Have Faith: Grieving

Keep to a regular spiritual practice, and make space to listen.


We’ve been joking around the office about how rough July was — some of us struggled through COVID, those who hadn’t gotten it previously finally falling into various degrees of illness. I don’t want to delve into the other strange events without clearing it with my coworkers, but trust me, it was tough.

I had to isolate and stay away from my husband and two sons for 10 days, and silly me, I had always thought I’d enjoy being alone. I didn’t. Then I found out I have Lyme disease. If there was one more thing I didn’t need, it was to hear that three people I love have new cancer diagnoses. That was my July. My brother, my previous boss, and one of my dear friends I’ve known for 25 years all received bad news. I wanted to talk to them all, of course, and hug them and tell them how much they meant to me, but I couldn’t because they’re all miles away.

This all started me thinking more deeply about grief, and how it’s going to always be a part of my life in some form or another. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with grief. I like to pretend the inevitable isn’t going to happen, and then when it does, I’m shocked and stricken. This time around, while I was all alone all those days, the news sat with me for a long time, and settled. I could call my brother and ask him a lot of questions and that might be helpful for me, as well as give him something to focus on. My other two friends, I messaged them on Facebook right away, and then tried to think about what to do next. Should I send them a card? Flowers? Maybe a book that might help? The bottom line is that I wanted to do something. Anything rather than lie there and think about all the wonderful times I’ve had with each of them, and then feel really sad at the idea that we might not have many more of those ahead of us. And those thoughts didn’t make me feel any better, and wouldn’t make them feel better either.

I settled on thinking about how each of them were handling their situation, and I discovered they all have a strong faith and a positive outlook. Whenever I talk to each of them, I’m the one who walks away feeling better. They are all dealing with doctors and medications and surgeries and special diets, but they are all determined to fight and see themselves victorious, and that’s my greatest prayer as well.

I was wondering about grief and how to handle it, so I asked someone who knows a lot about it, Rabbi Lori Schaller, who works as spiritual care counselor for Hospice and Palliative Care of Martha’s Vineyard. She explained that when we hear news like this, especially as we get older ourselves, we are confronted with our own eventual mortality.

“Having some kind of spiritual practice can be grounding when others’ dying and deaths leave us teetering,” Rabbi Schaller wrote to me. “Whether that means regular walks on the beach or in the woods, chanting sacred texts, listening to or playing music, praying in community, or something else, it’s the regularity of the practice that can be so comforting.”

She said we can rely on the beach, the sacred texts, the instruments, the community to be there for us. The regular practice of these things lets us relax a bit and do them without thinking too much when we put on our sneakers for a walk, or turn on the music, or enter into prayer. Then maybe when we talk to the loved one we’re worried about, we won’t have to think about what to say. We can just make space to listen.

Part of me feels badly that I’ve had negative thoughts at all about their future, wondering if they’ll overcome their current health challenges, but I think that’s human nature. I’m worried because I love them, and I don’t want to lose them. Ever. But of course we all are headed in the same inevitable direction, whether we are sick right now or healthy. I was glad I asked Rabbi Schaller for advice. No matter who it is that you are grieving, you can take her advice to heart: “You can just make space to listen, ask the mourner to tell you about the person. You can indulge in sharing a story about the person if you knew them. Because things don’t always happen for a reason, it isn’t always meant to be or for the best, there isn’t always a lesson to be gleaned, and no, we really don’t know what might have been God’s will. But we knew or know this person, we feel the loss, and sharing memories gives us a container for our loss,” she says.

I remember when my dad was really sick, he told me that what he was going through wasn’t near as bad as watching all of us react to it. That stuck with me. In my mind, I know we have to pray and pray hard for those we love. I’ve seen miracles happen in their lives before, and know they can happen again. It’s time to go into prayer warrior mode, send up so many prayers that God is bound to hear them. I’m going to go ahead and laugh with all three of them about all the funny things we’ve shared, and some of the not-so-funny experiences. And most of all, I’m going to appreciate every minute I have to spend with them. And I’m going to keep praying.