Remembering Greg

This was first published a year ago as the editorial on Easter Sunday in The Southern Cross, the Roman Catholic weekly newspaper distributed throughout Southern Africa. What most readers were unaware of was that it was written in the light of the death of a close friend. Today is the first anniversary of Greg’s death. Greg was the husband of my closest friend. He was 37 years old.

‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit’ John 12:24

It struck me recently that when we are in the midst of grief following some significant loss this phrase can seem meaningless and almost cruel. The fruit is far from evident, all there appears to be is barren soil.

I think of the disciples on that brutal Friday so many years ago. The shock; the numbness; the sense of utter pointlessness of all that gone before.  And then when they finally get to the tomb to finish attending to his body it is empty. Is it any wonder that in the encounter with Mary Magdalene it took Jesus three attempts before she actually recognised him? Or indeed the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Whilst I may not have been in Jerusalem those many years ago the story of the resurrection continues to echo down the centuries. I find resonances in my own life. Not of literal resurrection, but of grace flowering in the wasteland of a fallen dream.

Much like the experience of the actual resurrection the grace is unexpected and occasionally a little unnerving. It is sometimes hard to embrace the new vision. Like the disciples we can be left for a while holed up in the upper room, sitting with the knowledge of new life, but not yet quite sure how to proceed.

And then the inspiration strikes (or perhaps gently dawns) and the way forward begins to clear. We have sufficient light for the next step. Slowly, slowly, we live our way into a new way of being. A way of living that we had not imagined possible but there is hope and grace and promise.

When our dreams fail perhaps through death, perhaps through broken relationship, perhaps through betrayal or injury, it is useful to remember the utter dejection of the disciples on Good Friday night. How can a man of such goodness, such mercy, such vision be cut down in this way? How can the Son of God be killed? There are times when our dreams feel as though they have been ordained by God. Good dreams which have come about as an answer to prayer are suddenly laid to waste. How can this be? We, too, feel lost and dejected.

But again and again, as I have encountered these soul crushing experiences, if we have the courage to wait with hope, new life emerges. It always takes a little longer than is comfortable. Just like the disciples, it may demand new things from us. They had to step up from the role as followers to proclaimers of the Word. Some had to travel to new places. I have no doubt that the lives of all of them were significantly different to what they had been even when they following Jesus.

The catastrophe of the crucifixion with the terrible loss of Jesus, in the end through the resurrection, results in the spreading of the Christian message across the world. But the resurrection by itself was not sufficient. The proclamation of the Gospel required the participation of the disciples. Those men and women needed to be willing to live a new version of their lives.

This new vision was not what they had signed on for when they began to follow Jesus, but now, this was the invitation, this was what was required. So too, in our own lives, in the aftermath of catastrophe there will be an invitation to a new way of being. It takes tremendous courage to choose the new path, and for most of us the transition doesn’t occur nearly as quickly as it did for the disciples. But if we have the courage to follow it, in time, we will see the experience as being laden with grace. What we thought was wasteland now covered in green with the promise of an abundant harvest.

Figuring Sh!t Out

This is the book I wish I had read a year ago.

I am a fan of autobiography and biography. A friend of mine remarked some months ago that I don’t seem to read much fiction. It’s true I don’t. I read some, but not much. I prefer the stories of real people.

Figuring Sh!t Out is a very real account of a very real situation. Amy Biancolli writes about the experience of losing her husband of twenty years to suicide following a six month period of mental illness.

I was expecting the book to be way more about suicide than it was. I confess that it took me several months to actually buy the book and read it precisely because I thought it would be more about processing the suicide aspect of the death. As it turns out the author is no stranger to suicide which explains why there is less soul searching more compassion than I expected.

Mostly it is book about finding her way, after the loss of her beloved. It is a book about the experience of grief following the death of a spouse.

And I wish this book had been available a year ago.

This is one of those books that everyone should read before they need to. You can’t read books on grief once you are in the midst of it. So read it now. Read it for yourself; read it for your siblings; read it for your friends.

The book is well written and very humorous in places. It is also one of the very few books that have moved me to tears.

I wish I had read this book a year ago, because I would have been able to be more present to my close friend following the untimely death of her husband in March.

I want to thank Amy Biancolli for her honesty, and her willingness to share her journey.

(I am well aware that this an odd post for Christmas Eve – but it’s all I have to give!)

Learning to live in liminal space

A few weeks ago I encountered a man who was utterly certain of a particular kind of theology. He claimed at one point to have been through the dark night of the soul several times. As I listened to him I found myself profoundly saddened. I was reminded of a talk I had listened to by Richard Rohr OFM, where he notes that without good guidance through such experiences we will revert to what we knew before. I had a sense that this is what had happened in the life of this man.

Over and over again he had been brought to the threshold and over and over again he had stepped backwards onto familiar ground.

In the last few days I found myself reading over a few things I had written when I was in different liminal spaces. One after the breakup of a relationship and the other after the death of friend. It is heartening to see what I wrote in both cases given where I am now. I think I was granted tremendous grace and wisdom in both cases.

In this first case, the breakup of the relationship – it wasn’t clear at the time that a complete severance was going to be necessary. Initially it as more a stepping back and waiting to see what happened. This is part of what I wrote:

No relationship has any guarantees but this one seems particularly fragile at this stage. I am left having to trust that all I can do is try to be true to myself in the process. To continue to stand on this small remnant of the relationship which existed just over a week ago and to pray that come what may I will be okay. I guess I am surprised that I don’t have any real desire to run for the hills. That desire may grow, but the escapism which has marked so much of my life isn’t functioning right now. I’m not sure how to stand in the space without defending myself against further hurt. And yet I know I have to stand here open and vulnerable if my presence is to be tolerable at all.

How do I do that? How do I dare to live in the now, because the future has only the slightest glimmer of hope. In a strange way, hope for the future gets in the way of my ability to stand in this space. I have to choose it today, simply because it feels appropriate today. Not because of any promise or hope that tomorrow will be different. It is such a strange, liminal space. It honestly feels like it is as likely to fail as it is to succeed. If I am to stand in this space it has to be for two reasons. Firstly, because I do love him and I believe that it is worth taking this enormous risk. Secondly, because life has these spaces, and learning to stand in this space will ultimately serve me well regardless of whether he and I work out or not.’

In the end I stood in the liminal space until it became clear to me that I needed to walk away. And I am deeply grateful that I had the grace and the courage to stand in that space. When I did walk away, it was in freedom. And in hindsight I am grateful that the relationship happened, but also that the relationship did not work out.

The other liminal space was the one was after my friend died. I was invited to write the editorial for the local Catholic newspaper for Easter. (You can find the full text here). In that editorial I wrote:

But again and again, as I have encountered these soul crushing experiences, if we have the courage to wait with hope, new life emerges. It always takes a little longer than is comfortable.

What strikes me today is that we need companions in the liminal space. People who are not afraid of our confusion; people who do not need us to have direction. I have been tremendously blessed that I have had such companions. I believe I have been shaped by the time in those liminal spaces – shaped for the better.

I am grateful too, that, for now, I have direction; I am no longer in a liminal space.

Different flavours of grief

It’s been an interesting year (in that Chinese curse kind of a way!!). It has been punctuated by a series of deaths. There have been several deaths, but three have had a notable personal impact. As I consider these three losses, I realise that each one has a slightly different quality.

I mourn the loss of all three men. All three enriched my life directly in different ways.

Greg was a good friend. We shared many meals and many glasses of wine. We traded laughter and a particular way of relating. I miss his company. He was far too young to die, although, in the last weeks, his death was not unanticipated. In mourning his loss, I found myself projecting my rage onto others, and my deep need for comfort turned me inward.

Duncan was a colleague. I did not know him all that well, but, in some ways, I was the beneficiary of his professional legacy. He was cut short in early retirement by a stroke. The shock of his passing is the flavour I most recall. He had so much more life in him, so much more to give.

David was a soul acquaintance (yes, that is a phrase I just made up). By this I mean I didn’t know him well enough to call him a friend but we connected on a soul level. We met regularly for over a year, in the context of small faith sharing group. He was a wise, generous, reflective man, who was always willing to learn more. By the time I got to know him, he had already been diagnosed with the cancer to which he finally succumbed. His death was not sudden, nor, particularly untimely. But I regret that I did not get to know him better.

Three experiences of death, yet each qualitatively different for me. I find myself wanting to write of loss, sadness, grief in all three cases. And yet, whilst those are the only words I have and I think they are the right words to use, they conjure something just a little different in me when I picture each of their faces.

We humans are such complex beasts – it is a wonder we are able to communicate at all!

Another loss

My heart is heavy and spirit is sad. Yesterday morning I read of the death of an academic whom I knew a little. I have known him for six years and I was on a three day writing retreat with him less than a month ago. I delighted in hearing the stories he and another participant shared of their expeditions and holidays together. He was a good man who will be sorely missed by those who knew him far better than I did.

His untimely death is yet another reminder of the fragility of life. It seems that this a theme for this year. There have been too many deaths, too many losses already this year. And when I am able to raise my eyes to gaze on the wider world, there are the two Malaysian Air disasters and the horrors of the Middle East. What is it with this year??

When I am able to stop and simply be I feel my grief. I am slightly torn, because I did not know Duncan all that well. If I had not seen spent time in his company so recently I would not feel his loss as I do. I am sure there is also an echo of Greg’s death which I haven’t quite laid to rest.

I am left with two thoughts – it is time to prepare properly for the possibility of my own death. Something that I have been meaning to do for a good four or five years. And that I need to live – I do try to do that, and in some ways I have managed to accomplish things I would have regretted not doing (writing and publishing Rooted in Love is top on that list).

It occurs to me that I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ – things I wish I could do, but rather a ‘some other cool name list’ that may be worth compiling – the things I know I will regret not doing.