More about “grief therapy”*:
I remember a small epiphany I had after a worship service at a retreat in the mountains many months after my daughter died. The worship leader told a parable based on Buddha and the mustard seed: A mother whose child had died asked Buddha to revive her dead child, and he told her that she must first go to each house in the village and ask for mustard seed. But the mustard seed must come from a family where no one had died. Finding no such family, she returned to Buddha empty handed, but turned to helping those who were grieving even as she grieved.
At first, hearing that story, I was horrified. How could someone compare griefs or just give up the grief so easily? Of course parables may have neater edges than real life and sometimes use exaggeration for effect. I could not listen to the story past the idea of the grieving mother going from house to house desperate for something that would bring her child back to life. I knew how she must have felt.
The epiphany happened after the small group study that followed when I met (not by my design) a father whose daughter had died, a mother whose daughter had died and another mother whose son had died. The retreat had nothing to do with grief—it was a spiritual formation leadership training—and I doubt that the organizers had intentionally placed that many bereaved parents in the same group. None of us knew the others’ history, and we came from three different states. Although the deaths of our children spanned a dozen years, I was comforted hearing the stories from these parents. I wrote in my journal after the sessions about the shared grief stories and that maybe there was some design in our all being at that place at the same time. I certainly felt less isolated in my grief. I may have let go a mustard seed’s worth of sorrow each time I shared and heard the stories. I know from years with our Farther Along group that sharing a grief with others who have experienced similar ones can be a life-line to those who are grieving.
A couple of days ago I met the pastor of a Presbyterian church in southwest Virginia. We were at a Moravian event for sharing books that the provincial resource center in Winston-Salem includes in its collection. I represented Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers. Andrew Taylor-Troutman had two books at the event, and he read from a third one soon to be published. When I met him, I realized that his late grandfather, a Moravian minister, was one of those persons with whom I had also traveled part of the grief journey.
Andrew’s grandfather, one of the ministers at my church at the time, had lost both his son and his wife, and my daughter had died a few months before when the two of us were asked to lead a series of weekly sessions on Coping with Grief. I remember thinking: “What are they thinking asking me to help someone else when I certainly do not know what I am doing? I am still grieving. I am no expert.” Now, looking back, the collaboration with Ray was such good therapy. I hope it was for him too.
We shared resources that had been helpful to us, hoping that others might be helped. We shared stories as we planned. We even laughed, and it may have been the first time I had dared to do that. We may not have helped anyone else who came to the sessions, but we certainly prayed that we would. And I began to note that like the mother in the parable, when you have experienced the unthinkable, you sometimes begin to heal by helping others.
Last night I read the chapter titled “Any Last Words?” in Andrew Taylor Troutman’s book, Take My Hand: A Theological Memoir. Andrew’s father, also a Moravian minister, had pointed that chapter out to me while we were at the book sharing event, explaining that it was the story of his father’s (Andrew’s grandfather Ray’s) death in 2011. That kind and gentle man who consoled others while grieving himself, whose grandson wrote about his “positive dynamic between faith and intellect,” the minister who reminded me that it was a good benediction (a blessing, literally to speak well) to say “good bye” since it is derived from a contraction of “God be with ye”—his story returned to add balm to my own grief and that of others who knew him as family or as minister or as friend. His story continues to lift others, comfort them as his grandson shares it. Ray’s words are not just his last, but lasting ones.
*I have hardly covered all the people and incidents that have served as therapy for me. Some of the kindnesses that others offered to me and to others in the Farther Along group are included in the “I Want to Help” section on p. 213. Perhaps we will share more grief therapy on this blog as we write. At least that was one of our intentions when we started it. So how have you been unexpectedly helped in your own grief journey by someone or something?