Relief in the Midst of Grief

This has been a difficult week for Americans. Two cultural heroes – one, a beloved African American songstress and the other, a highly-respected lawmaker – were eulogized.

The airwaves were dominated by footage showing Aretha Franklin in all her glory, singing songs we all love, and Sen. John McCain doing his work as a senator. We heard descriptions of who these two cultural giants were and were reminded of the great contributions they gave to this country, this world, and therefore, to us.

For a week, though we mourned, we could breathe, because, for the first time since the 2016 presidential election, the airwaves were not completely dominated by presidential drama and politics.

The vitriol, the endless offerings of opinion by political pundits, the assault on our spirits caused by the nastiness of this political season was forced to the periphery of the news cycles. When we looked up this week, we would see either Aretha Franklin’s face and hear her amazing musical talent, or we would see the face of Sen. McCain and hear how he cherished his work as a senator and as a man who loved country over party.

It was a relief.

On Friday, though there were news teases offered all day long, many stations carried the funeral of Aretha. It was classic Black Church – comforting and empowering in its delivery of music and hope. Though the funeral lasted most of the day, our spirits were exposed to music and stirring tributes delivered by people who knew and loved this woman.

On Saturday morning, the reprieve continued, as cable news stations showed the McCain family standing at the bottom of the Capitol Building’s hundreds of steps, awaiting the coffin of Sen. McCain to be brought to its hearse. We were “taken” with the family and the hearse to the Vietnam War Memorial where we watched Cindi McCain place a wreath in honor of soldiers who had served and died in the war that resulted in McCain spending five years as a prisoner-of-war, and then “we” went to the National Cathedral for the senator’s funeral.

The funeral took up the morning; we listened to music and to stirring tributes to Sen. McCain. There was no vitriol. There was nobody stating an obvious lie about something and demanding that we believe it. There was no headshot of a president who craves media attention even as he lambasts the media as being an “enemy of the people” which produces “fake news.”

We had peace this week in the midst of the sorrow of two families.

The current administration has drawn on the nerves of the American people, yes, but also on the nerves of people from all over the world who have been dumbfounded by the antics of the president. It has been troubling to see what is going on and how the Congress has allowed it; in spite of people declaring their love for America and democracy, what has been going on feels like our democracy is being attacked and compromised, steering us toward a totalitarian state. It is difficult to watch in and of itself for those who cherish democracy, but even more so as we look at the Congress capitulate to the threats, name-calling, and bullying of this man, seemingly unaware of how their lack of action is putting our democracy in jeopardy.

This administration has been like a soap opera; we wait on a daily basis to see what the president has tweeted; we brace ourselves for the next untruth he says; we know that the assault on sanity will be as negative as are the plots in soap operas which keep people watching, waiting for the next “episode.”

The American government is not supposed to be a soap opera or a reality show. It is supposed to be the vehicle or vessel which directs our paths and helps us navigate the challenges of life.  The constant drama does the opposite; instead of feeling secure, we are assaulted on a daily basis with confusion, lies and unnecessary drama.

This week we mourned the loss of two people we loved, gone way too soon, and we were allowed to share in ceremonies celebrating their lives. We were allowed to grieve but we were also allowed to breathe in something other than the toxic fumes being emitted by a toxic administration.

In the midst of ongoing political confusion, the deaths of two celebrated Americans allowed us to forget the craziness that we have endured daily for almost two years.  I would bet that for many, the break in the confusion was a welcome change, in spite of the fact that it was brought about by the deaths of two people whom we deeply loved and respected.

A candid observation…

When Death Comes

Damn death. Aretha is gone. Anthony Bourdain is gone. Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon is gone. Rev.Dr. James Cone is gone. My mother and father and sister are gone. Someone’s child or children are gone, or someone’s husband or wife or grandmother or brother or best friend …is gone.

Death be damned as well as the diseases and situations that cause death. That sentiment is known and adhered to by many. But it’s not healthy.

We all know that death is a part of life, just as failure is a necessary component of success, but when death comes it is woefully unconcerned with how we will feel as our loved one is snatched from us.

It is little wonder that the poet John Donne wrote his classic “Death Be Not Proud,” known as Holy Sonnet 10. He no doubt had borne his share of sorrow, thanks to the intrusion of Death in his daily life. His poem argues against the power of Death, which apparently thinks more highly of itself than Donne thinks it should. He writes:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones and souls’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell,

And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou, then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

And so Donne attempts to take the sting out of death by relying on the Christian belief in eternal life. Death does not win.

But regardless of one’s religious beliefs and the capacity to visualize the loved one who has died being in heaven, the fact of the matter is that when Death comes, we who are left behind are frazzled. The hole left in our lives when a loved one – someone in our family, a close friend, or a public figure who has impacted us- is immense. And the hole gets deeper as time goes on, allowing the side effects of death – loneliness, anger, confusion, anguish – to get worse before we get the capacity to cope without falling apart.

In the last few months, people who I have known personally have died, and a couple of public figures to whom I had an attachment …” went to be with the Lord,” as we say in the Black Church. Today the country and the world are coping with the death of Aretha Franklin, an immensely talented woman who gave the world beautiful music for decades. Last week, for me, it was a female scholar and theologian and a couple of months before her it was a male theologian and scholar whose work has impacted the lives of “the least of these” since the 1970s. Before then it was CNN personality Anthony Bourdain and for some, the death of Charlotte Rae knocked the air out of their lungs.

Those are recent deaths, but the gaping hole comes anytime someone to whom we are close is taken by Death from beyond our reach. Some people find themselves trapped by the pain caused by death for literally years. We “grow accustomed” to having people around; we get used to their presence, their ways, their voices, their smiles, and even the things, in the cases of personal loss, the habits of theirs that we found irritating.

“The hole” is like a giant pot which holds our memories, sights, sounds, words and laughter of the ones who have gone, and while our grief is raw ,we are not comforted. Death  does not have power over the one who has passed on, but Death wreaks havoc in ourpersonal spaces. It has no regard for our feelings; it remains an uninvited guest in our spirits until it is ready to leave.

As a pastor, I have stood beside anguished family members as they have watched their loved one transition from the temporal to the spiritual realm. I have told them to continue to talk to their loved one as he or she slips further and further away from them toward a spirit-life to which we have not yet been called. I have told them to talk to them (the sense of hearing is supposedly the last of our senses to go), and to touch them, and to tell them how much they are loved. It will make it easier for the one who is dying to let go, I have shared, if they have the feeling that those who are being left behind will be all right.

We work hard to do that, but we frequently do not succeed. We are not all right when Death swoops into our spaces. We struggle to hold onto our loved one for as long as we can because the thought of the emptiness that will be ours is unbearable to think about. Death’s main character- Grief – is like a pesky fly, but one which not only flies and buzzes in our ears, but which bites as well.  Memories catch us unaware; we grow worried if, after death, we find that we cannot visualize the face of the one who has gone on. We can be “all right” one second and then pass a place which was a favorite for ourselves and the one that passed, or we can hear someone talking whose voice is eerily like the one of our deceased loved one, and we go careening down into that hole, again and again and again.

I write this today because someone knows exactly what I am talking about. I write it because a fair number of people are deeply sad because of the death of Aretha Franklin. I write it because someone lost his or her mother or father, and I write it because parents who have lost children are groping to find sunshine in days which always seem overcast because their child or children are gone.

I write this because a whole lot of people are in holes of sadness caused by the death of someone important to them. I know about those holes; my mother, father and sister died from cancer. The holes left by their passing are now not as deep as they once were, but they are still there.

Death has no power over the one who has gone; that’s what the religion of many says, but death wields its power over us who are left behind with abandon. Death does not care if our hearts feel like they will burst from the pain. Death gets an easy chair and plops it right in the middle of our grieving spirits.

Death loses its sting after a while, but it leaves permanent scars. There is no way around it. Some of us are still deeply pained by someone we lost years ago. Death invades our peace and shatters the normalcy of life we have known.

Death is a part of life. The prayers we utter should not be for those who have passed on; as Donne says, “one short sleep past, we wake eternally.” For the one who has passed, there is peace, but for those of us left behind, Death reminds us that it has taken up residence in places to which it had not been invited…and as we protest and writhe with pain, Death ignores us.

We are blessed to be able to “connect” with our lost loved ones via pictures and videos and even old voicemails. In so doing, we neutralize some of the sting of Death’s bite into our souls.

But Death tempts us to fall into despair and to stay there.  To our credit, we fight back. The power of death’s grip is lessened, and we go on, limping and bruised but going on nonetheless, able to give thanks for the time we had with the one who has gone on. That thanksgiving is the antidote to the pain caused by the raw pain of Death, and when we get to that point, we at least neutralize Death’s presence and reality.

We force a tie in a battle we never wanted to fight. It is then that we can smile, even as we continue to sometimes find ourselves in tears, because the power of remembering the one who has passed is greater than the lure of Death’s helpers for us to stay enmeshed in raw sorrow.

We learn, in the words of the hymn ‘Come Ye Disconsolate” that “earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal,” and when we internalize that truth, Death is relegated to the closet of “life experiences” that are a part of the lives of all of us.

A candid observation …

Girl Talk: Finding and Filling Our Empty Places

The Greatest Love of All
Image via Wikipedia

Whitney Houston has been dead a week, and I find myself wondering, still, if she was not like so many of us women: empty of the kind of love we crave.

Why is it that so many of us end up with people who are not good for us or to us? We are not with these people under duress: we choose and stay with people who do us emotional harm, who damage our already frail inner selves, and for what?

I guess men do it, too, but it seems like we women do it more. It seems that the worse we are treated, the harder we hold onto the person who is treating us so badly. We internalize blame for the reason we are being treated badly, and we decide that “if we can just” improve ourselves, do something better, that person whom we love so much will see the light …and there will be a “happily ever after” for us.

I am not saying that was the case with Whitney and Bobby Brown, but it just feels like, from the outside, that Whitney, for all her talent and beauty, had an emptiness inside of her that she was counting on Bobby Brown to fill.

Nobody can fill our empty spaces but ourselves.

It is ironic that Whitney sang the absolute notes off the pages when she performed “The Greatest Love of All,” but in the end, resorted to drugs to self medicate the inner pain she felt from that emptiness that too many people in general, but surely too many women feel.

Years ago, a woman came to my door in the middle of the night. She was bloodied all over her head; she was crying and shaking and said she needed help. I didn’t have to ask; I knew she had been beaten. I didn’t really know this woman, so I was afraid to let her in, but I finally offered to take her to the hospital. She didn’t want to go. She only wanted to talk. She wanted some water, and she wanted to talk, and talk she did, about this man of hers who “really was a nice guy.” As she talked, I couldn’t help but shudder at the sight of her injuries. I finally offered to call the police, but she said, “no. It’ll be OK. He just gets mad sometimes. I’m trying to be a better person…”

Though I had never been physically beaten, I had had my share of experiences with guys who were “really nice guys” but who were oppressive in their treatment of me. They didn’t have the problem; I did, because I took it. I was so interested in having a relationship that I accepted treatment that damaged my spirit. I, too, had been trying to be a “better” person.

I have to believe that we women will find ways to identify our empty places, and stare them down instead of running to or staying with people who will only exploit them. It baffles me that so many of us women are so love-starved that we latch onto people who mean us no good. I find myself wondering what it is we are being taught, even subliminally, as we are being raised. What is it that makes us doubt ourselves and be willing to compromise our very spirits for the sake of being in a relationship?

Certainly nobody wants to be lonely, but we should want to have quality lives while we are yet alive, and there is no quality of life when we are in relationships with people who exploit our personalities. We are looking for something and we are finding it, too often, in the wrong places and in the wrong people.

Kevin Costner said, in his remarks at Whitney Houston’s funeral, that she wondered if she was “good enough” as she auditioned for her part in “The Bodyguard.” She was “the voice,” for goodness’ sake! She was amazingly beautiful. She was smart…and still, she doubted if she was good enough. The “empty place” syndrome that plagues so many of us women plagued even her.

Kevin Costner said to Whitney, post-mortem, “Yes, Whitney, you were good enough.” Maybe that’s something we should say, as women, to ourselves, every day, no matter what we look like: no matter the color or length of our hair, the size of our hips, the number of mistakes we have made in our lives. Maybe we should say that we are “good enough” to ourselves, and in so doing, begin filling up our empty places so that we don’t depend on a human being to do what only we and God can do.

Just a painful…and candid…observation.