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December 18, 2012

Remembering an Important Lesson in an Important Season

A respiratory infection and work deadlines have kept me from posting since November 21. Apologies to all. Since then, tragedies have occurred, on a grand scale. Loss, like pain, is not comparative. Even so, I think it safe to say that, when children and adults are murdered, experiencing that loss and its circumstances push people beyond all known boundaries and into a state of hardship that defies all vocabulary.

Connecticut. Aurora. Oregon. Virginia Tech. In the news today: Colorado again. Mass or multiple shootings. People die suddenly. Violently. Horrifically. Unjustly. The timing of this massacre: little more than a week before Christmas and during Hanukkah. Whatever one's spiritual practice, this is a season when people almost universally emphasize, practice, and celebrate "good will toward man."

Two nights ago, I visited a dear friend in hospice care. I'll call her Della. Della is an amazing woman and an expert in loss, grief, and making life good. During her lifetime, she lost her husband to illness, one son to illness, one son to suicide, and two grandsons. One of the grandsons died suddenly with a cerebral hemorrhage. She waited anxiously while another grandson made his way though tours of duty in Iraq. She suffered additional hardships and losses that affected members of her family. They were tough ones, beyond normal. It is not for me to list them here, however. Through all of these losses, Della came faithfully to church, continued her volunteer efforts at the public library, church library, quilting guild, and visited ailing friends. Just three days before pancreatic cancer sent her into hospice care, she kept her annual commitment of playing Mrs. Claus at a local Christmas celebration for children.

Through the years I've known Della, I've never seen her not smile genuinely at others, even at the height of her pain. I've never seen her stunning blue eyes not light up when she greets someone; have never heard her complain--acknowledge her sadness, yes, but without ever a hint of "why?" in her voice. I have always looked forward to seeing her. She gives joy to anyone she meets or greets. I have reminded myself of her elegant strength and grace more times than I can count, but especially when loss has visited my life.

As she lay in her bed in the hospice room, she smiled at me as beautifully as always. Her eyes looked a little less bright, but only a little. Their spark still shines through. I told her how much her presence in my life has meant to me, especially her example of surviving great loss and pain with grace, always maintaining her kindness and service to others. She is 92.

My friend's example serves us all well. She determined not to let any loss keep her from living a meaningful life or to lose her joy, even the loss of two of her children, and two of her grandchildren--the toughest kind of loss there is. It took great will and strength for her to do this.

Our lives are not about ease, much as the advertising that surrounds us pushes us to believe. And pain does not mark the absence of success. It is woven into the fabric of life; even the pain that sears our souls and is so great we don't know how to begin to face it. Even that pain is part of life. I don't know if I will ever be comfortable with this fact. I'm not sure I'll ever fully accept it, but I do acknowledge it.

This Christmas and holiday season, our nation faces unspeakable shared pain. Even those not personally involved in the Sandy Hook tragedy hear news of it everyday. If you are like me, this news affects you. It hurts deeply. It often makes me feel that I am powerless to "do" anything. And, being powerless, perhaps I should just burrow into my small house and act like the dangerous world doesn't exist. I could. I can hear an old black-and-white movie and a bowl of popcorn calling me...

If I did that, though, it would insult my friend's entire life. I would act as though I have not learned, seen, or experienced the "answer." The answer is: while facing pain and loss, we are called also to find and give joy. This is not cheap advice. It is hard work. It does not make our lives easier. It does make them better.

I plan to listen to the news not more than once a day. I plan to look for people right here, right now that need some dose of joy. Perhaps I can offer stress-sympathy to the harried department store clerk or the long-suffering post-office employee, send a long note to the friend facing her first Christmas without her mom, or visit the friend whose example has nourished me for more than a decade and now whose leaving I must face. I feel less brave about the world, thinking of Della not being physically present in it, but her example of a life bravely and beautifully lived will live on.... My prayer this Christmas is for God to grant me the capacity to have that example live on in me.