Weathering Grief

by Cheryl Jones

Archive for the tag “hope”

THE BLESSING

IMG_7300Not long before Joanne, my wife, died, she told me she expected me to love again. She said it would “not be right to waste all the lessons we’d learned,” and I was “too young” never to love again. When I replied that I couldn’t imagine any love ever being as good as ours, she replied, “maybe it will be better.”

She was bedridden by then, disabled by multiple myeloma, and we spent most of our time in her room, talking, cuddling, and receiving visitors. This was after I’d taken a leave from my therapy practice so I had lots of time to think, feel and talk. And pay attention to the children, all of us often sprawled out on her bed.

But after they left for school and day care in the morning, the days stretched out, somehow lengthened by the fact they would be few in number. We were preparing, even though we’d agreed that we didn’t have to accept ahead of time. Acceptance would come on its own time table. (Remarkably, it was possible when it was finally needed a few months later.)

Although I didn’t think of it much in the days that followed, I stored our conversation somewhere in the back of my mind. Those words also awaited their perfect moment.

After she died, I gave myself to grief a little like a new love. I cried and laughed and shared stories. I saw my friends and felt their support, but my own idiosyncratic path of mourning got first dibs on my time, just as a new lover would. I listened to what it needed and tried my best to give it. Looking back, I see that I tunneled into grief, boring my way to the center of my own earth. I found the ore hidden in me. There was music, and gardens and tears, but mostly, me.

And then I knew that I was ready to fulfill the promise that Joanne had initiated; that I would love again. But I was terrified. Now I knew what it meant to let love command me. I would one day lose the person most precious to me. As Rilke said, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” I felt I was about to go to graduate school! How would I let myself fall over the cliff when I knew how far down the bottom was? But how could I not, knowing the beauty of that ecstatic  flight?

On the night I met my wife, I had a feeling. I was going to go out salsa dancing. I didn’t actually know how to salsa dance, so I planned to go to the lesson at the beginning. What could hold me back from doing new things? I had already done the biggest thing I could think of. But nerves held me up. Maybe I needed to take a hot bath, to play a little piano, and take myself out for sushi.

By the time I arrived, I was late and my hands were, despite all my effort, still shaking. Everyone was already paired, ready to listen to the instructions the teacher was set to deliver. I didn’t know a single soul in the room. But somehow, the instructor noticed me, probably looking a bit lost. “Did you want to take the lesson.” “Yes, sorry I’m late.”

She took my hand and walked me to a row of chairs, filled with people who already knew how to salsa. And then, to one person in particular. “Will you be her partner?” she said, and put our hands together. At first, my dancing partner looked just a little irritated. But then she gave me a full look and said, “sure.” I fumbled my way through the lesson, but she didn’t seem to mind. She was a great dancer, helping me through the mysterious steps.

I don’t remember how we ended up on two chairs at the edge of the room, sitting close so we could hear each other over the music. I do remember looking at her red shoes as we talked about death, children and spirituality. I left with every number she had.

I had never had a love at first sight experience, but this was it. I knew. She knew. No doubt. It was a matter of months before she joined me in my home, which was still filled with reminders of Joanne. She said she felt entrusted with me and encouraged me to take my time with all the corners filled with Joanne.

Now I felt the nature of my fear. I would wake in the night, her sleeping next to me, and see her face, a death mask next to me. I would have to confirm she was breathing. My youngest child asked her at the dinner table if she was going to die too. My friends were protective and slow to accept that I was giving my heart again. While I had grieved every minute, come through to a new place, they were still not ready.

But all the while, I heard permission in my head, encouraging me, supporting me to feel every wonderful, awful, scared, courageous, unexpected feeling that came along with choosing to love after losing a love. I never doubted that this was my destiny, my path and my greatest pleasure. And I never doubted that I set foot on this (now) twenty-year path with the blessing I most needed.

In the twenty-one years since that time, I have counted that simple conversation as perhaps the most generous gift I have ever received. What did it take to think of my good beyond her own life, to want the best for me beyond the time we would have together? When I heard the words, they bored into me in a permanent spot deep down. Long before I was ready to find that true love again, they gave me hope that life would, somehow, transform itself.

And so now, deeply in love with my wife of nearly twenty years, I count myself most blessed, to have loved deeply not once but twice and to have learned that the heart can grow to fit all that comes to it.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones is a grief counselor and the host of Good Grief radio at VoiceAmerica. During her education as a Marriage and Family Therapist, her first wife was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, which was at the time a uniformly terminal illness with a six month to one year prognosis. In the eight years that followed, Cheryl engaged daily in the work of preparing for her death. She was trained during this period by Stephen and Ondrea Levine (Who Dies and Grieving Into Life and Death) and Richard Olney (founder of Self-Acceptance Training).

After her wife’s death, Cheryl immersed herself in her own multifaceted grief, startled by frequent moments of joy. Along with her private therapy practice, Cheryl is Manager of Professional Education at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, CA. She has trained extensively with Erving Polster, leader in the field of gestalt therapy and author of Everybody’s Life is Worth a Novel. Website: http://www.weatheringgrief.com Good Grief host page: http://www.voiceamerica.com/show/2264/good-grief

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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.

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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