I know too many people who are grieving. Women who were in marriages they were committed to working on, enjoying, and seeing through when one spouse died too soon. Yesterday would have been the birthday of one. It was the anniversary of the passing of another. Two days ago I spoke on the phone with a third widow. Seven years ago today my friend Mary (not her real name), lost her husband to cancer. In the last four months five friends have lost parents. Several more have celebrated the anniversary of a parent’s death.
A few weeks ago I took a “when will you die” quiz on Facebook. The result was ominous. According to the quiz, I’m going to die in six years. Yes. The how is the crazy part. I will die in childbirth. As a male, I could not believe the result. Then the answer came to me. Of course: Science! I’d love to live to 100, and be as whole at that age. I know if I reach it, I’m going to want to keep going. But a lot of that is out of my control.
Oliver Sacks recently announced that he is terminally ill. With the time he has remaining he says, “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”
“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well). I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future.”
Anthony DeMello would say Sacks is awake, and understands that the most important question isn’t whether there is life after death. It’s whether there is life before death (Awareness, p. 42). The women I know who are surviving spouses engage life, the way Sacks hopes to. They’re remarkable that way, though I can’t imagine any of them saying there is anything that isn’t ordinary about the way they’re living their lives.
This week David Malham writes in the New York Times about his mortality. He has ALS. A retired grief therapist, he describes the his response to his diagnosis as follows:
“I knew not to spend more than a few minutes with “No!” In that regard, as in many others, Buddhists have it exactly right: Getting enmeshed in a resisting “no” and in the unanswerable “why me?” is a recipe for self-inflicted suffering. I knew to focus instead on “what now”? What do I need to address — with myself and with others? How do I respond to the reality of a terminal illness? (A year later, “no” still makes infrequent appearances, but it remains unfed so the visits are brief.)”
“Why me?” is an unanswerable question that traps us in what’s happened. “What now?” is about possibility. Two short questions. One traps us, the other frees us. It presumes there is more. That the person grieving will make it to that more, that next.
Malham notes the way grief therapy has changed over time:
“Over the years an interesting change in grief therapy has been the emphasis on resilience; the awareness that people normally find healthy ways to adapt and live with loss. That’s not to say it’s a quick and easy task. It’s not that grieving suddenly ends and the person forgets and moves on. No, what happens is that a weight that initially feels unbearable becomes, in time, manageable. The grief becomes compact enough, with the hard edges removed, to be gently placed in one’s heart.”
Seven years later, that’s what I’m seeing happening with Mary. It’s magnificent.
We’re halfway through Lent. It is as good a time as any to think about the changes you’re trying to make. Which question are you asking? “Why me?” or “What’s next?” As anyone who’s experienced loss of any kind knows, when it happens you don’t know how you’re going to get through it. Mostly you just do. A lot of that is about finding your resilience. As you move through the rest of the Lenten season, don’t mourn who or what you aren’t. Find your resilience and lean into it. It’s the way through to the changes you want to make. Your way into the Kingdom of God that is always at hand, always now.