Weathering Grief

by Cheryl Jones

Archive for the category “Illness”

Thank you, Stephen Levine

Stephen and Ondrea Levine

Stephen and Ondrea Levine

It was intermission at In The Name of Love, a yearly concert in honor and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Each year, Living Jazz gathers incredible musicians to offer musical tribute and this year, they were all singing Nina Simone. My choir, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir always sings and the night has particular meaning to me because my father spent the most vital years of his career as a civil rights worker. He was on the bridge in Selma, he registered voters and, to his great honor, he was near MLK, behind him on the steps, when the I Have a Dream speech was delivered at the March on Washington.

It’s always emotional for me to sing there. Like many people, I feel deeply connected to those times. My parents, both dead now, are intrinsically tied to my experience of the civil rights movement and of the losses we all sustained then. There was John Kennedy, who had given my parents so much hope. Then there was Malcolm X. We lived just a block from the place where he died at the time he was assassinated, in New York for my father to study at Union Theological. Then King, whose death crushed us all and wove itself into my bitterness and anger as a teenager, my sense that things all just needed to be destroyed and we needed to start over. Finally, the grief of my generation deepened (if that were possible) when Robert Kennedy was killed, barely two months after King.

I am always aware of these things when I sing at the event. I press my way backstage, finding a corner to watch the speech they’ve chosen to play, hear the music that is being offered, feel the crowd, the beautiful Oakland crowd, gathered to honor, to remember, to reinforce our commitment to a just and equitable world.

But during the break, the stage doors were closed, and I retreated to the green room. I was feeling unusually quiet and not much into socializing that day, and I sat on a step glancing at my phone, absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook… and then, I saw it, on Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s Facebook page:

Dear Friends,

Stephen passed away at home in his bed this afternoon after a long illness. He was 78 years old. His heart has gone to God. His light is left here with us. Thank you for your blessings and love and friendship. Namaste.                                                    

It only took seconds before I burst into tears, loud sobs heaving my body, completely without my permission (even though I would have given it). I should say here that’s not my usual first reaction to loss. I’ve always envied my oldest child because when bad stuff happens, she purges immediately. It comes right out, full and complete, and then after she has cried her tears, she’s able to go on. Me, it takes awhile. First I get quiet, sit still, go inward and then, only then, do the feelings begin to find their way out of me. I’m also not used to crying in a crowd, although I wouldn’t object to that either. It just doesn’t usually happen. So this was a big surprise event.

Stephen is dead, I thought. It’s unbearable. It made no difference that he had stopped traveling years ago and I had been in touch, but not seen him, or Ondrea, for at least a decade. What did matter was that I was suddenly flooded with everything they had been to me, and all they still are. They had seen me through, and taught me how to handle, my losses. They had been my guides, and that of my first wife, through the horror and the blessings of her long illness. They had taught me how to be with it all, love myself through it, change in ways I needed to, stick up for parts of me I needed to keep that took courage to honor. They had been instrumental in my own transformation through loss, the type of experience I talk about every week on my radio show, Good Grief, and in my blog posts.

All of that was in the background, a forest full of the most beautiful moss and ferns and trees. What was in the foreground was kindness. They were so kind to us. They were so generous. They held our fragile feelings like a loving parent holds a newborn. Their help became so much a part of me that I find myself talking about them often still. As I’ve been asked to be a guest on the shows of others and they ask me what helped me through that time, I am always thinking “Stephen and Ondrea.” And when I begin to describe these things, I hear his poetic and moving and laughing voice. “Let your heart break, and the sooner the better,” “there is no feeling in deep grief we haven’t felt before, it’s just louder,” “forgive yourself” and “underneath all of it is just UNNH, the steady hum that will never die.”

When we adopted a baby, which of course most people thought was completely crazy, they sent a full set of crib bedding, with stars and planets and “Sweet Dreams” embroidered on the corner. When we couldn’t afford to get to a workshop, they let us in at no charge, and several times helped us travel to get there. They held us in their arms, told us what we needed to hear, loved us through.

Eventually, a few of my choir mates timidly approached, “are you ok?” “what’s happened?” and I told them what I could. A deep teacher in my life has died. But that seemed so inadequate. Teacher seems somehow less than what he was to me. Spiritual father or soul healer or guru or… nothing could capture the depth of what he gave us and how that contributed to this beautiful life I live now, the way I love the people I love, the importance I feel in sharing the possibility that, when all seems lost, life sometimes sets a path in front of us. Would I have found my way anyway? Perhaps. But the way I found my way is indelibly etched in all the corners of my being. May he pass to whatever is next the way he imagined it in this poem:

Millennium Blessing

by Stephen Levine

There is a grace approaching
that we shun as much as death,
it is the completion of our birth.

It does not come in time,
but in timelessness
when the mind sinks into the heart
and we remember.

It is an insistent grace that draws us
to the edge and beckons us to surrender
safe territory and enter our enormity.

We know we must pass
beyond knowing
and fear the shedding.

But we are pulled upward
none-the-less
through forgotten ghosts
and unexpected angels,
luminous.

And there is nothing left to say
but we are That.

And that is what we sing about.

 

As I read his words, I make a small contact with that feeling of spacious wonder he so expertly invited me to enter. And I imagine I’m looking in his eyes and saying, thank you, thank you, thank you.

______________________________________________________________________________

cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website,http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

 

Advertisements

Running but not Hiding

10381673_10203106224550085_843545988232127550_oWhen my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few months ago, I did what many of us do; searched the internet. First, I looked up the doctor my son-in-law recommended. I knew enough about pancreatic cancer to hold off on getting any more details, at least for awhile.

On Dr. Tempero’s website, I was happy to see videos of her. She was obviously smart and informed and confident in her expertise. But that wasn’t the part I liked best. She had participated in a film by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PCAN), a patient advocacy group. Many cancer docs (and I’ve known dozens) don’t interact with those groups, maybe even feeling a subtle criticism if patients want to advocate for themselves. She was not cut of this cloth. She seemed to want to share information and include patients in their own care. This gave me some comfort heading into the experience of cancer with my mom.

I called PCAN and they  sent me a packet of materials about research, diet, living with pancreatic cancer, even a purple bracelet. My mother found it very comforting to have a sense of direction in the shifting sand of her new life. I signed up for their mailing list, knowing that I’d need to decide which information would help her and which would be overload. So it was my email box that received the invitation to run in Purple Stride, a run/walk to benefit PCAN which takes place all over the country.

“Perfect,” I thought, “A convenient antidote to helplessness.”

I’ve learned over the years that even in helpless situations, there’s always something I can do and it helps to do it. Maybe I can imagine whoever is suffering (even myself) in the arms of a great warm protector. Maybe it’s doing laundry or taking a walk. Maybe it’s listening. And perhaps, it’s a run through the San Francisco Presidio.

I didn’t have much time to train. Keeping my own life going and managing my mom’s health was enough! So I set my goal low. Show up. Run the whole 5 K. Don’t stop. Don’t come in last. (My family will tell you I’m allergic to competition, but I’ve been trying to work on that).

I was out of town for many of the last weeks before the run. I even considered not doing it. But then I’d remember my goals. Could I still meet them? I thought I had a chance. I finally went for an actual training run, my wife riding her bike next to me. I got around Lake Merritt, a perfect 5K, and I did walk part of the way, but I made it. (Let’s not talk about two days later, when I could hardly get up from our very low couch).

Anyway, the day arrived. My youngest daughter and my wife drove me to Crissy Field, the beautiful start to the run. We were super early (this is not unusual) and that meant we got a parking place and got a chance to people watch. This was one diverse crowd! There was no real pattern of ages, genders, backgrounds or ethnicities. That made me think there is no true pattern to who gets this terrible illness.

I estimated the crowd at about 1000. The runners and walkers were enthusiastic, laughter and clapping and chatter dominating the tents and grasses, and the tables set up for those who needed to sit down. There was a band playing covers from when I was young, rock and roll and blues, which helped wake me all the way up. There was a zumba class; I was terrible at it, but that was part of the fun. Finally, there were the speakers; encouraging words to send us on our way. Towards the end, the MC called for every pancreatic cancer survivor to come up front. 5. That’s how many there were. 5. I am not ashamed to say I started crying, and I was thinking, “I’m in a crowd of grievers.”

There were strollers with memorial messages on the back, t-shirts with pictures of loved ones who had died, a bulletin board with the pictures and names of so many. The ache in my heart nearly tore me up.

Then it was time to run, and somehow, the biggest impetus was those 5 people, and all the ones who weren’t there that day and, of course, my own mother.  Somehow I was strong that day. I showed up. I ran the whole 5 K. I didn’t stop. I didn’t come in last. And I did leave feeling I had been able to take at least a small step towards something better. The small amount of money I had been able to raise would be put to good use. Yes, taking action, whatever it is, however big or small, helps me. Usually, my actions are much more private; bringing my mom some groceries or calling to see how she is. Emailing someone I know is going through cancer treatment to see how they are, even writing this blog. But always, small actions help me to feel I’m responding, not reacting. Always, if I remember that the actions are a way of perceiving myself as an actor in this world of things beyond my control, I feel more hopeful whether anything has changed or not.

So as I left the city, headed for a full carb breakfast (I’d earned it, right?) I felt good. Bad things were noticed and talked about and experienced, but I felt good. Strong and capable. A little proud of myself (even though I was raised not to brag). And most of all, I felt inspired. People have some pretty terrible experiences in this world, but together, we can do a lot. And what we can’t do, we can see each other through! That’s something to celebrate.

 

 

______________________________________________________________________________

cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website, http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

 

Graduate level grief


IMG_2067I made a commitment to writing regularly in my blog. I really committed. I thought about what I would say each week over the months, how I would say it, what was meaningful to me, what would be meaningful to the people who read my blog. I made lists, plans, created visions. I was all set… except then I didn’t do it.

Yes, I’m very busy with my radio show, Good Grief, with my family and my work as a grief counselor. Yes, I’m still absolutely committed to time when I’m not working; to singing, creating, and just plain goofing off. But I didn’t think any of that explained why I wasn’t writing. All those things have failed to prevent me from doing many other things these past few months that I didn’t seem to have time for.

I lived with the question for a solid week or two. Why am I not writing my blog? What is in the way? Then I ticked off possible explanations. “I’m procrastinating.” Hmmm… Unlike many other periods in my life, procrastination hardly even qualifies as a part of my personality right now. “I’m uninspired.” Definitely not. I’m inspired beyond my wildest dreams by amazing people I get to meet and talk with every day, by the guests on the radio show and the meaningful conversations I get to have, and by my community and family. “I don’t want to write.” Wrong! I love to write and I’m writing other things all the time with great relish.

When the answer hit me over the head, I almost laughed out loud. I was not writing my grief blog because I was experiencing that time after a new loss when I just don’t want to share. I need time to absorb the new reality, to adjust to the changing picture of what I imagined the future to be. I need time to (wait for it) process.

I had not really written since I found out my mother has pancreatic cancer.

When it finally dawned on me that I was simply practicing what I preach and listening to what my own heart told me I needed, I relaxed. And then, respecting that my mother is busy adjusting too, I asked her if she would be ok with me writing about this newest wrinkle in the fabric of my life. “Everyone knows anyway,” she said, bestowing a blessing on whatever I might say about it. (Thanks mom).

So here’s what I want to say. Cancer stinks. I hate the endless doctors appointments and project management, getting all the pieces to work together. I hate waiting in endless waiting rooms with other people who also don’t have the energy to wait for anything. I hate anticipating losing my mother, who I love, in the very foreseeable future. I hate unexpectedly crying in public when there is nothing at all sad going on. I hate that I know how to do all this so well because I’ve done it before for years at a time without a prayer of changing the eventual outcome. I hate that no one has cured cancer yet, including my brilliant son-in-law, a cancer researcher who I honestly think has a chance of it.

But all of this is really so very small. What I love, even now, is so much bigger. I love my mother, who was clear right away that if they offer her 6 months of chemo for 6 months of time, it’s not worth it. I love the conversations we’re having in which we can share our love for one another in a way that is more immediate, and deeper than it was six months ago. I love that the doctors who are caring for my mother ask her about herself as a person before they talk about treatment and, when they run late for her appointment, apologize. (Thank you, Dr. Tempero and her staff). I love that I have all that experience to offer my mother, to ease her burden and help her feel supported and nourished. I love all the hearts on her Caring Bridge page. I love being so deeply in touch, every day, with my love for her and for everyone else in my life, knowing that having them at all is, at best, fleeting. I love pictures of her with my grandsons. I love that there is nothing in me that wants to shy away from the whole experience.

So, I guess we could call this Continuing Education, having taken what sometimes feels like the graduate level course in grief. Lifelong learning for the griever. Showing up for class. Taking notes. Putting one foot in front of the other and stepping into love, because even the hurt tells me how very much I love. How very very much.

______________________________________________________________________________

cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website, http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

Post Navigation