things that way. Every day, there is life and there is death, grief and celebration.

I’ve been noticing all of this in a new way, as I listen each week to the moments of grief which led, immediately or over long, long periods of time to profound changes in the lives of the guests on Good Grief, my radio show. 18 years after my own loss, I realize that the changes which came for me then never really stopped, that they continue to evolve and reshape themselves in each new moment. I discover that I can’t really be sorry for any of it.

I wonder how things might have been different if she died suddenly, if I’d been younger, if I didn’t have children and then I laugh at myself. It is, in truth, impossible for me to imagine a different life once it’s been lived. Too much would be lost. Too much would be different.

So I simply acknowledge the startling fact that when I think of all she was to me, all I lost and all I gained, I am overwhelmed by only one feeling. Profound gratitude.

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