Worship & Celebrations
Living through Loss
July 21, 2013
The Reverend Julie-Ann Silberman-Bunn
The Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Hill
I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition…we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world. –Sir John Eccles (1903-1997)
As Unitarian Universalists we struggle with exactly the balance that Sir John Eccles mentions in that quote…how do we recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world. For me this is the definition of our religion, our Unitarian Universalist faith in the year 2013 a religious entity that merges both a place for spiritual beings in a spiritual world and a place for our material bodies and brains. This in my eyes is exactly what the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists was intended to do; it was intended to create a place in which we can all be whole.
It is a challenge to feel whole after a significant loss. I do not care what your loss is, you may have lost a job, a companion animal, your health, or experienced the death of a loved one, and whatever your loss is it is significant in your life and it will impact both your spiritual and physical wellbeing. Our society likes to dismiss the importance of addressing and maintaining our spiritual wellbeing and there have even been times when our UU faith has disparaged any focus on spirituality rather than pure rationality. It was during such a time when my beloved friend John Eric, a gentleman at the time in his 80’s, told me that in the men’s group at his UU church they were discussing the most spiritual experiences in their lives and all the young men were explaining how the births of their children were the most spiritual experiences of their lives. John said he listened to all of them and then he told me he had said “I don’t understand how the birth of a child is spiritual, human beings are mammals and mammals have live births where is the spirituality in that?” My answer to John when he told me that story was that spirituality is about finding the amazing and sacred in the ordinary experiences of life. That any child is ever born is a miracle. That is why birth is a sacred and spiritual experience for many.
Life is however full of sacred and spiritual experiences if you choose to see it that way. Today I want to talk to you about living through loss and frankly walking the journey through my brother’s illness and death has been a very spiritual journey for me. Adjusting to being the sole surviving member of my nuclear family is also a spiritual journey and one that I did not expect to be facing this year. Loss is often like that, it appears at times and places when we least expect it and certainly do not want it, nor do we want the emotional responses that typically accompany loss.
For those of you who don’t know, my only sibling, my brother was diagnosed on January 28th of this year with a rare form of lung cancer that had already spread throughout his bones. My brother moved into hospice on March 13th and died May 13th, I planned and held his memorial service the following Saturday. His cremains will be buried on August 4th in western Massachusetts with my parents. My brother and I had a close relationship throughout our lives, sometimes it was easier and sometimes harder than one would expect. The best way I know to describe my big brother was that he was on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum known as Asperger’s, and as such he had a lot of trouble with normal social interactions but he was brilliant, and tender hearted. On top of that my brother had suffered two traumatic brain injuries- one when he was 19 and one when he was 48. His first brain injury often made him short tempered, and judgmental. His second brain injury softened him, and as my best friend and I would frequently say he became nice. That second brain injury also made it impossible for him to work, and make complex decisions for himself so I accepted the responsibility of being his power of attorney for financial and medical decisions.
I had expected that for the vast majority of the life ahead of me I would be responsible for significant decisions about my brother’s wellbeing. That his future and my responsibility for him would end when he was 53 was not anywhere in my thinking. The first thing I faced as so many people do with loss is shock and surprise. When Paul told me that the doctor thought he had cancer and he was going to see the oncologist I insisted on going with him. We both expected to hear how we would proceed and what kind of treatment he would need. As the doctor spoke it became clearer and clearer that there was not really going to be any treatment that we were talking in terms of months not years, and talking about comfort not cure… in other words there was not much to hope for except a good and comfortable death.
One of the problem’s with a brain injury is the ability to take information in. So the next few days, weeks and appointments were consistently filled with information being shared, and repeated, and repeated, and repeated, which while it helped to make it more real also helped to reinforce the surreal nature of what was happening to my brother, and in turn to me as I began the process of losing my brother one day at a time.
One of the distinct challenges and questions of loss is the question of whether it is easier to lose someone slowly or quickly. From my perspective it is neither easier nor harder it is simply different. As each of us grieves our losses differently each of us has different experiences of the process of loss. Some of us wish when loss comes quickly that we had had more time particularly to say goodbye, some of us wish when death was long and slow in coming that we could have saved our loved one some pain. I am a big believer that there is no good way to lose those we love, and having said that there is no right or wrong way to grieve about their loss.
I want to reiterate what I said earlier, that while I am talking about the loss of my brother this is not only about losing a family member we each grieve losses in our lives and there is no way to compare or judge the impact a specific loss is or even might be having or should have in someone else’s life. Early in my years of ministry shortly after my father had died someone said to me that they had not come to me about something in their life because it was so trivial compared to the loss of my father…I asked her if the loss she experienced had impacted her life, and she said it had and I told her than it was every bit as important as my loss. We can no more compare our losses than we can compare any other aspects of our lives. We are each unique beings and experience loss and grief as well as joy in ways that are our own, what I can share are tools that have helped me to survive my losses both big and small.
Shortly after I lost my father I had the opportunity to write an essay that was to be published in the book Everyday Spiritual Practice. My essay focused on how I had used artwork to get through the loss of my father. I had not really been doing much artwork since I had completed my undergraduate degree in visual art, but I pulled out all my old materials and went crazy. Over the next few months I had created enough material for an art exhibit. Pretty much every day I was drawing something, sometimes multiple images and other times I was going back into more complex works. I fell in love with the ability to express my feelings through color; I liked to use dark colored papers with vivid oil pastels because it felt like the pop of my emotions stirring against the darkness of the depression that is always lying in wait when I lose a loved one. I had discovered many years earlier when in college one of my closest childhood friends was murdered that depression is a well that I can crawl into. It took me a long time to understand that my artwork can be my weapon against the rising water of the well. I am sure many of you have other hobbies or passions that you can immerse yourselves in that keep your own fears, sorrows and grief under control. I part because they allow you to parse the grief out over time in manageable pieces between the intensity of the engagement with your other activities, for some sports or baking fill this roll, for me it is art, creativity, and friendship.
When I say you keep your emotions under control I in no way mean to discourage you from feeling them as fully as you are able to, because I believe our emotions are there for very good reasons. Those of us, however, who are inclined to depression that is not situational, need to watch our depressive tendencies a little more carefully. I am such a person. I have found that the ways in which I have dealt with grief have varied. When my friend Betsy was killed I was 18 and became swallowed by depression and my own introverted tendencies were allowed to take over and I cut myself off, I also drank a good bit; not uncommon for a college freshman but also not a good idea for someone from an alcoholic family. These tools worked for me for a very short time before they became an unhealthy wallowing. Thankfully I soon figured out that writing both short stories and in my journal could help me to process my emotions in far more constructive ways. I also began reaching out to friends sending long hand written letters and spending hours on the phone talking with folks; if I reached out to a number of different people I could tell the same stories, the same emotions over and over again without feeling like I was boring or wearing people down with my repetition and it let me work through a lot of stuff. Fortunately I was blessed with really terrific friends, who understood the magnitude of the loss I had experienced and were not about to judge me. I think I have already said this but it bears repeating, no one should ever judge another’s grief, we are all entitled to grieve in our own ways.
One of the ways that I most love to process my grief is by going through old photographs and sharing stories with family and friends. When each of my parents died I had great fun sitting with my brother and then sister-in-law and looking through photographs that told the stories of my parent’s lives…pictures of them as children, as young adults as a young couple, with my brother and I as young children and as we grew and they aged. I also loved putting together things that represented their lives to have on display at their memorial services. For my father there were the tennis rackets and his trumpet and recorder, his degrees and license to practice marriage and family counseling, and music from the coronet recordings of Bix Biderbeck to Louis Armstrong and Itzak Perlmann music had shaped my father’s life and formed a backdrop for his passion for social justice it is why that hymn #6 in our hymnal Just as long As I Have breath was so perfect for his memorial service.
For my mother it was a totally different thing what was important wasn’t music she was as tone deaf and unmusical as I am but she loved things that were beautiful. We displayed her beautiful blue and white china with bouquets of flowers, and to show her quirkier of beat side we had a bust that had been made of her when she was young with a witches hat and a stuffed black cat by the guest book to greet everyone, and it made people laugh and say oh that is so Isabel, and it was because her birthday was on Halloween and she loved it!
For my brother I put together a booklet of his drawings along with photographs of him throughout his life…but most important were his glasses, legally blind most of his life Paul had worn glasses since he was a toddler there were not many including me who recognized him at first glance without his glasses. These tangible displays are a wonderful way of bringing our loved ones to life and allowing us to grieve as well as to celebrate their unique quirks and interests.
When my friend Mindy died eight years ago each of her children put something in the casket with her. For me it was making sure, even though I knew she was going to be in a closed casket that she was wearing things that she would have liked that would have made her comfortable, and I also made sure she had peanut m&m’s and Winnie the Pooh for her journey, she had been my closest friend for the first 42 years of my life and I was going to miss her like hell…I still do! I grieve her loss and celebrate her life over and over again by keeping her alive in my own memories and for her daughters, her sister and her mother as much as I can.
Grief doesn’t go away- it changes, it becomes part of our journey, part of our identity. We live through the loss and the immediacy of the pain. We find times and ways to celebrate the joys that these people have brought into our lives, and we lift up and honor them. As Khalil Gibran says the deeper sorrow carves your vessel the more joy it may contain. I lift up the joy that each of my loved ones has brought me and I know that without them I would not be the person I am today, and so I celebrate the role each of them played in my life by teaching me about love, compassion, friendship, beauty, nature, tennis, social justice, and so much more.
We are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world. – as Sir John Eccles said. It is okay to feel our emotions to talk with our loved ones and even to yell at them for leaving us, we are human beings with spiritual and emotional depth and even if we understand intellectually that this is what happens to mammals it doesn’t mean we have to like it and accept it without pain, a sense of loss and a longing for a different situation.
I hope that you too will find tools for the journey even if they are crafted by sorrow and grief…Amen, Salaam, So May it be