Saturday, July 4, 2009

Scavenger Hunt

I don't usually write about my encounters in therapy but perhaps this one would be of help to someone.

I am about about to wrap up several months of bi-weekly meetings with a grief counselor and last week she asked me whether I felt that I had returned to seminary too soon. I wasn't sure what she meant; everything seems too soon, but I think ten years from now everything will still seem too soon. Including getting out of bed in the morning.

There is, it seems, a school of thought that by returning too soon to some semblance of regular life, whatever that once was, a person might be repressing her experience of grief, only to see it emerge in destructive ways later on.

As I've thought about her question, I've concluded that I've made good decisions. I remember little of the winter quarter of seminary, but I know that I was supported and encouraged by friends who, had I waited a year, would have moved on in their classes and activities. It was terribly difficult in many ways ~ my husband, a web designer, pointed out that while his work is something of a break, mine ~ Christology, ethics, pastoral care ~ is relentlessly about exactly what our lives are about: life, death, meaning, meaninglessness, purpose, despair, hope, anguish. No wonder I reassesed what I was doing pretty much minute-by-minute.

It's worked, I think, because I have tried to be honest and open without monopolizing center stage. I haven't, of course, always been successful. I have left classes and chapel services to cry in solitude and peace. I have been less than encouraging to hopeful pastoral care classmates who would like to believe that they can bring words of comfort to a grieving family. I am sure that I have offered unwelcome doses of reality from time to time.

I've learned to ask for what I need. More time, more space. Deadlines for papers and the stimulii of others in a classroom during a test are often just over the edge of what I can manage. More help. I realized this week that my spiritual director, an exceptionally quiet and reserved man, might best be described as heroic. I know this has been and continues to be a time-consuming and long and painful and frustrating slog for him.

I have discovered that people respond with surprise, even astonishment ~ or, rather, of course ~ when they learn the circumstances of my life, but that a degree of candid openness seems to dissipate fear. Yesterday I met with the senior pastor of the church where I will be doing my field work next fall and one of the topics that came up was my participation in funerals. He seems completely unintimidated by the challenge, appropriately aware of the need for sensitivity and also appropriately aware of the need for me to be able to do the full range of work in a church ~ all of which contributes to my own sense of hope and confidence.

Next week I meet with the committee which will (I hope) approve me to go forward with the next step for ordination. When I met with them in December, I spoke for nearly an hour about the events of the preceding three months, and then waited for them to say, "No way can you do this." Their reaction was quite the opposite; I hope that still holds. Assuming it does, I go before my entire Presbytery a few weeks later. A few weeks ago, in the first of this three-part meeting process, I met with my own church session, and our senior pastor came right out with a question about my son and how the past year has unfolded.

I speak, at times like that, about the same things I write about here. The bewilderment, the guilt, the frustrations. The communities and individuals who surround me. The work I am surprised to find myself still called to do

Did I short-circuit grief by scavenging for pieces of life too soon? I don't think so. After my mother and brother were killed in that car accident at the ages of twenty-eight and one, my grandmother coped for awhile by reading an Agatha Christie mystery a day. But she also took care of us, my surviving younger brother and me. Only on the rarest of much later occasions did she find the courage to speak of that bleak year. But she did live it, and she did much to give life back to us.

Perhaps the gift that emerges for others in the "return" ~ and I guess I wouldn't really call it a return, since that life is gone ~ is the honest demonstration that the pieces you recover are smashed and jagged fragments of what once was, but hold the potential for being soldered back together into something else, as long as you are willing to experiment with undesirable materials and shapes and to accept a finished product that looks ~ um ~ a little battered and wobbly.

Yesterday I received an email from a friend asking about my willingness to accept an imperfect gift. He had made something for me and then messed it up. It's not ruined ~ it's just not what he had planned.

He recognizes, I think, that I am the Queen of Imperfect Gifts ~ in both the giving and the receiving.

So no, I haven't short-circuited my grief. I live it every moment: on long walks alone, in hours of prayer, in classrooms in which I speak out and in meetings in which I listen. Wisdom does not mean pretending. Courage does not mean waiting until your pain is resolved (which would be when, exactly?) or the pieces of your life fall back into place.

So maybe I have learned something about wisdom and courage in spite of myself.

Wisdom and courage ~ picking up those slivers of glass that cut your fingers, rearranging them into patterns that defy conventional standards of beauty, and recognizing authenticity and generosity as the measure of wholeness. Wisdom and courage ~ the recognition that you will never succeed in reaching some destination of impeccably elegant completion, but that you will be utterly delighted when someone asks, "How are you at accepting imperfect gifts?"


Rev SS said...

Thank you for yet another beautiful reflection. You not only receive imperfect gifts with great grace, you share good gifts eloquently! Shalom!

Sophia said...

The implication by the therapist and others reminds me of our one attempt at attending a famous support group for bereaved parents. It was powerful to speak our experience and to hear that of the other parents, but the moderator (a woman who had lost a child about a decade before) was a disaster....She commented on, trivialized, or psychoanalyzed each person's sharing and made it impossible to return. My husband mentioned in passing that he was getting more work done that summer on his M.S.E.E. thesis than he had during spring term. And she jumped in "You're working so hard because you're repressing your grief." Uh, no, he was working so hard because he had a deadline to graduate--and he had more time to do it in because spring term he had taken a turn as primary caregiver for a fifteen month old while I did Latin and four doctoral seminars.

I also resonate with your contrast between your work area and your husband's, which was precisely the same for us. I found some escape in work, especially as it was the huge but finite task of theology, and a little language, coursework. (Several years later when I was performing the open-ended, infinite tasks of dissertation writing and teaching it was much harder, and unfortunately the one year statute of limitations on grief had expired so most people did not get this at all). But it still meant I had to think and read and write about God all the time, and God was not always high on my list. I remember telling a professor that, since I was on stipend, some days I just had to think of it as what paid the rent...

Purple said...

Authentic. You. True. Not always "pretty". Life. I would say, no you have not short-circuited your grief.

Karen and Joe said...

To you I say, just do what works for you. The grief is too deep to add the burden of pleasing others.

Katherine E. said...

Yes, as Sabrina said, shalom, GG, shalom.

The senior pastor of the church you'll be at in the Fall sounds centered. I hope so--what a huge gift that would be!

As always, thank you for sharing.