Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Praying Our Goodbyes": Reflections on Joyce Rupp's book about being a spiritual companion through life's losses and sorrows

For my Stillpoint Spiritual Direction Program, I was assigned Joyce Rupp's book "Praying Our Goodbyes,"  which deals with loss and grieving--"those experiences of leaving behind and moving on, the stories of union and separation that are written in our hearts." When I received the book in the mail, I was immediately struck by the book's cover picture: a monarch butterfly hanging from a twig next to its chrysalis.

This image is a symbol of transformation which always evokes for me Kathleen, my wife of blessed memory, who loved butterflies and made them her "token animal." When Kathleen was a little girl, she raised monarchs and had fond memories of their lighting on her hand when they emerged from their chrysalises. When Kathleen became a pastor and taught Sunday school, she would purchase chrysalises timed so the butterflies would emerge on Easter. The children were always awe-struck at the miracle of transformation that took place--a symbol of Jesus' resurrection and new life emerging out of seeming death.

After Kathleen's passing, I came to see butterflies, especially monarchs, as visitations from her spirit. They often appeared at times that seemed too meaningful to be mere coincidence. For example, when I planted my first garden in Jill's front yard, a monarch appeared as if to bless my effort. Coincidence? Perhaps, but my heart said otherwise. When Jill and I recently celebrated the Christmas holidays with Kathleen's brother and and sister-in-law and our nephew, we visited the monarch groves near Monterey and also near Pismo Beach. We didn't talk a lot about Kathleen, but I felt her loving presence hovering among us in the magical fluttering of butterfly wings.

So I was not surprised when a book about loss and grieving had a picture of a butterfly on its cover. One of the main points of this book is that we go through cycles of hello-goodbye-hello--greeting and connecting, letting go, and reconnecting with a loved one and God at a deeper level. This is a process of transformation similar to that of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

"Praying goodbye" is more than just "saying goodbye." Saying goodbye can be extremely painful--especially the pain of separation caused by divorce, loss of a loved one,  or loss of something very precious, like one's home or livelihood.

Rupp doesn't take these losses lightly. She finds little comfort, or theological validity, in the idea that God sends us suffering as a punishment or a test, or even as a way of expressing love. Rather she sees God as a loving companion, and a healer, when we go through life's inevitable suffering.

Rupp believes in "a God who cares," who suffers with us, and "who wants us to be free from our suffering." Rupp writes: "This God is a refuge for the needy in distress, a shelter from the storm, a shade from the heat (Is 25:4), a good friend who stays with us in our struggles and emptiness" (p. 23). This is the image of God which, she feels, helps us to be helpful spiritual companions for those who are experiencing loss and grief.

Rupp uses poetry as well as personal experiences to explore the emotional and spiritual complexities of loss and grieving, and also provides a biblical perspective. For example, the journey of the Hebrews from Egypt to the Promised Land is used to explain our need to let go of our attachment to one way of life and to embrace another that is more liberating to the spirit. As the Exodus story makes clear,  process of letting go is not easy, and can be very painful, but it is necessary if we are to become all the God intends us to be.

Writing from a Christian perspective, she also provides a framework for understanding how we transform pain and loss into a resurrection experience--the awareness of new life and new possibilities. She describes four stages in this process:

1) Recognition. Acknowledging and naming our pain/loss is a crucial first step in the process of healing and transformation. This means not minimizing or dismissing our hurt, but admitting how deep and hard it is to bear. "It sounds simple enough to do," writes Rupp, "but some people walk around hurting for a long time before they identify their inner woundedness" (p. 65). When I experienced the loss of Kathleen, people came up to me to offer sympathy and support. Some of them were in need of support themselves and had been carrying a burden of unacknowledged pain for many years. By listening to them, I was able to help them move forward in their healing process. I remember a woman who came up to me and expressed sympathy for my loss of Kathleen, whom she hardly knew. Noting that this woman seemed on the verge of crying, I thanked her and said, "What about you? How are YOU feeling?" This woman burst into tears and said she had just lost her new-born baby. We hugged and listened to each other, and decided to offer a workshop at our Yearly Meeting session so others could come and talk about their losses. This proved such as healing experience this woman went on to start a grief support group in her Meeting. Recognizing and acknowledging loss is a crucial first step towards healing.

2) Reflection. It is tempting in our busy, goal-oriented society to want to "move on" and not get bogged down by "wallowing in grief." But it takes time to "pray a goodbye." After Kathleen's death, I began my new life with a new blog that was an extension of the Caringbridge blog we had started during our cancer journey. In my blog I reflected on my new life and my feelings about the death of my beloved life partner and soul mate. Looking back on these entries, I see how helpful and healing it was to take time to reflect and to process my feelings. This process is part of what Victor Frankel calls "Man's Search for Meaning," the deep urge we all have within us to make sense of life's inevitable losses and pain.

3) Ritualization. Rupp recognizes that we need to embody our feelings in tangible ways through rituals, both formal and informal. One of the rituals that helped me deal with my feelings of loss after Kathleen's death was scattering her ashes in special places where we had spent time together. Kathleen actually recommended that I do this in instructions she left behind for her funeral. At first, this was very painful and poignant, but after a while, I began to feel joy in going to these special places and basking in happy memories. I started calling the scattering of ashes "spreading Kathleen's pixie dust." The Greek orthodox tradition in which I was baptized has a beautiful ritual to help grieving spouses to find closure. In the Greek orthodox tradition, one is supposed to grieve for the loss of a spouse for three years. Kathleen and I learned about this when we went to Saloniki and saw Greek women emerging from a church and handing out bread to passersby. We asked about this and were told they were widows who had been in mourning for three years. After three years, they baked bread and came together to have communion. Now they were handing out their bread to strangers and saying, in effect, "Our mourning period is over. We are sharing the bread of life with our neighbors." Traditionally, this meant they were free to remarry without any reproach or guilt. Two years after Kathleen died, I was remarried to Jill and on the third anniversary of Kathleen's death, I suggested we have a memorial service at Kathleen's church. Jill and I baked a loaf of bread together and we held a memorial service at Walteria United Methodist Church that was very moving and meaningful. Afterwards, we scattered Kathleen's ashes at a nearby beach. We cried and grieved together, and it helped deepen my relationship with Jill. We felt emotionally and spiritually bonded by this ritual.

4) Reorientation.  "Where does prayer enter into the use of these gestures and images?" asks Rupp. "How does the God-connection happen? It happens in the midst of our reflection and our ritualizing. It is there that life is gradually reoriented or given a renewed direction and meaning" (p. 72). For me, part of the reorientation process involved realizing that I was not living my life only for myself, but also for Kathleen. Just as Christ lives in me, because I honor his life and resurrection, so Kathleen lives in me because I try to live my life in a way that honors her. Many people honor lost loved ways by starting a school or a charity in their name. One way that I am honoring Kathleen is by being involved in a spiritual direction program, something she had wanted to do in the last year of her life.

I will never forget a conversation I had with a friend named George after Kathleen's death. He shared with me how devastated he was when his wife died, how he felt broken and vulnerable in ways he had never before experienced. It was very hard, he said, but "I never want to go back to being the person I was before her death."

Those words stuck with me, and ring true. After Kathleen's death, I was "broken and tender" (to use a Quaker phrase). But thanks to that experience, I have been able to be a better listener, and a better companion to those in pain. I'd like to conclude with these words by Rupp that speak to my condition:

"Suffering can be beneficial when it leads to some kind of 'resurrection' in us, when a strength or a sleeping energy in us is aroused, when talents hitherto unknown are recognized, when a clarity about life's purpose and direction becomes keener for us. There is so much within us that needs to come to life. Moments of suffering, times of goodbye, can cause us to peer inside our own tombs of unfinished and incompleteness and we can discover vast storehouses of resiliency, vitality, fidelity, love, and endurance" (p. 41).

To which, I can say, with all my heart, AMEN!





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