When Grief Inspires Gratitude

Sunday, March 17th, 2019

I walked across town this morning to attend Santa Fe Friends Meeting with grief on my mind. It seems as if each day brings some new catastrophe, another blow to any sense of reason and stability in these times: The massacre of 50 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday by a young white supremacist. The crash of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing Max 737 jet a week ago, killing all 157 people on board, seemingly due to flawed aircraft control systems. Yesterday's news that a soon-to-be-released UN-backed report shows that we are literally using our planet to death at the risk of widespread species extinction and all-out failure of the living communities that sustain not just nature, but human lives too.

How much can any one of us take? I wondered as I found a seat in the meetinghouse. How do we deal with the grief and anger, the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness? How do we find the strength and courage to continue to walk forward, to contribute to our communities and to this planet in positive ways? 

There is no one "right" answer to my questions. The answers will be different for each of us, because we are--thank heavens--diverse people with diverse needs, perspectives, and talents. The world needs that diversity; the global crises that we are dealing cannot be resolved with one single solution, one absolute truth. It will take all of us, each working in our own ways, to bring this earth and humanity back to health. 

I've spent a lot of time "sitting" with grief in the past eight years since helping my mother through her death in February of 2011. Then, ten months after Mom died, Richard, the love of my life and my husband for almost 29 years, died in November.

Richard and Molly outside the VA Hospital in September, 2009, during his first hospitalization for the brain cancer that eventually killed him. 

Molly, the daughter of my heart, lived with us for the last five weeks of his life, helping to the end, a huge gift for her daddy and me. I don't know if I would have survived those weeks of his hospice care at home, if she hadn't been there offering to support us both. 

I thought I had learned my way to living with the hole in my heart that those deaths left. I was feeling pretty confident of my ability to be with grief without letting it bring me to my knees. And then Dad died last October. After which, the state of the climate, this Earth, and human culture seemed to go to farther to heck in a hand-basket. I wondered again why I am here and what is the point of this life, when we seem to have screwed things up so badly. 

I had no answers. I busied myself with dealing with Dad's affairs: carrying out his will and seeing to the myriad financial and legal details. And then there was packing and moving, which kept me occupied for some months. Plus I had my climate garden idea to work on, another distraction from the inner gloom--even though I have yet to find a market for the kick-ass commentary I wrote with great feedback from friends and fellow writers. 

I thought I had passed the danger point of simply giving way and staying in bed all day curled up in a fetal position, or going on the mother of all shopping sprees and blowing my budget. Until some personal news combined with last week's losses around the world, and I felt despair rising.

Yesterday afternoon on a walk downtown, I saw a flash of yellow out of the corner of my eye. I turned, and there, hugging the warm ground in a just-cleared flower bed near City Hall, was one clump of chrome-bright crocus blooms. Spring! The promise of renewal, and life continuing despite all that is so wrong around the globe.

Yesterday's crocuses, drinking in the sunshine. A lesson in gratitude, and resilience.  

Those crocuses and their promise of spring and renewal were enough to lift my mood, and get me to thinking about writing about grief instead of wallowing in it. Then in Meeting for Worship this morning, a man stood up to speak. He was grateful to be here, he said, to not have to worry about finding food for his family, or shelter for the night. He was grateful to be able to live free from fear, he continued. And then, his voice breaking, he said he was grateful simply to be alive, to be able to "be" in this moment, here worshipping with Friends. 

Those words reminded me that I too, have much to be grateful for. In the midst of the losses, I have a snug home, family and friends, work that fulfills and challenges me, a landscape and community to live in that while certainly not perfect, bring me joy. Remembering what I am grateful for helped me swim to the surface of the grief that threatens to overtake me in times like these. 

This Friend's raw, yet thoughtful litany of gratitude in the face of shared grief also made me realize that for me at least, effective actions come not from denying my grief, nor from wallowing in it. They come out of the feelings of humility and compassion, empathy and love inspired by remembering to be grateful for what I have, the ability to live with grief included.

I believe that of those, love is what inspires the best we are as humans. As I wrote in my book The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes

What we do best comes not from our heads but our hearts, from an ineffable impulse that resists logic and definitions and calculation: love. Love is what connects us to the rest of the living world, the divine urging from within that guides our best steps in the dance of life.  

So even as I grieve for the losses in these difficult times, I will remember to practice gratitude each day, and with it give rise to the love and compassion that are the threads that connect me to all of life, and remind me to act with my heart, as well as my head. 

That litany of gratitude includes all of you, the wider community that inspires and informs my days. Thank you for walking this life with me. 

Three of the Zuni fetish bears in the collection of beings on my desk who remind me to be grateful for each day...