A conversation with...
What do you hope your book about your life in the year following your husband’s death will contribute to the Called to Holiness series?
I had been talking to my spiritual director about my experience of what was happening to me during the time after Tom’s death. My spiritual director said, “You should think about writing something about it.” I said, “I don’t want to do that,” feeling it was a private moment. But my spiritual director persisted, “There are themes of hope that come up in your conversation, and I think those themes and that image can be beneficial to people who are going through crises of one kind or another—not necessarily the same kind.” So that’s what I hope my book will contribute: people discovering the richness of their everyday lives, no matter what happens.
The topic of Grieving With Grace is extremely personal, and yet, at the same time, it is something everyone will relate to.
I think so, because there are other ways in which people’s lives get changed: by illness and by other kinds of losses they experience. I try to indicate this in the beginning of the book by setting up a framework. All of this, as I see it, relates to the resilience of the human person. Sometimes it helps to bring that out front, to remind everyone that the human person really does have a core of resilience that takes a person through all kinds of situations. I think my book has relevance beyond the particularity of my situation by providing some insight into ways to deal with change in women’s lives.
It seemed like this was a story you had to tell in some ways.
I was very determined to do this, that’s right. It was for me (before it actually became a book) a lifeline. I had to write every day. I was writing about very mundane things, just the little bits and pieces that make up a life. That is what I needed to do, to see and to feel and to be in touch with the routines of everyday life. The typical books on grief that were given to me didn’t help, even though some are classics. I needed to know what life was like on a daily basis alone. I didn’t need to know about speculation. I needed to know experience. That is why the journal of P.D. James, the mystery writer, means so much to me. She wrote about one year of her life. Entries included remembrances of life with her husband, the support she received from her in-laws when she was raising her daughters by herself and her thoughts about aging. It was exactly what I needed in those early months. When I read James’s journal, it gave me the perseverance to do the same thing. No matter what the circumstances, I wrote every single day. It was something solid to hold on to. I really felt like I had to write, and I wanted to do it for my husband, too.
Whenever something tragic happens, you can respond either positively or negatively. What are some things a person can do to ensure that she responds in a way that will bring about conversion?
Conversion—I use that term to mean change. I’m not thinking about a religious conversion or even a moral conversion. I’m thinking about a different way of thinking, perceiving, seeing, a kind of turning in the road. It seems to me the resources are there as they always are, and the most important thing is not to become isolated. If I have learned anything from all of this, it’s that we are intimately connected with one another. Sometimes we just don’t see the connection. The outward signs of that are being with other people, connecting to them. Together, people can go through all kinds of difficulties. It’s being isolated that is so devastating to people. The real flesh-and-blood people help us to see that, in reality, we aren’t isolated. One of my major theses in this book is that we are on a continuum and that we are connected not just to the flesh-and-blood people alive in the normal way that we think of being alive, but to all the people who have gone before us and to people we don’t even know. This is one of the first principles of science—that everything is connected. I find that very consoling, actually.
I think about places like Palestine, for example. Here we have blood brothers killing each other. These people are all from the same groups, and they’re not letting their deep-rootedness in each other rise to the surface. If we can ever talk about original sin, it’s choosing separateness over unity, choosing to go our own way.
The communion of saints is an idea that most Catholics think little about. But it is something that you have given a lot of thought to in recent years. What do we miss from ignoring this very important reality?
The whole grieving experience for me was that the world became larger. I felt an expansion of the world. It was in this experience of evening prayer, actually creating the ritual of evening prayer, that I became aware (I said it aloud) that I really wasn’t alone. Then I went to Scripture and saw in Paul’s writing what he refers to as the cloud of witnesses, the people who have gone over to another dimension of living, if you will. I began to explore this concept along with one of our Christian tenets about the resurrection, the resurrection of the body. And so I did some probing into it. One of the most important books to me during that time was a book we had in our home, True Resurrection by H.A. Williams. Reading it was another one of those water-in-the-desert experiences. The point the author makes is that our resurrection, our new life, is underway right now. It doesn’t happen after you die—it is happening. Once you begin to pay attention to what’s going on around you, you get some sense of that.
How did your rituals of writing, prayer and the rituals of the church help get you through your roughest moments?
First, I had the memory of prayer from having lived long enough. I had not gone through life without challenges and difficulties. So I had—and have—the memory of the effect of prayer, that prayer gets you to a saner place. You can get a clearer view; I knew that from my past. And then, for me, ritual has been a structure; it’s security; it gave me something to rely on. So I just constructed some rituals for myself, not just daily rituals but rituals throughout the year. These gave me something to look forward to.
In the beginning I accepted almost every invitation that came my way. I know some people feel they need to be alone—I needed to be alone the week after Tom died. I needed that time alone. But then after that, my own instincts said to me: You need people; you need people. It certainly came to me that it is God who provides; there will be a way.
What role can sacramentals play in the grieving process?
Think about what we learned about sacramentals: They are religious images or objects that remind us of our identity, of who we ultimately belong to or with. But actually, we fill our homes with our personal sacramentals: photographs of people, the plates and dishes that we use every day, jewelry about which we say, “This was a gift from so and so.” Everything is laden with meaning. These are all links that bring us back to our community in some way.
We do these things for a reason. Why do we put certain pictures up on the wall? Why do we have certain paintings? There’s a kind of instinctive awareness in people that they create an environment that is life-giving to them. That’s what I think about sacramentals: They give us life; they enhance our lives.
Explain the difference between loneliness and being alone.
I would put being alone in the category of solitude, which can be a very creative experience. For example, if you’re writing a book or painting a painting, you need to be alone; you don’t do it as a committee or in a group. There are some things you do alone. Feeding into this would be my sense of the communion of saints—the opposite of isolation or alienation. In the beginning of my grieving period was a sense of absence, which is different from being alone. I had many experiences all through a very long and happy marriage of time alone. I think that there’s a rhythm to life where we need time alone and time with other people. Even the most extroverted person can’t be always engaged with other people. Anybody who has ever had the experience of doing something creatively alone realizes that it’s kind of an abundant way to be. With loneliness, you feel like you are not connected.
God’s presence is all around us and he often gives us signs of his love. So why is it still so hard to completely trust God in our deepest times of need?
I think fear is the reason. We have these kernels of fear in us, even as we mature. We have to get past the fear. Maybe it’s initially hard, but my observation is that people are somehow very courageous, and they do move forward. Communities help. Fear is paralyzing to people; it really is. Saint Paul says: You can’t really love if you’re fearful.
Part of it may be not trusting in our own powers, not trusting, therefore, in God’s powers to pull us through. There is something about handing yourself over to God and just trusting that and trusting that God really loves us beyond measure. Let’s face it: Ultimately we are afraid of dying, afraid of death. That’s why the Christian message is so radical because at its heart it says, “Wait a minute. That’s not the end of the story.” Life is going on. I was just reading in Revelation that love is stronger than death. Fear drives out love. The more you’re afraid, the more you go into yourself instead of going out of yourself toward others.
You appear to have struggled with Jesus’ claim that there is no marriage in heaven. What have you come to understand life after death to mean?
I didn’t much care for Jesus’ claim that there’s no marriage at the resurrection. I really thought to myself, “What does he know?” Over time, I came to understand what that was. That is, marriage is for this dimension of life because it teaches us how to go beyond ourselves to love. It’s kind of a prep school for a larger kind of loving. For example, my experience with Tom is that he is so loving that he wants me to be enormously happy. He would rejoice in my marrying again because marriage belongs to this life.
But ultimately, we all belong to each other in a kind of very amazing way. It’s a fuller love as you go more and more outside of yourself. Marriage teaches you how to do that. It also provides a mirror for you to see yourself as you are. How do we become truly altruistic except living up close to someone? We can grind away those rough spots, and that’s what we need to do, grind away the rough spots so that we’re ready to engage in this prolific love that God has. So now I can see that. Now I can admit that Jesus knew something I didn’t know. I didn’t feel that way in the beginning.
Thursday, August, 28, 2008