Opening Words: From the door of the Unitarian Church in Dublin, Ireland:
“We bid you welcome to this house. It is a place we love and which we tend with care. We do not ask what you believe, or expect you to think the way we do, but only that you try to live a kindly, helpful life, with the dignity proper to a human being.
“Preachers here have the task of presenting religion fearlessly, freely and faithfully.
“Hearers have the responsibility of testing what they hear, not only with the critical mind, but also in the living of every day life.
“The members of this congregation welcome the support of all who believe that religion is wider than any sect and deeper than any set of opinions, and all might find in their friendships strength and encouragement for daily living.”
Opening Sermon Reading by Mary Oliver: In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Sometimes we talk about letting go — we talk about grief, loss and separation — as if it was a nice, neat little package we can open and use when necessary. It isn’t.
Every grief is different. No matter how many times you’ve been through it; no matter how many times you’ve had to ‘let go’ and suffer through another loss. Each and every time is separate and unique.
And it does not get easier. In some ways it gets harder to do – this letting go process.
We grieve because we love. To love is to feel a lasting, deep connection. Love feeds the soul. Love, in all its forms feeds this thing we call ‘the human spirit.’ Love defines us. It’s love that makes us human; it’s love that makes us suffer the pain of letting go.
Mary Oliver calls it “…the black river of loss, whose other side is salvation…”
We are saved by love. Salvation, in this sense, is the result of loving. We are saved by who and what we’ve loved; and ‘love never ends.’
All the losses we’ve experienced are stored in a safe place – we call it the ‘soul.’ All the grief we’ve ever experienced is stored in that same safe place, on the ‘other side of the black river of loss.’
The soul — the love we’ve known and the losses we’ve experienced – cause us to have this thing we call compassion. The level of our compassion is directly proportional to the losses we’ve endured, if we keep the love alive.
While love or loving has a direct object – we name the persons we’ve loved, we name the pets and the places — but our sense of compassion does not have direct objects. It lives in us and it is easily transferred.
For example, on Monday this week a horse died and some of us felt a sharp sense of grief. Why is that? What was it about this horse, Barbaro, that made us care whether he lived or died? But we did care, ever since he was injured at the start of the Preakness Stakes. He was on his way to winning the Triple Crown, after coming from behind to win the Kentucky Derby.
I never met Barbaro, but those who did meet him talked about his special, strong, dignified, proud presence.
The injury he suffered would ordinarily mean the end of his life but he nearly beat the odds because of an all-out effort to save this beautiful, big-hearted horse. So we felt a sting of grief. Where did that come from?
Every grief comes from a place of caring – and caring is our salvation – saved from emptiness; saved from being all wrapped up in ourselves; saved from the consuming sins of greed and envy.
Death can be sweet when it comes in its time and place; it can be a relief to the one doing the dying and to those who need to let go. A good death is one that is preceded by the gentle process of letting go; as family and friends gradually go through the letting-go process the dying person is helped to let go.
Sometimes we’re able to do a lot of the ‘letting-go’ before the death occurs – this is referred to as preparatory grief; those who do the letting go often go through the same kinds of feelings or ‘stages’ before the death … but we have to deal with some confusion since the loved one is still living. It seems inappropriate to let go; but we’re not letting go, we are, however, preparing ourselves for the loss.
Carl Sandburg says it in his little poem he titled, Stars, Songs and Faces
Gather the stars if you wish it so.
Gather the songs and keep them.
Gather the faces of women.
Gather for keeping years and years.
And then …
Loosen your hands, let go and say good-by.
Let the stars and songs go.
Let the faces and years go.
Loosen your hands and say good-by
Not every death results in painful grief. There’s a sense of relief in response to the death of a loved one that comes at the right time to end the suffering.
There can also be a sense of relief in a death of one who has been abusive, one who made another’s life miserable. We don’t talk much about that…it almost feels shameful
There was a provocative essay in the January 29, 2007 issue of Newsweek titled: “The Stage of Grief No One Admits To: Relief”
The writer, Jennifer Elison wrote about the relief she felt when her husband died. When the surgeon said, “I’m sorry, we did everything we could,” she had mixed feelings. She says:
“My 31-year-old husband was dead, killed in a car accident on his way home from work. Doctors and nurses gathered around me, ready to catch me if I fell.”
“Thank you,” I said. I was in shock. But I was also aware of a bewildering mix of sadness, anger and, as hard as it was to admit, overwhelming relief. The truth was, I had been unhappy in my marriage for several years and had kept up appearances as I tried to salvage our floundering relationship. I was initially very confused about what to do with the feelings I was having. I was equally aware, even in those earliest moments, that I must be careful to act like a grieving widow, and hide my relief from a world that would surely misunderstand. It was the beginning of a masquerade I would carry on for the next two years.”
She writes about the way people saw her marriage to this successful doctor who had ‘rigid and unreasonable expectations,’ and who forbade her to go back to work after the birth of their daughter; a husband who belittled her, didn’t respect her, didn’t listen to her and always denied her feelings. The day before the accident she told him she wanted a divorce. Eventually she became a psychotherapist and she tells how she had clients who experienced a similar sense of relief over someone’s death, and felt a sense of shame.
“Americans have adopted the ‘five stages of grief’ as a straitjacket, an edict on how to grieve, and woe unto the person whose behavior doesn’t fit the mold.”
The stages outlined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross can be a helpful model for one experiencing a difficult loss. Her five stages are: Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Guilt, and Acceptance.
But that package is too tidy. Those stages are likely to occur, but not in that order, moving from one stage to the next. They get all mixed together, going back and forth. Every grief is different from every other grief, and every loss has a life of its own.
That’s why Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking, was so helpful.
Didion wrote a penetrating and powerful portrayal of her experience of grief at the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. She describes how she and her husband had just left the hospital after visiting their only child, Quintana, who had fallen ill and was near death. They returned from the hospital, shared drinks in front of the blazing fireplace, and sat down to dinner when John suffered a massive and fatal coronary.
Didion’s title, The Year of Magical Thinking, describes the first response to loss, the mind’s unwillingness to accept the cold, hard, permanent reality. Magical thinking allows the mind to create an alternative reality.
She says that writing this book was an attempt to break through the denial — the weeks and months of magical thinking. She says that she writes to “…cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness…about marriage and children and memory…about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” She writes to get herself through the necessary change in thinking – the transformation she needs to make, but finds herself resisting.
She says, “I know that if we are to (keep living) ourselves, there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”
Much of Joan Didion’s previous work has been very personal. She once said of herself, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
(Most preachers I know could say that about writing sermons: in our best, most honest moments, we write and preach to find out what we’re thinking, what we’re looking at, and to see what it means; to look at what we want and what we fear.)
Joan Didion’s moving memoir will soon to be on a Broadway stage, starring Vanessa Redgrave in a one-woman show. It’s scheduled to open on March 29.
With Redgrave’s voice we’ll hear Didion ‘thinking out loud.’ She used her writing skills to navigate her grief, to get from ‘the black river of loss’ to ‘salvation,’ ‘whose meaning none of us will ever know.’ She wrote to let go. She wrote honestly. The word, perhaps, that describes the process of this kind of writing is ‘painstaking.’ She took pains to write so openly – she didn’t flinch from the sting of those wrenching feelings.
The Year of Magical Thinking is another resource to be used by anyone who is in the process of letting go, or who wants to understand this thing we call grief.
She provides poignant passages to describe her “magical thinking.” For example, she writes about her refusal or inability to read her husband’s obituary. She writes about her reluctance to give away his shoes because in the back of her mind she knew he would need them some day — when he comes home again.
She calls it ‘magical thinking.’ Kubler-Ross called it denial – a reluctance to move toward acceptance. Didion didn’t talk about ‘stages of grief,’ she simply, and convincingly talked about the inner working of her mind. Her grief. Her process. It’s powerfully poetic.
The move toward acceptance is painfully slow, but each and every step has a cumulative effect. The event happens right away: she says, “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant.”
But the process of transformation – of moving from the depths of grief – is a long, slow process: the deeper the love, the more painfully prolonged the grief.
It’s not so much a matter of ‘letting go,’ as it is a matter of moving the ongoing, day-to-day relationship into a different room in the house. The idea of ‘letting go’ is counter-intuitive; it feels like some kind of betrayal or abandonment.
Those we have loved continue to live in us. Didion describes the process of moving a loved one from the day-to-day, sitting down to dinner in front of the fireplace relationship to the constant presence in the precious place we call ‘memory.’
We don’t really ‘let go,’ but grief has a ‘letting go’ aspect, but the idea of letting go does, perhaps, a disservice to the love that lives in us.
Rather than ‘letting to,’ her book talks about the things that allowed her to ‘come to terms’ with her husband’s death and to accept the reality of it.
Her memoir provides little vignettes of the couple’s years in California, where she and Dunne each wrote novels, and collaborated on motion-picture screenplays.
She writes about simple, every-day things–of afternoons reading and writing, punctuated by a swim in the pool. She talks about cooking, of making a soufflé with friends, and enjoying the beach at Malibu.
From time to time she writes with some detachment, carefully precise, distancing herself, perhaps, from the pain. In those moments it’s as if she’s writing about someone else, a character in a novel, perhaps. But, of course, she’s that character.
Near the end of her memoir she writes: “I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account. Nor did I want to finish the year. The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.”
“I look for resolution but find none.”
“All year I have been keeping time by last year’s calendar: what were we doing on this day last year, where did we have dinner. I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 31, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead. I was crossing Lexington Avenue when this occurred to me. I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.”
“I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”
As she wrote those words she did not know the new grief that was so close at hand — her daughter Quintana Dunne Michael died the following summer, on Aug. 26, 2005.
While we make no pronouncements about salvation, as an ongoing, personal existence after death, we do make firm pronouncements about salvation as a quality of life after birth. We are saved by the way we live our lives. Our forebears called it ‘salvation by character.’
Those we have loved continue to live in us. We don’t let them go. A friend gave me a poem that expresses this kind of immortality, with which we’ll close:
“They are not dead who live
In hearts they leave behind.
In those whom they have blessed
They live a life again,
And shall live through the years
Eternal life, and grow
Each day more beautiful
As time declares their good,
Forgets the rest, and proves