The Burden of Specialness

January 11, 2010

The other day at the gym I ran into our childhood friend, Zoe.  We were both attending a spinning class my sister Amy teaches.  As the three of us stood together in the lobby cooling down after exercising, Amy told us about Marvin, another childhood friend’s father, who had died the night before.  I reminded my sister to let Melody know that I am available to sit with her whenever she’s ready.

“I think it’s great, by the way, that you help people in grief,” Zoe said, defying her characteristically satirical take on the whole self-help culture.

“Well, I don’t exactly console them,” I explained.  “My approach is, ‘As long as this terrible thing has already happened to you, what are the transformational fruits you might be able to harvest here?’”

My old friend, thank God, seemed to get it, and she nodded her head encouragingly.  This affirmed my belief that you do not have to be “religious” in order to recognize and be willing to explore the spiritual possibilities inherent in grief and loss.

Zoe recounted how frustrating it was for her when people tried to make her “feel better” after the stillbirth of her baby a few years ago.  “The house filled with people who wanted to comfort me, which was great,” she said.  “But they were all tip-toeing around and speaking in hushed tones, which made me want to scream.”

I knew exactly what she meant.  I had a very similar experience after Jenny died.  I mean, I understood exactly why everyone was treating me as a fragile flower, and I felt compassion for the fact that they all they wanted to do was shield me from the pain and that they had absolutely no idea how to do this impossible thing.  But I felt mysteriously strong and clear, willing and able to face the reality of my devastating loss, and I wanted to be affirmed for that.

Zoe went on: “Then my friend Ellen came over, plopped herself down at my kitchen table and said, ‘Will you make me a sandwich?’  I was so relieved.  It made me feel like myself: I’m someone who makes sandwiches.  This was a turning point in my healing.  I wish more people understood this.”

So, my silent friends, I am here to say: do not be afraid to treat your grieving loved ones like normal people.  And mourners: don’t be shy about letting your loved ones know that yes, while you are shattered beyond repair, you are paradoxically and simultaneously whole and capable of seeing the irony and the beauty of life and death in a deeper way than ever before.

Grieving people get the Cosmic Joke, because gratuitous sentimentality has been stripped.  We don’t want to be seen as special – specially broken, specially tragic, specially pitiful.  It’s lonely to be special.

And it’s also not accurate.  In the wake of profound loss, we often become vibrantly aware of our interconnectedness with the suffering of all beings.  We take our rightful place in the Human Condition, and find both solace and inspiration there.  We are not unique, and we are not alone.  We desperately miss our loved one who has died, yes, and in this we are nothing more and nothing less than another member of the great tribe of humanity.

Dark Night of the Soul

January 7, 2010

Hello, my friends.  I apologize for the gaps in posting.  Like many of you, I find the holiday season draining, something to “get through” rather than to savor.  This may change over time, or it may not.  I try to be true to whatever’s real for me.  I think part of my trouble with Christmastime is that so many of the associated activities are “outer” focused, and my inclination is the opposite: I just want to go within.  Slip into my Advent cave and be still and quiet, reflective.  This creates a sense of being out of synch with the world around me.

Luckily this winter I have been given the grace of a new book project in collaboration with my dear friend, the extraordinary iconographer Fr. Bill McNichols (  I am writing a series of prose-poems on Mother Mary and the many attributes of the Divine Feminine.  So I have a good excuse to withdraw from the busy universe “out there” and dwell in an interior space of quietude and wonder, which my soul craves.

As many of you know, I began my career as an author with a new translation (& interpretation) of the classic spiritual masterpiece by St. John of the Cross, DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL.  As you probably are also aware, the publication of this book coincided — to the day — with the death of my daughter Jenny at the end of 2001.  So for me, grief and loss have been inextricably entwined with the perennial mystical teachings articulated in this powerful work.

The Dark Night of the Soul, as John conceived it, is actually an inner state that may or may not have anything to do with external circumstances.  It is an experience of being stripped of all the spiritual feelings and concepts with which we are accustomed to propping up our inner lives.  It is a plunge into the abyss of radical unknowingness.  This spiritual crisis, John assures us, is a cause for celebration, because it is only when we get out of our own way that the Divine can take over and fill us with love.  But it’s a grueling process to come to this level of surrender, and few of us go willingly.

Recently I bought the latest book by my friend Tim Farrington – a gifted writer and insightful human being.  It is called A HELL OF MERCY: a Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul (Harper One, 2009), a lucid glimpse into the ways in which an experience of profound loss and deep sorrow can act as a catalyst for an authentic Dark Night of the Soul.

Tim muses, “Whether you are truly in a “dark night” or “just” grieving is a question I have come to believe is insoluble in the midst of the process.   The two experiences can certainly intertwine; often the loss of a loved one exposes the superficiality of the spiritual notions we believed to be sustaining us and challenges us to let go of them and go deeper; and the dark night, teaching us to let go of protective ideologies, often allows us to open for the first time to the nakedness of our real suffering of the death of loved ones.  God uses our helplessness where it arises, and few things bring our human helplessness home to us more sharply and unavoidably than grief.“

Still, although helplessness seems to be an indispensable requirement for true transformation, the Dark Night of the Soul is not only about being brought to our knees.  It is about unconditional love.  The kind of love that wakes us up and affirms our deepest humanity.  The act of consciously yielding to the shattering of the heart is not high on the list of cultural values.  But it should be!

As Tim observes, “Grief and the experience of loss in depth gets so little space in our world… We are often encouraged to buck up, to get over it, and so to throw out the baby of the slow process of grieving with the bathwater.  Grief will never go away, if we’re really paying attention.  It’s part of being awake: we love, and we lose those we love to the erosions of time, sickness, and death (until those we love lose us to the same).  To lose a loved one is to be called to come to genuine terms with that loss, or risk losing touch with that in us which loved.”

What are the ways in which your losses have transfigured your soul?

Hey, by the way…. I am starting to wonder if this blog is actually reaching people.  Is anyone out there?  Please let me know if you’re listening, and what it is you’d like to hear.  Thanks!  And may your grieving heart be held in deep peace.