Dark Nights: The Spiritual Promise of Grief Work

by MK LeFevour

Editors note: Southwest Folklife Alliance, an affiliate of the University of Arizona, recently interviewed Mary Kay LeFevour. She has graciously shared her words from the interview with us.

Grief work is very spiritual work. How do you spiritually survive losing a beloved? It’s the family members that are left after a death. Trust is the biggest thing that gets jettisoned. There’s the primary loss, of course. But the secondary loss can be a trust in the universe, God, the idea that life is beneficent.

So all those wonderful questions of spiritual inquiry come forward: Who am I now? Who is God? What’s my meaning in life? You’re now swimming in unchartered territory. For a lot of people this is the first time they’re having an existential crisis. You are in the dark night of the soul.

I’ve always loved dark. What’s wrong with the dark? As a Taoist and Buddhist, I know you can’t have one without the other. We are a society in America that denies death and denies grief. When someone experiences a death, society says, “Get over it. Just start consuming, start eating, buy something, find someone new.”

But this place of despair is a great cauldron to bubble in, to find your essential self. This is the time when I feel people are the most open to wisdom or beauty or reconnecting. They have to reinvent themselves. Some call it “post-traumatic growth.” It’s an opportunity for growth, for differentiation, for resilience, to become more of who you are or who you were. Because you have to.

Of course you don’t say any of this to the bereaved. You don’t say it’s all going to be okay, when they’re thinking, I’m lonely and I hate my life and what am I going to do? I just go, Yeah that sucks.

I might quote Victor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, who says we are happier humans when we have meaning. It doesn’t matter what the meaning is, whatever it is you have to create it. Some don’t like that because they believe there is one meaning and that they have to find it.

The trick is to let them swim in the despair or sink into the quicksand and hold that space. Sometimes you have to just let them sit in there. You can’t fix it. You can hold a branch, maybe, but people have to move through it. I just hold the grief and I don’t do anything but hold the grief.

I saw a guy this morning—77 years old, just lost his wife of 50 years. He said, “I’m okay.” He’s been grieving for almost a year. And he did sound pretty good. “I’m okay because I’ve got lots of stuff to do, he said. But it’s hardest at night, when I’m alone.”

People say the nighttime is the worst, the evening. It’s the time of intimacy, snuggling, having dinner, watching TV. That’s when you feel absence. Insomnia is most common presenting grief symptom. So night becomes the enemy, because we make it the enemy instead of the friend.

But mammals, when they’re hurt, find a dark cave and lick their wounds. It’s natural for us to want to go into a cave—it’s dark, we don’t want external stimuli. Bereavement work is not about giving people a spiritual bypass with distractions. They get that from friends and family. I’m the one person who lets them wallow. This is the tax we pay for being human.

Grief isn’t good or bad. It is a human thing. Loss begins from the time we’re born. We lose this cozy place in the womb. Loss is inherent to our life as humans. My feeling is if you can’t avoid it, then what can you do with it?

Grief takes away your artifice, every shred of dignity you’ve had and makes you this mass of vulnerability and also someone who’s open to a different way of living, one that makes sense. That’s what’s exciting to me about it. I get to be at somebody’s birth. You’ve lost and you have to be reborn. I feel like a midwife in that respect and it’s such an honor.

Sometimes you’re just hoping people don’t commit suicide before they get through the dark night. You hope and you hold and that’s all you can do. I don’t even have faith. I have knowing on my side. I’ve seen people go from being barely able to crawl into the room to having a full life again. I see it again and again. I can sit with you in the not knowing. I don’t know if you’re going to make it but I have seen the most desperate people make it.

Rather than resist, through denial, the very thing that’s going to happen–which is that we’re going to die and we are going to lose things we love along the way and we are going to lose parts of ourselves–we can reclaim the night. We may never be able to embrace it wholeheartedly, but we can aim for it. We distract ourselves so we don’t have to pay attention to grief, mortality, death. And then we are unprepared when they come for us.

Many cultures have mourning ritutals–wearing the arm band, the day of the dead, putting a stone on the tombstone, sitting Shiva.  The ritual of mourning. But there are so many ways in which we no longer participate in the night. We look at is as something to get through, instead of something to enfold ourselves in.

Again, I’m not going to tell you this when you’re in the quicksand. I’m just going to hold you and tell you it’s okay to feel everything that you feel–angry, abandoned, miserable. All of that is welcome here. That’s what people need–a steady presence that radiates the idea that this is a cycle. This is a cycle. Life is a cycle. It’s going to be a roller coaster, but all things arise, develop, and fall away. All things. There’s no one thing in nature that doesn’t. And grief is that way. Because grief is part of nature.


by MK LeFevour

I never liked poetry. I believed if you had something to say, just say it – don’t couch it in fancy words or with metaphors that nobody understands. Then along came a well-meaning friend who loaned me a book of Mary Oliver poems. It sat on my nightstand filling me with guilt each night that I didn’t open it. After a month, my friend asked how I was enjoying the book and I lied, “Oh, I’m loving it!” But not being a fan of lying and knowing my friend would eventually ask which poem was my favorite, I broke down, opened the book to a random page and read Oliver’s most loved poem, The Summer Day. My life was changed by that one act of opening myself up to this woman’s understanding of loss, sorrow and hope.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her poetry. But what brought her to winning such prestigious awards was growing up in an abusive house where her only escape was to wander the woods near her home. In nature she found her true home and healing for a broken heart.

What we have in common with Ms. Oliver and each other, is that we live in a remarkable place of nature that others might experience as inhospitable. But what we know is that despite living with the constant danger of getting poked by plant life that doesn’t want to be touched is that we are blessed to live in a desert where we are surrounded by daily wonders – the magic and power of a monsoon storm, the collared lizard doing push-ups on our garden wall, the roadrunner stopping on a dime and changing directions as she spies us coming down the wash, the hummingbird taking on all comers to protect his feeder , the coyote sauntering across the road and then turning to give us a smug look before he bounds away into the brush and javalinas who, if you sing to them, will stop and lay down to listen until you’re done with the song.

Mary Oliver’s poems bring me comfort. But why are they comforting? I believe it’s because she continually reminds me to pay attention to the world around me – from the grasshopper to the stars. And when I bring my attention out from the hamster wheel of dark thoughts in my head to the beauty of our desert, I am brought into awe and wonder and that brings me healing.

Ms. Oliver gave these instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. My wish for you is that you find your Mary Oliver who can speak your pain and bring you words of guidance and comfort.

Let me leave you with words from another poet, Rumi, that I’ve come to love (yes, open your heart to one poet and others will push their way in).

Grief can be the garden of compassion if you keep your heart open through everything. Your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.


Photo by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

Grief and Hope

by Karen MacDonald

When I wrote my last blog entry a few months ago, I was “speechless.”  So many of us were reeling from the national election results.  We were heartbroken, appalled, angry.  We were/are grieving.

I have also known deep, gut-wrenching personal grief in my life with the disruption of a cherished relationship.  Much of my speech then was moaning and sobbing.  Thank Goodness, that dark period turned out to be a womb and not only a tomb.  While I looked over the brink into utter despair and lifelessness, I emerged with a spiritual awakening into the indescribable gift of Life.  

Valerie Kaur has prompted us to consider “…what if this darkness isn’t the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?  What if America is not dead but a country waiting to be born?”   To paraphrase her image, this chaotic, life-threatening period in our communal life could be a tomb and a womb—grief and hope.

The grief may include the death of optimism that missed the depth of fear and pain that always lurks below the surface of what appears to be social progress, that always paints the lives of those suppressed/oppressed, that always tinges the views of those afraid of losing position.

The hope is that we have today—Life has graced us with sun, Earth, breath once again.  We get to live, we are indeed from and of Life itself.  Regardless of how things turn out, the hope is in this question, “How do I want to express Life today?” —and in how we try to show our answer.

Checking My Pulse

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I’ve been quiet.

That’s likely not a big deal to you, but for those who know me, I am rarely quiet. It’s an aspect of myself that I sometimes judge, that I sometimes embrace, that I sometimes just observe. There are many rooftop shouters and I happen to be one on a lot of occasions. I’ve come to accept that about myself and let it be.

Yet… I find myself quiet in all the ways I normally echo through the halls of my life. This quiet is because I cannot figure out the first word to the next sentence that would make sense of the loss of life in these endless mass shootings.

I have been reading the words of others and watching us collectively attempt that tried-and-true five-part model of coming to terms with grief as offered by Kubler-Ross. The problem is, once we get past that first stage of denial, entering into anger, we have yet another mass killing that brings us back to that denial. We only get to two-step our way through something that requires so much more to navigate.

“What? Another one? How can this be? I blame [fill in the blank]” and we never get to that elusive next step of bargaining then depression then acceptance.

Denial. Anger. Denial. Anger. Repeat.

My first memory of participating in a collective shared grief was when I was 8 and made to attend an elementary school assembly. We were gathered because the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff and people died. I didn’t fully understand this gathering we were doing. This silence they wanted us to sit with made very little sense to me.

My fellow elementary school peers and I tried to sit quietly, but we were fidgeting and coughing, because we had no idea why we had to suddenly be quiet together. I remember looking around and wishing we could talk again. I wasn’t bored, just completely confused by the whole deal and wanting to get back to whatever we would be doing if this hadn’t happened. As I looked around I noticed that the teachers were crying. Then, the slow dawning of the devastation settled on me.

The space shuttle had a teacher on it. The teacher was going to space, literally doing something out of this world, and that teacher died. Wait, could my teacher die? I remember looking for Mrs. Likes, my favorite teacher, seeing her crying and thinking “That teacher was like Mrs. Likes! Mrs. Likes could die!”

And this was the most tragic thing my new-to-this-world brain could imagine. I was so sad and I cried so hard as I imagined my Mrs. Likes blowing up in a space shuttle.

When we see ourselves or those we love in the death what follows is such a devastation to the soul. This life that we have been taught to nurture could just go away. Just like that. And in violent, murders, someone makes it go away.

“What? Another one? But how can this be?”

I’m trans. I’m queer. I love so many people who are trans and who are queer. This makes relating to the Pulse massacre in Orlando all the more real to me. I was able to cast myself as a dancer on that dance floor without even knowing I was doing the casting. Images came to me with no provocation, like laying my body over my wife’s body because there would be no way on earth I would let her be exposed to death without trying every defense within me.

I have loved ones who are police officers. I could cast them very easily into the badges and uniforms in Dallas, imagining their last breath. I have loved ones who have darker skin than mine and they run a greater risk to die violently and prematurely every single day just because of the bias, prejudice and fear our society has endorsed since the start of our country.

Once we see ourselves and our loved ones in the rampant hate, victimization, and debilitating disparities we can never “un-see” it. And we will often do anything we can to stop it.

Denial. Anger. Denial. Anger. Repeat.

The versions of me, the versions of you, the versions of all those we love are the ones that have their pulse taken from them in places that often had served as sanctuary.

Our souls cry out in denial: “No! Not again! No!”

Our souls grapple with the anger that is oh so appropriate for this loss, “I will stop them! They will not harm me!”

Our souls begin to well up with tears as the bargaining begins, “Please…”

We only can utter the single word of bargaining as it is interrupted by yet another shooting, another body crumpling to the floor. We return to the desperate denial chorus “No! Not again! No!”


Then the slow dawning settles on me with an unshakable truth:
That could have been my pulse that slowed and then stopped.
That could have been your pulse that slowed and then stopped.
That could have been the pulse of every single person that we know, every single person we love, that slowed and then stopped.

I’ve been very quiet, stunned into emotional muteness, a seemingly endless moment of silence as I find a new use for my hands that once fidgeted during that assembly thirty years ago. I use those hands now to check my pulse, to feel that life force pumping through my being, to witness the miracle that keeps me breathing and to acknowledge my pulse continues where so many others have ended.

As we go through the dark brokenness that has become the norm, let us never forget how rich, how powerful, how mighty and how unyielding that stubborn flow of life within is in the face of all that attempts to end it. The true grit of the heart keeps on going.

That pulse within you is ancient. That pulse has been giving a rhythm to life in this world since the dawn of time. That pulse is what unites us. That pulse that lives in you speaks to the one that lives in me. The radical act of intentional living in the face of all the destruction is the very thing that steady pulse within has been calling us to all along. And it changes our options, it changes our paths when we invite in the flow of life.

It says Look.
It says Be.
It says Please.
It says Love.
It says Live.

A Whole Lens on Life

by Beth Johnson

I walked around for months with my head down and my chubby little seven-year-old hands clasped . . . around a 1950’s Eastman Kodak Brownie Camera, a Christmas gift from my parents, intended to distract me from the death of my older brother, Billy, whose four-year battle with childhood leukemia had been lost several days before his tenth birthday.  Little did they know how symbolic this new lens on life would become for me.

Our family was numb.  Our lives had revolved around Billy’s care, keeping him encouraged, doctored and medicated (at the Cleveland Clinic), and rested.  We siblings brought his school work home weekly from the Edwin Markham Elementary School, and sat on his bed to play board games, willingly giving up our friendship time to support his health.  Our family had purchased one of the first black-and-white T.V.’s for his bedroom so that we could enjoy “The Lone Ranger” and “Howdy Doody” and hope to cheer him up. We had gone to church every Sunday and prayed and done everything right.  Of course Billy couldn’t go because of germs.  He had died despite our heroic efforts.  

Our minister advised that we kids not attend the funeral.  Too sad an event, as if we weren’t already devastated and knew exactly what had happened, as if we might live blissfully onward without a care.  Billy’s leukemia had been, after all, four years of all of our lives.  We stayed home with our grandmother and cried.  Our clergy preached that we should all feel happy that Billy was in Heaven with God, no more pain or suffering.  They seemed to have no concept of the kind of support we could have used to help us work through the deep hollowness that the death brings.  

After my second grade class let out one day, I walked directly to our church and asked to meet with the Head Minister.  I was ushered into the office of the Minister for Christian Education, a woman with a strong intellect and little warmth.  I sat dwarfed in her huge brown leather wing-back chair and asked if she could help my family with our sadness.  She told me to give my life to Jesus Christ and everything would be O.K.  She gave me theology when I needed God’s Love and Sustenance.  She gave me precepts when I needed the warmth of a faith community.

Within a year, my mother had Stage IV breast cancer and a radical mastectomy. I can still picture my eight-year-old-self standing in shock by her bedside as she showed me her railroad track scar and explained what the doctors had needed to do.  From that point our family life struggled.  I listened while  my mother cried herself to sleep many nights out of a sense of guilt and for fear of losing another child.  We were living with the sudden rise of polio and no one knew the causes.  My father traveled increasingly for his work.  We kids buried ourselves in our school work and tried to be the best daughters and sons possible in order to alleviate our parents’ suffering.

One day, as I shuffled my little feet home from school, one of my brother’s classmates asked me where Billy was.  I hesitantly pointed toward the sky.  “No!” he exclaimed.  “That can’t be true!”

At that moment I realized that there were probably many people in my life who had no idea that my brother had died.  A second “aha” came close on the heels of that one – that there were very likely lots of people in the world walking around with smiles on their faces while hiding deep pain.  Because that was exactly what my parents and siblings and I were doing. At age seven, radical empathy was born.

This life-changing experience was the jump-start of my spiritual and moral development.  It became a lens through which I filtered every life experience.  It heightened my sensitivity to people around me, driving me forward with an untamable desire to ease human suffering, especially through the church and God’s Love.  This life lens led me to understand that children, adolescents and young adults within and outside of our churches have deep needs for spiritual and moral support and guidance.  They may not show that to us, but it is there and they need us to love them.  People of all ages and walks of life are doing the best they can and need us to be God’s Love for them.

My experience of my brother’s leukemia and death is something that I rarely discuss but I am very conscious that it was a pivotal experience that has catapulted me into the ministry and the helping professions.  There is no greater pastoral care tool for a clergy person than understanding pain, from the inside.  

You, too, have stories of pain and struggle that have immeasurably changed who you became, as a person and a professional.  That job that you lost, the parent who left, the wayward child, an addiction, a run-in with the law, you know.  Are you embracing your “pain stories” ?  At least to yourself?  Are you recognizing how they have shaped and strengthened you, even though they were extremely difficult?  Even though you’d like to bury many of them in your unconscious mind.   

We bring “our whole stories” (OWS) to life and to church.  It is through the lenses of the “OWS” that we respond to every situation, secular and sacred.  Our assumptions, perceptions, conclusions, fears, and actions are ALL filtered through the lens of the “OWS.”  Furthermore, every other person in your faith community is having the same individualized experience.  We are all looking for healing and acceptance, understanding and deepening, growth and a sense of spiritual peace and goodness, friendship and Love.  We are all looking to become better, more whole people.

Jesus made it very clear that God treasures each of our “whole stories.”  Warts and all.  The woman at the well.  The woman who was hemorrhaging.  The dishonest tax collector. The mad man inhabited by demons.  Our whole stories develop us into God’s people, if we will let them.  Our OWS have Power! Together with God, we can turn them into “POWS” !

Jesus lived authentically and embraced the unbelievably difficult aspects of his life and calling.  He could have backed down during the last week of his life, but he did not.  His “whole story” is what we carry forward as Christianity.  If he had not lived “whole-ly,” there would be no Christianity.  Jesus gave us a lens through which to perceive and experience life and a role model to follow.  The lens is his whole life story.

How have the lenses of your “whole story” informed your development?  How has the lens that Jesus provided helped you?  Far better lenses than my 1950’s Brownie Camera !

“Be ye perfect (whole) as your Father in Heaven is perfect (whole).”  Mt. 5:48

To respond confidentially to this article, you may reach Beth using the contact information on her contributor page.


A Candle Gone Out and Our Time to Shine

by Kenneth McIntosh

I awake this morning feeling sad. Not because of a dream that I had, or worries about the day; nor because of anything that I am cognitively aware of. My subconscious mind has an amazing awareness of the date—February the 23rd.

Grieve it tells me.

This is the anniversary of my father’s death.

Recognizing this day’s significance, the latest episode of Downton Abbey comes to mind. To non-fans, Downton Abbey is an Edwardian soap opera; but to devotees, the Crawley family and their servants are like family. Last Sunday lady Mary Crawley viciously betrayed her sister Edith by gossiping to Edith’s suitor and thus ruining Edith’s hopes for marriage. Later in the same show, Mary is about to be wedded and Edith shows up unexpectedly for the celebration. Explaining this seemingly impossible act of forgiveness, Edith tells Mary “In the end, you’re my sister, and one day, only we will remember Sybil (their deceased sister) Or Mama or Papa … Or Granny or Carson or any of the others who have peopled our youth. Until at last, our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike.”

Shared memories of our loved ones are immensely valuable for surviving family members. The generation of my parents’ friends has entirely passed away, and my children barely knew them. So my surviving extended family and our older children are now the only people who can talk about my father and mother with vivid recollections.

There’s a passage in the Old Testament that is probably no one’s favorite Bible verse: “There is no eternal memory of the wise any more than the foolish, because everyone is forgotten before long” (Ecclesiastes 2:16, CEB). It’s hardly inspiring, but profoundly true. To those of us who knew him, my father was extraordinary; a scientist and a polymath, he helped Heparin—an essential medicine—to become more easily available. He built his own sailboat, and radio, and camera, and airplane. And yet, less than a decade after his death, only a handful of people think or talk about him. Ecclesiastes nailed it, everyone is forgotten before long.

This thinking at first appears only negative, but its truth can be redeemed. Skylight publishes a great little book by Rabbi Rami Shapiro titled Ecclesiastes: Annotated & Explained. In this book, Rabbi Shapiro discusses the Hebrew word yitron, “usually translated as ‘profit’ in the sense of something being left over after all is said and done.” He then shares this illustration, “what profit, in the sense of something left over, is there in burning a candle in the dark? None if we expect that something of value remains when the candle burns down and the flame sputters out. But this doesn’t mean there was no value when the candle was aflame. While nothing has permanent profit, many things can profit us in the moment.”

We immediately recognize the truth of this as regards literal candles; we ignite tea-lite or votive candles which provide a lovely sense of atmosphere and we never think “this is a lousy candle, because it will only burn for a finite amount of time.” No, we appreciate the candle while it is lit. The worth of a candle is not in its durability, but in its ability to illumine while lit.

Is the same not true of our lives, and the lives of our loved ones? As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us “It is not how long you live, but how well you do it.” Even if I created an immense marble edifice for my father’s ashes, that structure would decay over time and its meaning would be forgotten. My father’s memories will vaporize after my generation of the family passes—but that’s not a tragedy. It’s the only way this world exists; unless your name is Elvis, everyone is forgotten before long. What does ‘profit’ us is to live fully whilst alive, to be recklessly engaged in this moment’s enactment of God’s justice and peace. A good candle glows while lit, and if the tapers of our lives are healthy we will strive to be illumined and to illuminate.

Problems come when we become focused on longevity, on out-lasting our time to burn. We can expend crazy amounts of effort trying to memorialize the dead and even crazier energies attempting to gain some sort of personal immortality. Yet these misguided efforts detract from our burning brightly in the now.

Churches face the same exact problem, the temptation to focus on longevity rather than illumination. I serve as Church Growth Coordinator for the Southwest Conference, and when congregations contact me they are usually wishing to talk about survival. Conversations boil down to “How do we make our church last longer?” The more valuable question for churches is: How much light can we shine in the now? Without too much thought of the morrow, churches need to ask: whose lives can we bless and transform as who we are, where we are, in the present moment?

Ironically, churches that put their energies into blessing others in the present moment tend to be more attractive churches—and the paradoxical result of shining brighter in the now is a possible renewal of the church, an unexpected second life. Could the same thing, perhaps, be said for individual souls? The book that follows Ecclesiastes in canonical order, The Song of Songs, tells us “love is as strong as death…Its darts are…divine flame!” (Song of Songs 8:6, CEB). That great Christian novelist and apologist C.S. Lewis, in his novel The Great Divorce, puts these words into the sainted mouth of his mentor George McDonald, “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country (heaven) but none will rise again until it has been buried.” My father spoke little of spiritual matters, but he did once tell me, late in his life, that he expected to continue existing after death on another dimensional plane, and that he expected to be re-united with his wife, who would be on the same dimensional apogee.

So today I remember my father’s candle, after it has gone out. I reaffirm my intention to burn brightly in my time. And if the things that our Scriptures and traditions point to are true, then the love we light now may blaze on into an unforeseeable eternity.

The “Is-ness” of Healing

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

Before you read this, may I ask you to do something? It may be an odd request, may even prevent you from reading this now since you may not be in a space where it would be a good idea to play something on YouTube. It may even be something you choose not to do, but I will ask anyway.

Will you please play this video? Will you then close your eyes and sit with what you hear? Listen as many times as the mood strikes you. It’s good stuff.

Then come on back:

John Denver “All This Joy”


Welcome back…

When I was about 8 years old I remember hating nighttime. There are a variety of reasons for this that increased my sense of vulnerability at night, probably things that would resonate within you as well. My little 8 year old self thought frequently, “Why do we all go to sleep at the same time? Shouldn’t someone be keeping watch?” We are at our most vulnerable when sleeping, completely unaware. We really should have planned this out better as a human race, right?

Going to sleep while everyone else is asleep has a certain strange agreement of trust. We’re pretty much saying, “Hey, I am going to just close my eyes for the night and make myself as vulnerable as can be. I am pretty sure we all are going to wake up on the other side of this day.” When life events, though, challenge that level of trust and belief, sleep becomes harder to come by because vulnerability is harder to come by.

I’ve shared with you before that I am in recovery from drugs and alcohol. As many with that history, I tend to be pain avoidant. It is hard to sit with pain, physical and emotional, palpable and overwhelming. I don’t like it. I actually hate it. I despise it. It frustrates and confounds me that it’s in the mix of life.

That avoidance of pain versus the turning to face it is really the challenge we are faced with most regularly.. Each time we turn to face the reality of the present circumstances or moment, we are being co-creators with Spirit and participants in the flow of life. I forget this a lot. Like all the time. I forget this because pain hurts. You likely do the same because pain hurts. We certainly do this as a community because pain hurts.

I write a lot of subtext to my daily experiences. I make meaning in ways that allow me to understand the world around me. I can act as though that subtext is true, but really, it’s just my thoughts trying to make the world more palatable and less dangerous. Often the subtext that I create separates me from the world around me, separates me from you. Separates you from me. I’m pretty tired of that, aren’t you?

Here are some myths about pain that I’d like for us to consider getting rid of:

-If I feel the loss, the grief, the sadness, it will break me. Forever.
-If I start to feel I will feel this way always. Forever.
-If I leave it alone and not look at any of it, time will just make it go away.
-If I spend time honoring those feelings, I am self indulgent and need to change.
-If I drink this, take this pill, watch this video, it will numb me out and I will not have to worry about it anymore.
-I should compare my pain to what others have to walk through and then shame myself for feeling bad because they have it worse than me.

There is an ebb and flow to pain and healing. It looks like this:
It gets better.
Then it gets worse.
Then it gets better.
Oh great, now it got bad again.
Hey! Guys! Look! It got better again!
Ok it’s getting worse again.
Yay! It’s better…
And the bad days start to neutralize and the wound starts to heal.

There is more space between the times it gets better and when it gets bad again. We are constantly reaching for equilibrium. And, if we let it, it comes. Eventually.

The only way it comes, though, is through a turning to rather than a turning away.

I am not an expert on grief and loss, but I certainly have experienced it. I am not an expert on brokenness, but I can check that box too. I am not an expert on isolation and turning away. Wait, I kinda am. I’m kinda a gold medal contender for that one. Who else would like to join me on the podium?

Your life, my life, our loved ones lives, will experience pain, injury, brokenness. It just is. Your life, my life, our loved ones lives, will experience healing. It just is. My dear friends, this is the work in living. This is the work in relationship. This is the work of the ministry of reconciliation. This is the work of our communities of faith.

Healing comes when we turn to what is.

And that, my friends, is the stuff of life.

It just simply is.

Wanna Trade?

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

Some very wise people in my life have said, “If everyone were to throw their problems in the middle of the room and you were able to take any of the problems and leave yours, you would pick yours back up rather than take on someone else’s.” Sorta like the White Elephant gift exchange gone depressingly wrong.

I think there is a tremendous amount of truth in the thought that we would rather have our own stuff instead of someone else’s when we can clearly see the extent of what others carry, ours doesn’t look half bad.

What this exercise would do, if it could really be done, is increase a sense of empathy and understanding for those we walk amongst daily. The crushing weight of worry and anxiety, heartache and loss is ubiquitous. No one gets out of this world without some of that. It is our connection and response to these painful moments and seasons that determine the extent of what we will carry and for how long. We could cliché this reality very easily with such platitudes as: “The only way out is through” or something of that nature. While there is truth to that, I rarely have found that helpful when I am sitting in darkness and hurting. The next step toward freedom seems impossible to take.

I am an isolator. I know I’m not alone there. It’s as though I go into power down mode when difficult feelings or situations rise. I know I’m not alone there, either. And isn’t that ironic? I know I am not alone in feeling utterly alone at times. If that isn’t an awful merry-go-round I don’t know what would be. The isolation that I often retreat into removes connection to people in my life. Every. Single. Time. And then I wonder, where the heck are you people, not realizing that it is me who has gone away. Experiencing painful moments doesn’t have to be so hard. It will likely still be very difficult when encountering these times, but it does not have to be so incredibly lonely and painful when others are around to help us shoulder the burden.

A missionary friend told me a story from her time in S. Africa that often occurs to me, especially when I need it most. She described a man who was carrying a pack that must have weighed over 100 pounds as he walked and walked and walked. He was an older gentleman, with a weathered, tired face. The weight that he was carrying had him hunched over, his torso parallel to the road he was trudging. This friend pulled over and invited to give him a ride. He accepted and got into the bed of the truck. She drove a bit and then saw in her review mirror that he was hunched over still, kneeling in the back of the truck with the weight still tied to his back. She pulled to the side of the road and told him he could take the pack off while they drove. His reply was, “It’s too heavy for your truck. It will break it.”

So we say, without words, but entirely in action: “The weight, it’s too heavy for you, it will break you. I will shoulder the burden alone. I will carry the pain myself. I may accept your kindness of company, but I will keep this weight on my back while I do.” I am not alone here, though I sit feeling alone. When this is reality, there is no sanctuary. When this is the truth we believe, there is often little hope that it could ever change. There is nothing more lonely than being lonely when surrounded by people.

I recently climbed a huge hill, called Tumamoc. I went from a very sedentary existence from the last few years to taking this on. I was accompanied by a dear friend and his two of his sons, who are elementary school age. We consider this friend’s kids to be our nephews and niece. Time with them is always pretty fantastic. We started up the hill and it became quickly apparent that I was going to struggle. Each of them were all geared up and ready, could walk likely twice my pace, but they stayed and accompanied me.

We chatted as we walked. I stopped nearly every chance I got to catch my breath. We were .6 miles away from the top of the hill when I was seriously thinking of throwing in the towel. My friend and his sons walked ahead of me, stopping at the next rest point while I gathered myself 500 ft away. I knew I was so close, but everything hurt. Everything. My breathing was forced and painful. I just wanted to be done. I turned to wave my friend and his kids to come back, but when I turned around I saw something that emboldened my resolve. My nephews were walking back toward me. They each stood on either side of me and the youngest one, only eight years old said, “We’re coming to help you Uncle Davin.” In that moment, there was no way I was not going to finish that hike. No way at all.

The accompaniment of relationship during hard times and hard emotions can seem impossible. There are many messages we receive in our culture that there is little time for grief, there is little time for emotion, there is little time for expressing need. I often buy into that myth. The truth, though, is we are a people who have capacity to love incredibly deeply which means we have the capacity to grieve very deeply. There is room for the love and there is room for the grief, there is room for all of it.

I do not know what problems occurred to you when you read the first paragraph. I do know what problems occurred to me as I wrote it. I also know that the longer we retreat, the longer we hide, the longer we will suffer. Have you ever attempted to take a splinter or cactus out of a child’s finger? They writhe, they yell, they cry even before you get started on this major surgery. And it goes on and on and on, until they settle enough to get it removed. Then it is done in a heartbeat. The more we struggle against what is and the more we refuse to allow others to see what exists below the surface, the more injurious it will be.

I may not want to trade my problems for yours and you likely don’t want to trade yours for mine. I do want us, thought, to unload it on the floor, spread it out, and rest for awhile together. I have a feeling we may even shed some weight of our packs in this process before trekking to our next rest stop.