Weathering Grief

by Cheryl Jones

Archive for the category “Interfaith”

Revolutionary Act

orlando

The past few months, I’ve been struck dumb, collapsed by the weight of what Francis Weller calls the “sorrows of the world.” The best I could do most of the time was share stories other people were writing. I managed a brief comment on Good Grief, my radio show, after 49 people were killed at the Pulse club in Orlando and then silence captured me. What could I say to the unfolding of too many events to absorb, all of them pointing to the tremendous capacity of human beings to go cold and violent?

After the Pulse massacre, I flashed back to the years after I came out as a lesbian. I experienced many scary moments out in the world; verbal attacks on the street, threats to me or the women I was dating, frightening times when national politics centered on an anti-gay hate agenda. But clubs were the place we DIDN’T have to be afraid where, for a few hours, the biggest problem was whether anyone would ask us to dance. And suddenly, that would never be true again. All those young people looking to find a place to discover themselves and have fun and meet people who accept them would forever wonder if it’s safe to go.

THE DEATHS MOUNT

When just a few weeks later, one day after another, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot dead by police officers further opening the gaping wound of too many of these killings to count, I was horrified, struck down, struck silent. They could have been my child, my wife, my friend. (Because I don’t live in a white-only world.) I understood why social media posts implored white people not to be silent, and yet all I could have said at that point was “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO.” Being measured in my speech in general, there was just nothing useful I could add. On my Facebook page, I found myself reposting one impassioned article after another, leaning on an eloquent community outraged by the losses. I was grateful that when I could not speak, others could.

Then in Dallas and Baton Rouge, police officers were gunned down simply because they were police officers. I began to feel hopeless (not a usual thing for me). I started to wonder if things would just keep getting worse until the human community collapsed under its’ own weight.

Then Nice, a place my brother and his family have spent many summers visiting. A place for vacations and fun times, a place of beauty and good food and sun and surf. And now a place of such horrific violence that I have trouble, regardless of quite a good imagination, even picturing it. Families watching a parade, children on shoulders, babies in strollers. What does it take to drive the truck into that crowd, to somehow believe these are your enemies? I am glad I can’t imagine that.

What I knew all along but what has become more and more present for me is that the weight of our collective grief threatens to overcome our capacity as human beings. And perhaps for some, that has already happened. What part does denied grief play in our current political polarization? How many people are looking for someone to kill the bad guy, whoever they think that is, so that there will be no more losses? How does our collective sense of loss factor in to our level of fear and anger, or love and compassion?

MEMORIES TRIGGERED

I was 8 or so when a friend of my father’s, an artist from Germany, came to visit. At the dinner table, they spoke about the Holocaust, which I had never heard about. I had lots of questions when he left, which my parents answered honestly. I remember the horror I felt suddenly knowing there were human beings who had somehow justified killing millions of other human beings. I didn’t know how to put that together with my parents’ consistent message that people are basically good. I was to have more and more questions over the years, as John Kennedy, Malcolm X (who was gunned down a block from where I lived at the time), Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy were all assassinated. I remember a point where the weight of all that began to turn me cold, make me wonder if maybe we just needed to destroy the world and start over. But I’m glad that the early message, “people are basically good,” won out.

For me, facing up to loss and grief has consistently led to greater compassion for more people, even people whose actions I abhor. If we let ourselves feel another’s pain, can we easily mow them down? If we truly consider another person’s circumstance, can we hate them enough to kill or maim them? We can object, with passion, but we are unlikely to justify murder, I think.

So I choose love, which means I choose a broken heart. I choose to feel every cold hard loss and never go cold to it myself. I choose to cry for no reason and have days where I just can’t get anything done. I choose to find other people to support me when I just can’t cheer myself up. I choose to look for the helpers who come out in tragedy. I choose, in short, to grieve in my own way, following my own timeline, so that I come out the other side with something to say, even if I am mute at first. I choose to transform my anger and sadness and helplessness and disbelief into love so that I have something to offer in the world besides more of the same. And I choose to believe that underneath all the things we do in response to threat and uncertainty, we are, in fact, good people.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host ofGood 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.

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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.

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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.

 

Pray

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, http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

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