Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Searching for Light in a Dark Autumn

Finding a Path to Light in This
Darkest Autumn
Crimson and gold leaves lit my path through the New England cemetery I visited in October. Bright red beckoned me from the roadsides. I walked through fallen leaves, lifting them with the tips of my shoes and tossing them to clear my way.
Autumn in New England always signaled endings for me during the years I lived there. I’m far more comfortable with my Florida falls, which spark my senses with a taste of cooler, not cold, weather and signal beginnings to me—time to leave the house and enjoy the outdoors, time to open windows and leave air conditioning behind for a few short months.
After my years in the Northeast, when I returned to Florida, I was grateful to leave those shorter, darker days behind me. I continue to be soothed by the constant green of the leaf-filled trees and shrubs, and the ever-present flowers that give this state its name.
This autumn of 2016 in Florida has had few cool days to delight me. The heat continues with slight respites of below-90-degree days. They arrive in short bursts, strung together like beads from a broken string of pearls.
Today, the shortest, darkest day, I feel the dark envelope me, as it has since November 9. That dark is meshed into the fibers of my heart. Other emotions accompany that dark: fear, wariness, concern, heartbreak for the oppressed, whether that oppression stems from gender, color, ethnicity, economic status, spiritual beliefs . . .
I know that after today’s dark hours—complicated here in my Florida home by a sunless sky—mere minutes of light tack themselves onto these light-deprived hours. That extra light beckons me to the bottom of my personal Pandora’s box, where I find hope. I open the lid wide and release it. It does not dispel the maladies swarming our globe, but like that hint of light, hope illuminates a path in which I shall walk to alleviate my fears and make me less afraid of the dark.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Sometimes Darkness Can Show You the Light"

The following blog is the text of a talk I gave at the Vero Beach, Florida, observance of  The Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting Service on December 11, 2016.
“Sometimes Darkness
Can Show You the Light”
I probably don’t strike most people as a heavy-metal fan. I don’t quite have the right look or the temperament. Most heavy metal seems too loud, too rude, and far too crude for my tastes. However, my twenty-three-year-old son is a fan, and he often persuades me to watch metal music videos. One group, Disturbed, has caught my attention and even appreciation. The fine voice and intensity of Disturb’s lead singer, David Draiman, has made me rethink my anti-metal sentiments. This Thanksgiving, I didn’t want to pause my food prep to watch a Disturbed video, but after some urging from my son, I gave in. The video we watched is the song, “The Light.” Draiman again caught my attention and held it when he sang, “Sometimes darkness can show you the light.”
The phrase got my attention because I had been writing my talk for this evening and my focus was on light. After the video, I wrote the words on my whiteboard: “Sometimes darkness can show you the light.” The words resonated with me because I don’t think we often consider that darkness has anything to offer us—except more darkness. We seek light in darkness, but I don’t think we often believe darkness shows us anything. I started to consider just what the darkness has to offer us.
Those of us here this evening have experienced a particular darkness—the death of someone we love and hold dear, whether it be a son, daughter, grandchild, sibling...
After such a devastating loss, initially, darkness is all we experience. Few times in our lives will be darker than those days surrounding our child’s death. Few life experiences rival the grief, the pain, the all-encompassing sadness surrounding our loss. The death of our child means one of the brightest lights in our life is no longer burning. Because that light is extinguished, we are plunged into the dark, to the darkest days we could ever imagine.
The dark is so overwhelming that early on, it is all we sense—and all we feel. It is the absence of light—tangible light as well as emotional and psychological light—that is so troubling to our spirits early on in the mourning process. One of the most wrenching parts of our grief is that a light of our life has gone out. We are steeped in darkness and yet a part of us, even though we may be unaware, hungers for light.
I agree with David Draiman, though: “Sometimes darkness can show you the light.” I know and you know what the worst darkness feels like. I also know that in the trenches of that darkness, even though we might believe in our hearts and souls that light is forever gone, we still crave it. But to once again experience light, I think a time comes that we have to face our darkness head on. When we are ready, we can open our eyes and hearts and look at and through the dark. By doing so, we will find that darkness has something to show us: the light. And that light comes and is present in many forms.
When the time is right, we can start to open our eyes and look at the darkness. It is then that we begin to spot a tiny glimmer of light. That light can be a touch, look, or word of love, a memory that fills us with gratitude for the one we’ve lost, a hand or heart to help us manage our grief, a bit of unexpected joy. When I started looking through the darkness in my life and my soul after my daughter Alexa died, I saw that I was not alone. As I began to see some light, I also felt hands and hearts reach out to hold and carry my heart to help me bear my sorrow. As the light expanded, I gained a new, deeper understanding of the precious gift of life and love.
As the darkness continued to show me the light, I developed a more evolved sense of compassion and empathy. Those who had experienced loss before me showed me those lights of compassion and empathy. In turn, as I further faced and walked through the darkness, I began to hold my own light for others in the midst of their own darkness of grief and loss.
When we reach the point in our grief journey that we can look at the darkness, it’s not always as overwhelming as we fear. My own darkness showed me people and hands and hearts ready to be my light. It is a precious gift when darkness shows us the light. It’s there. That light is here, in each of our hearts.
I probably will not ever be a full-fledged metal fan. But when my son says, “Listen to this,” I will. I might learn something, as I did from David Draiman: “Sometimes darkness can show you the light.”

Disturbed, “The Light,” video with lyrics:

Disturbed, “The Light,” official video:

Monday, November 14, 2016

How Can You Be the Perfect Stranger?

Can You Be
The Perfect Stranger?

“Don’t talk to strangers.” It’s good advice if you’re a child and it’s difficult to know if a stranger is friend or foe. It might even be good advice if you’re older and it’s still difficult to know if a stranger is friend or foe. Strangers are scary, aren’t they? I’m a stranger to billions whom I have yet to meet, so I might be considered a foe. One person to whom I recently was a stranger does not think so.

The memorial service for a friend’s twenty-six-year-old son was a solemn gathering. Mourners filled the room, heartbroken, grieving for a life ended much too soon. The eulogy focused on how much life he had, how much life he brought to those who knew him, and how much they grieved his life cut short.
As people made a futile effort to wipe their tears away and comfort his family following the eulogy, I excused myself to step outside. My grandson was quite ill and I wanted to call to check on him.
The sidewalk in front of the service location was crowded with young people holding each other, grieving together. I stepped to the end of a long walkway so I could speak in private. I was relieved to learn that my grandson was on his way to wellness.
I headed back down the long sidewalk to return to the memorial gathering. As I walked, a young woman came toward me. She was heartbroken, crying, anguished. As I approached her, I noticed the intensity of her grief. She was gasping. I’ve had far too many panic attacks in my life, so I knew she was having one.
In our culture, we often shy away from strangers. We don’t want to “bother” people, especially people we don’t know who are upset. But my heart leapt out to her and I stopped as I neared her.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She began telling me that she was attending a memorial service for a friend. I nodded my head and said that I had been there, too. We spoke for a few minutes. I knew she was still panicky. I didn’t want to leave her, so I asked if it would be okay to walk with her for a few minutes. She said yes. We went to the end of the sidewalk and she began telling me about her friend. She hadn’t known him long and she was new to the area. She didn’t know anyone attending the service. She found out about the young man’s death from his mother, who answered a text message sent to him. She was numb and didn’t even know what to say to the mother. Shock combined with the feeling of being alone in her mourning sent her grief into a deep low.
I know a little bit about grief. I also know a little bit about feeling alone. I spoke gentle words to her about how she felt and how alone she must feel. I acknowledged that having no one with whom to mourn increased the depth of her pain. For those few minutes I spent with her, I did my best to let her know that she wasn’t alone.
As happens in conversations, we moved away from the loss and away from the immediate pain. We even spoke about relationships, about social media and how we strive to stay connected in whatever ways we can.
I sensed she was calmer. A friend was waiting for me inside and I didn’t want her to be concerned about me.
 But first, I asked the young woman if she was feeling any better. When I was reassured she would be okay, I returned to the memorial gathering.
Later, as I sat at a table inside, I saw her again. She was calmer, no longer panicked. I saw her speak with the young man’s relatives. She came over to me and we spoke. She shared that, although still grieving, she was coping better. She then said, “Thank you for being the perfect stranger.”
I was touched by her gratitude and sweetness mixed with her sorrow. I don’t consider myself perfect at anything, but perhaps being what she needed that day made me her “perfect stranger.” We hugged as we said goodbye.

This story might seem like it’s about me. It isn’t. It’s about you. In your life, in these days when so many of us are hurting, so many of us are afraid, wary, grieving for deep loss within our country and our relationships, loss within our own hearts and lives, ask yourself this question:

How can I be the perfect stranger?

Ask yourself: How can I bridge the divide that separates so many of us? How can I soothe? How can I help? How can I heal? How can I dry someone’s tears? How can I let someone know they aren’t alone?

How can I be the perfect stranger?

I told this story to only one person—so far. A few days later, she called me to tell me the story of how she had been someone’s “perfect stranger.” As you become “the perfect stranger,” I look forward to hearing your “perfect stranger” story. Was there a time when “the perfect stranger” touched your life? I hope you will share those stories with me, too.