Giving Thanks, Always, Even in Grief
It wasn’t easy, but fourteen family members gathered at my brother’s home in Santa Fe for a joyous and spiritually meaningful Thanksgiving. After months of planning, and equipped as carefully as a Mount Everest expedition, I flew cross country with my wife, two of my children, a 250 pound power wheel chair, a bipap breathing machine, liquid food for my feeding tube, and a doctor’s note pleading for leniency from the TSA because of my disabilities caused by ALS. We had VIP treatment by the counter staff, security officers, and flight crew. Except for a delay in Washington caused by an early snow squall, the trip was fine.
My family is full of problem solvers. Brother Jim used a trailer to haul the heavy wheel chair, and made his adobe house handicap accessible using ramps and equipment generously sent, with encouragement, by Compassionate Care ALS.
Preparations for the feast were the mellowest we could recall. One reason was massage by Solar, a Brazilian shaman. When it was my turn, he didn’t work on my body, instead focusing on my spirit, which he believes surrounds our bodies and connects us to each other and everything else. It was his form of therapy and meant a lot to him. Although it was weird, it got me thinking that my body is getting weaker, but not my spirit. He was right, that I can strengthen my spirit even as my muscles atrophy.
I believe in both the physical and spiritual unity of nature. Our atoms come back as butterflies and flowers and rivers and people, and our memories and works live on. So why not our spirits, too, in an endless cycle?
Our Thanksgiving tradition is for each person to give thanks in remarks short or long. I thanked each family member for their remarkable traits, using my speaking app. I realized our Thanksgiving celebrations have become a quasi-religious ritual that we practice every year diligently to celebrate our love for each other and our good fortune, as descendants of immigrants in this great nation.
This year we were able to extend the celebration the next day with a spiritual retreat at the Upaya Center down the road. My family is not emotionally expressive. My terminal illness is the 800 pound gorilla and elephant in the room that no one really knows how to deal with. But through exercises involving meditation, writing, reading, and listening, Roshi (Zen master) Joan Halifax got us all openly sharing our experience of grief, and thereby, love.
Roshi Joan’s life work includes helping caregivers to apply Zen compassion in dealing with people who are terminally ill. She says when one family member is seriously ill, the whole family shares it. Her latest book, Being With Dying, is a gentle guide through this rough terrain. She had the 14 of us sit with her in chairs in a circle in the huge, simple sanctuary of planks and logs. We began by grounding ourselves and meditating about having strong backs and soft compassionate fronts.
Channeling my insight from the day before, I recited a prayer: Oh! Spirit that connects each of us to each other and our physical world, let us enjoy this adventure to find more meaning together.
Then out came paper and pens, and everyone was asked to write for five minutes, beginning: “What I have learned about grief is…“ We swapped and read the nano-essays, with authors unidentified. Remarkably it was almost impossible to know who wrote what. I guess we were writing about general truths.
Here is what I wrote.
What I have learned about grief is that it is a process of digesting trouble into something we can tolerate and even find strength and emotional nourishment. But it is easy to get stuck in shock denial anger or bargaining and not find our way to the peace of acceptance. It is a skill that can be mastered with help. I go through it every day at least once, sometimes more as I mourn the loss of yet another ability and contemplate mortality. And I am refreshed and relieved when I come through it again, each time.
Some other remarks were:
All of a sudden an image, a memory, a place takes you back to an event with someone now gone. … The emptiness causes your heart to shudder and your eyes to tear and your breath to catch. Then you move on, remembering only the warmth that once was there.
Each variety of grief is different.
Grief… Is ever present in all life, lurking under a rock, present in a tingling partial way, or full on, in sobs of despair… Life fully without grief is a false goal but too much grief can overcome joy, and life itself. I… rationalize:… Dying is part of life… I sob quietly. And that is OK too. The sobs stop. Life goes on.
Devotion takes as many forms as grief, its counterpart. In devotion, we find salvation from the ravages of grief.
It makes me sad to see others I care about and love feel sad. It’s good to know what others are feeling and to be open with each other.
Grief doesn’t seem like a good thing, ever, but it has the ability to teach you about yourself and those around you.
It’s so much easier to distract yourself, and it feels much better. But it’s not something you can ignore forever. Something reminds you, …and then grief reaches in, pulls for you at high tide. It’s not just one feeling, either. It’s sadness, rage, confusion, hopelessness, nostalgia, desire, guilt, betrayal, everything that comes with disaster, pain, and tragedy.
There are certain kinds of grief which I do not believe I will survive… I know – somewhere in my DNA, the code that makes me human – I have the strength to survive it. So does everyone.
When grief enters my thoughts, nothing ever seems to be as it should be.
Everyone is different. Some people can’t cry sooner, but probably everyone does later. Crying is a therapy of its own sort.
Grief cannot be eliminated, only deferred or low-keyed or overlaid with other feelings and thoughts.
Then we wrote again. “Something I didn’t say was …” I wrote:
…how glad I am to hear the many points of wisdom and deep emotional expression from my family. I feel so very fortunate.
In the end it is only the love that matters, it’s the love that is the tracks we leave in the sand.
I think everyone is experiencing grief a little differently but there are also lots of similarities.
Almost everyone in the world grieves. But still, my own grief is not diminished by that awareness.
Getting one’s grief out for others to see is a liberating experience for both the grievers.
My closing prayer was: I pray for compassion, each for the other and for all of humanity and our world.
We all wrote and spoke about grief but there was lots of love in the family circle. Grief is universal and is yin to the yang of love. You don’t grieve unless you love. You can’t love without facing potential grief.
I told Roshi Joan when we planned this retreat that my family has hard shells. She told me afterwards that I was wrong. We all opened up. My mother has been suffering with tearfulness and visible grief about my illness for two years and now she feels not so alone. My father has tried to put on a happy face but now he is being more open, too. They both were able to speak about losing their parents and so many dear friends. My siblings, wife, children, and nephews and nieces all shared a fragile side. We all grew stronger, together.
On the Saturday we went to Chimayo, known for its hot peppers and the Catholic shrine. The church has a little room with a floor of dirt that is said to have miraculous healing powers. I drove my chair to the doorway and although I didn’t fit all the way in, I stood up and my brother sprinkled dirt on me.
According to that tradition, I am therefore cured. At least my spirit is.
reprinted at http://www.upaya.org/newsletter/view/2015/01/06
Gorgeous and timely Michael.
Dear Michael, I’m not sure if this address will get to you, but I hope so. Your story of your family’s trip to New Mexico was profoundly touching. What an experience, to feel the closeness and openness of those you love, in such a beautiful place. Grief is indeed a part of daily life, if one lets it in. I have grieved all of my life for the state of the world and the suffering of its inhabitants. This has opened my eyes to the beauty of the world and the knowledge that, even in the midst of suffering people carry on with their lives, plant crops, find love, raise children, and hope for a better world for them. I worry often about the world my son will inherit, but know that many a generation has believed themselves to be the last, and has instead found themselves at the end of their lives wondering why they spent so much time worrying. This is my experience anyway, so I instead start each day with a prayer of gratitude, and try to encourage my son to look forward to good things. I was aware at too early an age of all the problems of the world, and it burdened me unnecessarily. There should be a time of innocence… I miss our times together in Mashpee and will always remember you as the (apparently) happy kid you were then. It’s good to know you know as the wise and poetic man you have become. Take care and best wishes to you and your family for 2015 Rob
Dearest Michael (and all the Gollinses), your grace, strength and dignity are both amazing and inspiring. I’m so sorry you’re going through this, but so very, very glad you have your wonderful parents, siblings, spouse and kids, and old friends to back you up. We love you lots.