When I met Matthew Sanford, he posed many questions which I am still sitting with nearly one year later.
He began by saying, “I teach from direct experience.”
He asked the question “can you sit in the presence of suffering (and know your own story) without trying to fix it?”
I learned from Matthew for three days. And the truth is, I am still learning from him.
“Can you be in the presence of another person’s pain and just hear it? Just be with it- without trying to fix it or deny it or shape it into something else? Can you tolerate brokenness?”
I was grateful to Matthew for raising these questions, from the point of view of my own pain. From the point of view of the places inside of me which I am still trying to heal. I was grateful for these questions because I knew that anytime I had sat with my own grief, it was not useful to me when someone else was unable to simply just sit still with me. If I was “talked at” or interfered with or interrupted, I was inevitably pulled out of my experience and it was a disservice to me. I knew this about myself. And so I was tremendously grateful for these questions.
A few days before I met Matthew, a friend of mine lost her baby on the eighth day of his life. At the time, Seane Corn had been speaking very specifically about the experience of losing her father and the time leading up to his death. Her words were raw and penetrating and personal. I sat listening to Seane during those days, soaked with tears, filled with compassion, and deep deep presence. My own grief, which is ample, was in check. Yet, by the time I learned of my friend’s child, the grief which was awakened inside of me, completely overwhelmed me.
That night, I wanted more than anything to find a way to reach out to my friend and extend love and support to her. But I knew I needed to get out of the way first. We would finish our evenings around 9pm and by the time I arrived where I was staying it was around 10pm. I called ahead and warned the friend with whom I was staying that I was extremely emotional that evening because the family room was just on the other side of the wall from the room I was staying in. I thought it best to warn her since her children would no doubt see my puffy-eyed face and the look of grief which I simply could not hide. By the time I arrived at her house, what was a normal activity, (the family watching TV in the family room) had been moved to another part of the house for the evening and it was a true act of love which I recall as a gift for which I was beyond grateful.
I went into my room and I wrote for four hours in order to get my own “story” out of the way so that I could find a way to show up for my friend who had just lost her child. Then I began writing to my friend. I knew that it would be wise to sleep on the letter I had just written her since everything felt so raw and I needed to gain some perspective, and so that is what I did. I waited. And the following day, I revised and sent her my offering.
I never learned how it was received or if it was. It isn’t up to me to decide how she chose to mourn her loss. But I knew it was incumbent upon me to do my own work if I wished to offer anything to her.
* * * * *
This week, a beloved friend of mine lost and buried both of his parents. His mother went to the hospital, he flew to go be with her, and then she passed the next morning. After he told his father of her passing, his father died within hours of hearing the news.
I love my friend dearly. He is kind and generous and beautiful in every way I aspire to be.
I noticed immediately, that I felt grief rising up in ways which were torrential. This was happening because I was grieving before I heard his news. And I needed to find my center.
So although I doubted my ability to be able to sit in the presence of his suffering at first, this doubt came from a very distinct place. And herein lie the gift and fruits of practice.
I was able to sit and therefore, understand. I could name my own places of wounding and then stroke them sweetly, and then have a good giggle at myself.
I was able to call my friend forth and usher him towards me. Safely. And find out how he is doing. And further, ask what I could offer him.
Sometimes grief rises up simply because we are feeling regret. Feeling that we aren’t doing anything. Not that we can “fix” anyone’s pain or suffering, but by simply taking action in expressing love and emotional availability, so much changes. Even in our biochemistry. I am certain of it.
Experiencing loss changes us in so many ways. Questions, mysteries, secrets held, unanswered or perhaps finally revealed. But what I have learned is a lot closer to the idea that we can change our path at any moment regardless of what has happened to us, through us, with us, in us, even if we no longer have the fellow journeyers we wish for, as sad, as tragic, as challenging or perhaps, relieving, as these realities are to live into.
How we change changes as well. And if we are lucky, truly lucky, we will have one or two people who will be willing to “sit” with us as we change without fighting it, resisting it, denying it, or trying to shape it into something else. But just loving us through. Bearing witness. And staying with the mystery.
May it be so.
“Zichronam livracha.” May our loved ones memories always be for blessing.