In Joe Biden’s very public journey through grief, he inadvertently gave a lasting gift to Americans by addressing common experiences in living with loss. His wife Neila and 13-month-old daughter Naomi were killed, and his sons Beau (2) and Hunter (3) suffered severe injuries in a tractor-trailer accident, in 1972. Just six weeks earlier, at age 29, he’d being elected as Senator from Delaware. When his 46-year-old son Beau, who survived a year of military service in Iraq, died this past May of a brain tumor, the intense emotional memories of that long journey influenced his thinking on mounting a presidential campaign. Few politicians have spoken so openly and bluntly about grief’s profound pain.
Wisdom from Joe
Grief has no predictable timetable.
In the White House Rose Garden, flanked by his wife Jill and President Obama, he spoke of the process of grief.
“I know from previous experience that there is no timetable for this process. The process doesn’t respect or care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses.”
Heartbreak can rip apart the fabric of life, a suffering that sometimes collapses our sense of self, the world, and God.
A practicing Catholic, he has spoken of his initial anger towards God, and his crisis of faith that gripped him in the days after his daughter and wife died.
“I was angry, man I was angry…I was a practicing Catholic, but I was mad at God. I remember being in the Capital Rotunda walking through to get the plane to go home to identify-uh,anyway-and I remember looking up and saying, ‘God.’ I was talking to God myself: ‘God, you can’t be good. How can you be good?'”
In a 2012 emotional speech for families of fallen military service members at the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar, he also shared some of his darkest thoughts. Known for his optimistic personality, he admits, “It was the first time in my career, in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again.”
Closure is not a realistic or necessary goal.
At the same military event with survivors, he speaks of normal “grief bursts” that sabotage even years later.
“There was still something gigantic missing. And just when you think, ‘Maybe I’m going to make it,’ you’re riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night. You know, you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it, man’ Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.”
But that is not the end of his story. Hope emerges.
Joy will come again.
“There will come a day–I promise you, and your parents as well–when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is this day will come soon or later. But the only thing I have more experience than you is in this: I’m telling you it will come.”
Even more, he believes:
There are surprise gifts of goodness in grief.
In his commencement address at Yale University, he tells the graduates,
“I can remember my mother–a sweet lady–looking at me, after we left the hospital, and saying, ‘Joey, out of everything terrible that happens to you, something good will come if you look hard enough for it. She was right.
Because I had the incredible good fortune of an extended family, grounded in love and loyalty, imbued with a sense of obligation imparted to each of us, I not only got help. But by focusing on my sons, I found my redemption.”
He made a decision after the accident to take the train home every night, rather than stay in Washington D.C., so he could be with his boys daily.
“The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I’m not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through. Who knows whether I would have been able to appreciate at that moment in my life, the heady moment in my life (just elected as one of America’s youngest senators), what my first obligation was.”
Vice-President Biden is notorious for his candid off-the-cuff comments, some of which (often televised) cause distress afterwards. But in his natural honesty of telling it “like it is,” he has given families in grief an understanding heart, and public insight into respecting the process of a long and deep sorrow.
With thanks to writings from Amber Phillips, The Huffington Post, Yale University, and his 2012 speech at the 18th annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar.
In a Palm Sunday service, our Episcopalian preacher quoted from novelist Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, “What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.”
During this liturgical season of Lent, the forty days of remembrance beginning with Ash Wednesday to this Easter morning’s joyous celebration, her words illuminated this faith journey.
In truth, I have often found the Biblical story of Jesus enduring the cross a profound mystery. Was there really no other way? A brutal death by crucifixion seems an unimaginable way to bear the essence in a story of Divine Love, that “God so loved the world he gave His only Son.” In Good Friday services, when Christians around the world gather in remembrance , I find myself restless, even resistant, as we ponder the devastating wounds to Jesus’s body and soul.
To imagine His sense of human betrayal and then lingering for hours with almost unbearable suffering, this is the heart of a Biblical story that confounds. Then, to imagine the anguish of His mother Mary watching helplessly adds even more to the heartbreak.
With daily news of brutal violence racking our contemporary world, I confess to prefer focusing on the daily actions of a compassionate comforting Jesus, one who lived radically and demonstrated justice and love for all. When my husband Jim, a college professor, returned from taking students to Central America one spring, he mentioned noticing the difference in the creative focus throughout Holy Week, especially with elaborate parades and passionate ceremonies on Good Friday. In contrast, Easter Day celebrations were low key.
“In countries where so many persons endure marginalized life, there appears to be a deep identification with the love expressed by the suffering Jesus and His passion,” reflected Jim. “In America, I wonder if we prefer to focus on Easter Day, with our emphasis on the risen Christ, because it’s a story of hope and optimism?” How true for me, I thought.
What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.
Yet, by giving attention to the mystery of the Great Sorrow, we are invited into a deeper understanding of the Great Gift. There are three details of the Biblical narrative that I find especially compelling: the region’s plunge into three hours of daytime darkness while Jesus slowly died, the veil in the temple rent in two, and the earth quaking when Jesus “yielded up His Spirit.”
I doubt I’ll ever fully understand the “why,” of the crucifixion, those hours of dark agony. But the words from one hymn ring true. “O, the deep deep love of Jesus. Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free.”
So though the cross seems confusing and mysterious, the words of writer Rainier Marie Rilke echo my trust in this narrative, “I believe in the night,” says Rilke. This great darkness that embraces everything.
Because near the Great Sorrow lies the Great Gift.
A Gift that our family so needed when two friends came to our door one beautiful May dawn to deliver news that our 25-year-old daughter, Krista, had been killed in Bolivia when a bus plunged over a cliff. Krista and her husband, Aaron, were on a three-year mission of voluntary service with indigenous families in the remote river valley of Banada de la Cruz.
Her last words in a journal expressed the source of her strength and joy, “All my springs of joy are in You.” Her hope was to live in a way that served God and God’s beloved people. Her early death made no sense in our human understanding and our heart-shattered lives. There are times when each of us are immersed in unexplained mystery, in unmeasurable sadness. When I hear stories from persons who are walking in their pilgrimage of loss, in the raw wound of sorrow, the magnitude of the mysterious Gift of Easter emerges. Earth-shattering, curtain-rending defeat of death’s dominion.
For in Christ’s resurrection also comes the astounding promise of everlasting life.
A Poverty of Imagination
Like most of us, I have a poverty of imagination on what eternity might look like. However, there is no question that believing in Jesus’ joyful promise offers a measure of peace while living with the earthly loss of our beloved daughter. But my own experience also aligns with research that shows that even if one believes in a life after death, this doesn’t take away the yearning, the missing of the physical presence for the one we love.
Sorrow carves deep, but now companioned with quiet joy.
As poet Mary Oliver wrote,
“We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.”
I recall a moment walking on a high mountain lane near Priest Lake where we share a cabin with friends. For some reason, I began imagining how wondrous it would be if Krista walked towards me down the road. I felt my excitement rise just thinking of what it would be like to see her again. I remember I would have wanted to ask her, “What it is like to be living in eternity? Had she met my brother Larry, also killed in a car accident at 23, or reunited with her grandparents, and her close friend Heather who died of cancer at 21?” This gave me a tiny glimpse into what the disciples must have felt at the astonishing return visits of Jesus, and the joy and hope this infused in their lives.
It is dawn on Easter morning and the aroma of home-baked almond croissants wafts through our kitchen. I am up early to prepare an Easter ham for a brunch with friends at our home. I’m looking forward to Easter’s celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Washington as we join with faith communities around the globe affirming in music and words, “He is risen…He is risen indeed!”
A Gift that finds deeper meaning after Lenten services that encouraged my restless heart to contemplate the mystery of the Great Sorrow.
For this I am grateful.
Happy Easter to each of you!
Sometimes an almost miraculous moment gives peace to a broken-hearted mother.
When Cathy Bobb learned her beautiful 20-year-old daughter Mary was murdered while closing up the video store where she worked, her heart shattered. Already emotionally vulnerable when she struggled with bouts of depression, this shock in 1993 added to her sense of life’s fragility.
Sometimes, though, in the following years she found serendipity remembrances of her beloved daughter that encouraged her spirit. It happened most while deep cleaning the country home where she lived with her husband Vic. “I might be cleaning out a closet, and discover a little drawing from childhood, or find a bracelet that fell down the couch.” She liked these surprises, almost feeling like they were visits from Mary.
But within a few years, this no longer happened. “I remember having a conversation with God one day and saying, ‘I guess there won’t be any more reminders of Mary. We must have found them all.” This deepened her sadness. “I really cried a lot this day since I missed her so much.”
Cathy and Vic once owned a piano, but when they moved to a small apartment in 1986, they loaned the piano to Lee Ann Chaney, a fellow professor at the university where Vic taught English. Finally, several years after Mary’s death, they told the professor that she could just keep it.
So Lee Ann cleaned out the piano bench, and dropped off a box full of remnants to Vic’s campus office. He stored this in his office closet, and promptly forgot about it. Nor did he mention this to Mary.
A SURPRISE VALENTINE
A few weeks later, shortly after Cathy’s prayer, Vic happened to bring the box home.
“To my unbelievable delight, besides her old piano books, I also discovered a handmade Valentine card that Mary drew for me when she was just 8 years old. This was over 15 years earlier!” recalls Cathy,
In Mary’s handwriting on a paper heart was her poem:
Through all your years
Through all your tears
Here is a kiss.
“Then, Mary had borrowed my lipstick and put a kiss on the card. Under this, she wrote:
P.S. I hope you like this! I recall that when she gave it to me she even thought her poem seemed a little strange and she feared I wouldn’t like it.
I felt badly because this came after one of my bouts of depression when I cried a lot and it troubled me that I caused her worry as a young child.”
But the timing of receiving of this Valentine left Cathy overjoyed. “I hadn’t prayed to God to ‘please let me have just one more thing.’ Even so, what I usually found were just little things, like a drawing. To receive this Valentine with the words of her love was a great gift. It felt like she sent me a hug from heaven, reassuring me that no matter the hard times, know I love you. It healed a lot and this healing has held for me.” A kiss, after years and years of tears.
A Waterfall of Mercy
Her story reminds me of a phrase in Franciscan priest Richard Rohr’s daily meditation book Yes, And...where he speaks of our living “under the waterfall of mercy.” Many persons have shared with me some extraordinary moments in ordinary days when they sense the love of the person that has died. Often these happen in nature. What most emerges from these different stories, which they hesitate to tell many others, is how this gives them a growing inner peace and confidence.
Clearly, a waterfall of mercy when our hearts feel parched.
Have you ever experienced such moments?
“One small step can change your life,” believes Dr. Robert Mauer, a clinical professor at UCLA School of Medicine and author of The Kaizen Way. He consults internationally with organizations and people teaching the potent force of kaizen, the Japanese concept of achieving great and lasting success through small steady steps. This idea, coupled with the wisdom shared from a grieving widow to “Just Do the Next Thing” offered a way of living during the early months of acute grief when sometimes it’s hard to even imagine facing the day.
It stayed in my mind before each hour’s reality, whether it meant buying groceries and cooking supper, grading papers, or making the decision with Susan (our oldest daughter) and Peter to go ahead with their East Coast wedding. Their marriage was exactly one month after Krista’s death and wedding invitations were already out. Other parents echoed this truth as they did the necessary small steps in daily living, whether this meant getting children ready for school, showing up at work, paying a bill, whatever loomed as “essential.” As one widower said, juggling the strains of raising three children alone, “We must mourn, but we must go on living.”
But I’ve also found through the years that the kaizen concept still offers a vital way of moving forward when inertia, inadequacy, or high stress feels paralyzing.
Next week, Jim and I will be going on my book tour in the South that involves a combination of very different speaking engagements in three states. Everything from presentations at medical centers, bookstore special events, several different church keynotes, plus a retreat, and large senior living communities. Some relate to Pilgrimage through Loss, some around cancer, and even one on my earlier book Bold Spirit.
It’s somewhat daunting.
A friend reminded me of earlier experiences with small-step wisdom when I lamented that this significant preparation has kept me from being focused on the blog. “It’s so discouraging because my hope was to write faithfully each week.”
“Write about how you’re feeling when overloaded,” she suggested, “and how small steps have made such a difference for you.”
So I reread a journal entry from three weeks after Krista died that included a list of 16 ideas of “What I can and cannot do.” One said:
Allow myself TIME and be gentle and patient with my own grief. Call on wonderful friends as needed.
Looking back, it seems this guidance of being patient with the depth of sorrow helped me relax. Healing came in gentle infusions of peace as my husband and I continued to re-engage in life day by day. Learning to understand the grieving process, step-by-step, often from authors or friends who walked in loss before us, helped.
British author C.S. Lewis, after the death of his wife Joy, wrote A Grief Observed where he probes the “mad midnight moments” of his mourning and loss where he first questions all he has previously believed. He eventually came to recognize the normalcy of grief in his words “Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.”
Today, my entry on “what I can and cannot do” could alter slightly to read,
Allow myself time and be gentle with my own limits. Call on wonderful friends as needed.
YOU have become friends through the pilgrimage blog. More than likely you understand the need to be gentle with oneself during stress. So I will trust that the irregular nature of the blog in the next few weeks will be understood!
But I want to stay in communication with you. To take the first step, I scanned for pictures through the wonderful Zemanta (a tip for all bloggers) and found this exquisite Asian staircase that symbolizes the beauty of small steps. Now excited, since I love artistic gardens, the next step involved perusing the book chapter that speaks of the Pathway to Strength and Renewal by Taking Small Steps Daily. Then memories came flooding in of how the nectar of friendships gave Jim and me both comfort and the courage to live with hope. The last action will be to push the button that says “Publish” even though in an ideal world I’d love time to revise and revise and revise…oh well!
Are there times when you know being more gentle with yourself might be essential? What small steps you have taken that have made a positive difference in your life?