Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Shepherds in the Dark Night: Spiritual Leaders Gently Guide Bereaved Souls through the Holy Land of Grief and Loss

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Shepherds in the Dark Night: Spiritual Leaders Gently Guide Bereaved Souls through the Holy Land of Grief and Loss

Article excerpt

Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, my 14-year-old daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car accident. In that moment, the global grief I had been witnessing at a distance became intensely personal for me. I shared the pain of every mother everywhere--American, Afghani, Iraqi--as she struggled to bear the unbearable.

When my daughter died, she was at the beginning of her blossoming, filled with indignation against injustice, hunger for justice, and the early flames of spiritual love. I had believed that Jenny would grow up to consciously help alleviate the suffering in this world. The loss of such potential, coupled with the primal agony of missing her, threatened to destroy me.

But there was another reality just beyond the edges of my anguish. A palpable sense of holiness began to pervade the emptiness carved by my shattering. As my family and community rallied to support me in those first hours and days of nay loss, filling the air with their prayers, tears, and singing, I noticed a radiance wash over my heart and the hearts of my circle of support. God was with us. And Jenny was with God. The exaltation accompanying this phenomenon confused me. The most terrible thing imaginable had happened and, while my suffering was acute, I was also being soothed and lifted by this ineffable holy joy.

For a year or more, all I could do was tentatively face the fire of my feelings, offering quiet prayers for peace on the planet and in the hearts of 'all who were grieving. I sat amid the wreckage of my own heart, "allowing the broken fragments to re-form according to the inscrutable timetable of the Divine, relinquishing any last illusions that I had control of anything in this life.

Eventually, like so many victims of tragedy, I turned my attention to service. This was the only path that made any sense. The ordinary concerns of daily life had dissolved in the inferno of my loss. Struck by the rarified awareness that had begun to grow in me, I became intensely interested in those whose own losses had acted as a catalyst for spiritual transformation in their lives.

What I noticed was that while many mourners had dedicated themselves to grief as a spiritual path, the culture at large did not affirm this choice or provide a framework for such a conversation. In spite of significant advances in death and dying education since the 1970s, American society on the whole still seems to suffer from fear and denial about the reality of death. In a culture where the casualties of our wars are invisible to the average citizen, where many of our elders are institutionalized, and where most of our ill pass away behind the closed doors of impersonal hospital rooms, we are becoming increasingly unfamiliar with one of the most natural and sacred functions of living: dying.

As I began to sit with other mourners and listen to their stories, it became clear to me that I was not the only one who had experienced the sacred atmosphere that arises around the death of a loved one. I wondered how clergy people and spiritual leaders shepherded the souls in their care through the holy land of grief and loss.

I LIVE IN A SMALL town in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Mine is a multicultural community, where Pueblo Indians, Chicanos, and "Anglos" (all others) have been living and dying together for generations. Last spring I spoke with two Catholic priests, two Protestant pastors, one nondenominational minister, and the director of a grief and loss program about their experiences and views of the sacred passage of death in their respective congregations, in our community, and in society as a whole.

What I found among this diverse collection of spiritual guides was a unanimous commitment to "bearing witness" and "holding a container" for the bereaved to have their individual experiences of grief. In each case, the clergy person consciously curtails the impulse to fill the void of mystery with his or her own preconceived notions about the meaning of life and death. …

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