September 12, 2010
Last week I spent three days among my long-lost tribe: 250 bereaved parents and a couple of dozen caring professionals, who gathered for a conference called “Mindful Grief” sponsored by the M.I.S.S Foundation. I had begun to think I was the only one speaking aloud of the terrible beautiful grace that seems to accompany the shattering when we choose to show up for our experience of loss. I am not alone in this work. Far from it! More and more of us are being called to bear witness to the transformative fire of grief, and, through our tears, bless whatever and whoever brought us this secret medicine, and to share it with the world.
My friend Ted Wiard, founder of Golden Willow Retreat, a sanctuary for grief and loss, accompanied me to Tempe, Arizona, where we were both presenters for the gathering. Ted, as many of you know, lost almost everyone he loved over the course of a few short years: first his brother in a shipwreck, then his wife Leslie to cancer, followed by his two daughters, Keri and Amy, who died with their grandmother in a car crash. Reduced to smoldering ash, Ted spent a few years in retreat and emerged a great healer. By the time my daughter Jenny died in 2010 and I was sent hurtling through the cosmos, Ted was there to catch me. Though we had known each other since we were teenagers, our acquaintance has now become the unbreakable bond of spiritual family. If you haven’t already done so, please check out Ted’s website, and let people know there is a place where we can take refuge and be tended when our world goes up in flames: http://www.goldenwillowretreat.org/
The M.I.S.S Foundation puts on this conference every other year for families of children who have died. They gather an extraordinary array of experts on the cutting edge of bereavement care, freely weaving the visual arts and music, as well as contemplative practices, into the tapestry of resources for those whose lives have been radically transfigured by the death of a child. Founded by the remarkable Joanne Cacciatore in the wake of her daughter’s stillbirth in the mid-90s, M.I.S.S has been a lifeline to thousands of grieving parents. After years of providing vital services to families, donations to M.I.S.S have severely fallen, due to the economic crisis, and this non-profit organization is in danger. I invite you to visit their website, join the online dialog of hope that is unfolding there, and see if you are moved to be involved on any level: http://www.missfoundation.org/
The first night of the conference was Jenny’s birthday. She would have been twenty-three. Jeff happened to have had business in Phoenix, so he met us for dinner and spent the night with me at my hotel. At dinner, Ted suggested that we make a “spirit plate” for Jenny, a ritual observed by our Taos Pueblo neighbors in honor of the ancestors. So we asked our server for an empty plate and we each put a bit of food on it for Jenny’s spirit. Then we ordered a piece of chocolate cake with a candle and sang her the Happy Birthday song. Ted told our waitress what we were up to, and she seemed to be genuinely moved, and helped make it as special as possible. Jeff and I were so grateful to remember that we can make up any rituals we are inspired to create and that it is our love that makes them sacred. Engaging creatively with our losses turns our loved one’s life and death into something holy and beautiful and somehow redeeming. After days of heavy hearts leading up to Jenny’s day, we left that restaurant uplifted.
During the second day of the conference, Ted presented a workshop on the vital role of ritual in the grief healing process. He told his own story and shared the many ways in which he drew on ceremony, often inventing rituals of his own, as he made his way back to life following the death he endured when his loved ones died. I presented my Beautiful Wound workshop, helping people make the connection between the teachings of the mystics, spiritual longing, and the transformative power of grief. The rest of the time Ted and I both attended the conference, drinking deeply from the wellspring of inspiration and companionship we found there.
On the last night of the conference, volunteers organized an incredibly powerful candlelight memorial for all the children who had died among our participants. One by one, in silence, our children’s names appeared on a movie screen, floating among a beautiful background image from nature, along with the dates of their births and their deaths. Then, as a woman played harp music, we took turns walking up onto the stage with a candle, which we lit from a single flame, speaking the name of our beloved child into the microphone. These stark rites were powerfully consoling. To be in a roomful of people of all ages, races, and socio-economic circumstances, bonded by our mutual experience of radical sorrow, was like finding an oasis in the desert, and kneeling to drink.