Monday, August 24, 2020

Some thoughts on spirituality and grief

Ever since I joined my church- about three and a half years ago- I have wanted to give the sermon.  I can't entirely say why but it felt like a place where I could really speak, where my experiences would have greater meaning by my reflecting on them in front of an audience.  I finally did for the first time last month and I loved it.

My first sermon was about my favorite movie- why I love it, what it means to me, what I feel like it can teach those of us willing to search for spiritual messages in contemporary media.  It was challenging on a technical level- my church, like most responsible churches, is all virtual now- but not on a personal one.  It was relatively easy for me to speak to something that's had a comfortable place in my heart for so long.

But what I've always thought of speaking about, what I thought of when I first formed the desire to give a sermon, is my brother.  His suicide is something that still haunts me, still offers endless unanswerable questions, still hurts in the deepest places.  Of course I want to speak about that.

Well, I recently volunteered to do so.  I'm on the calendar for a little less than two months from now.  And because of that, it's been on my mind a lot.

He died a little over three and half years ago (gee, what a coincidence).  He was just two months shy of his 38th birthday.  My 38th birthday is tomorrow.  It's so strange to think that I'm older than my older brother.

What has become the norm, at least for the past year or so, is that I don't think about him all that often.  Of course I still get the waves of grief- the rage, the sadness, the questioning.  And of course they still come in completely unexpected ways.  But they don't hit nearly that hard anymore and they don't throw me nearly as far off course as they used to.  Nowadays the boat rocks, I feel it move, and then I just go back to rowing.

But since I formally made the request to sermon on this- and not just on him, but suicide in general- I think about him everyday.  About him, the topic, the billions of things about it that must have changed since the world went into pandemic mode.  I start formulating my sermon in my mind, start editing without specifics, start thinking of things I need to research or messages I need to incorporate. 

Here's what I have so far: I would start with a picture of him.  One of the many things I am sad about is that I don't have a recent picture of him that I can just look at whenever I feel the need.  We were so estranged by the time of his death that there hadn't been a family photo with both of us in it for years before- and all of those I left to my mother because I didn't care at the time.  The only physical, holdable photos I have of him are from when he was a child that show an impossibly adorable toeheaded boy with a bright smile and visible warmth.  I don't remember that version of him, and I don't mourn him.  I mourn the man who's face showed the dreariness he felt about life.  And I don't have a picture of him.

Technicality aside, I would start with a picture of him.  And I would talk about the stories- the one I don't like to tell, the one I don't know, and the one I like to share because it's a rare bright moment the two of us had.

The story I don't like to tell is the shortest, easiest, and most utilitarian.  It explains why this person would choose what they did without leaving any questions behind.  That story goes that he struggled on and off with heroin addiction for 20 years before ultimately taking his own life.  See?  Perfunctory.

The one I don't know is much longer, more complex, and contains a sea of questions.  And that is the story of who he actually was.  I don't know that story at all.  I have random facts: he was extremely computer savvy, he watched the Simpsons religiously as a kid, he believed in a lot of conspiracy theories, and he had a chuckle he made when teasing that I absolutely loved.  But that's nothing of the lifetime of this man I never got to know because he never let me get close enough and I ultimately gave up trying.  I don't know if I'll ever know that story and not knowing hurts more than anything else.

The last story, the one I like to tell, is a rare moment of joy between the two of us.  He was in 8th grade, I in 5th.  Our social studies teachers had gotten together so that we were all studying the same thing at different levels: Billy Joel's "We didn't start the fire" and the machine gun list of historical events that form the verses.  We'd both been given handouts with the lyrics and one afternoon, for reasons I can't remember, we decided to sing it together.  He stood in our empty driveway- my parents weren't home yet- singing the verses while I rode circles around him on my bike singing the choruses when the times came.  I love this memory of him because it sounds like something a brother and sister who love each other would do.  I love this memory because I like to think that we loved each other in that moment.

These stories all illustrate some deep points I would then go into with considered attention: the statistics and the trauma that tends to unite individuals who ultimately complete, the experience of those they leave behind who all have unanswered questions that haunt them, and the moments that shine brighter in the memories of those who will never be able to get over their loss.  There's a lot there, and I haven't even gotten to the end.

Because in the end, and the most important thing I want to leave people with, there is hope.  There has to be hope.  It's like air to a person gasping for breath and it's the most important spiritual principle I know.  I can see it, sort of, in my mind.  I just haven't worked out the map for how to get there yet.

I'm ok with the pain that I will willingly invite into my life as I take the steps to prepare this.  I'm fine with the research I'll need to do, the other personal stories I'll read with tears in my eyes, the sorting of songs and movies and moments that I connect with, the narrative that I'll painstakingly form.  I see purpose in this, and hope for healing.

But right now, the thing I'm dwelling on the most is how deep my ocean of grief still is, and how tumultuously the waves still crash.  It's not something I've been consciously aware of because I haven't been paying such close attention.  But I see it- the storm still rages under the surface of my everyday calm.  And I realize that I'll need to ramp up my self compassion as my little boat gets tossed around again.


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