When the Chaplain at Mary’s Woods Retirement Community invited me to do some grief processing with the residents, I jumped. Even though it’s a seven hour drive from Mt. Shasta where I now reside, I had to do it. Having taught spiritual writing for almost thirty years, I’ve been blessed to work in schools, universities, prisons, hospitals, libraries. All rewarding but the elderly, by far, afford the greatest pleasure to commune with.
Mary, the resident Chaplain, had organized a Grief Retreat for any residents who wished to participate. She served a delicious lunch for all who came, upwards of thirty people. I sat in the back of the sunlit room and watched as each person entered, some on canes, some in wheelchairs, many walking cautiously, gracefully to find their place at the table.
The retreat began with a small ceremony. Mary poured water, representing tears, into a large bowl. She raised her arm in blessing over it and invited each of us to do likewise. At the table next to me, a tiny woman valiantly stretched out her arm at a right angle to her body, even as her head and shoulders began to slump. Almost asleep, head cradled in her chest, her hand remained, loyally offered to the chalice of tears.
I glanced at each person, wondering how much effort it might have required to get dressed that morning and if someone had helped comb their hair. Earlier, I had met a woman in the bathroom who commented on my lace dress and smiled as we were both wearing lace and cardigans in the same color.
“Lace is IN this year,” she had shared enthusiastically, a fact I hadn’t been aware of, not so concerned with trends these days myself. But it warmed my heart to consider a woman in her 80’s still pondering the vicissitudes of fashion.
Mary handed out journals with Forget Me Nots on the covers, and spoke of the importance of grieving. She shared how grief never goes away, that it can be buried indefinitely and one day, bubble up and surprise you. She spoke of the stages of grief, of the healing power of tears. The Pastoral Counselor, Jon, sang a song of worship, accompanied by his guitar. An employee spoke of her own shock at losing her father suddenly and how she had painstakingly learned to cope with her sorrow.
A power point presentation ensued and everyone listened with what appeared to be great interest. I was impressed, feeling a little of the traditional post-prandial fatigue myself.
I hadn’t realized before how the residents didn’t all know each other. It was a little like grade school in that way – each of them arriving in a new place with strange people, attempting to forge friendships with some.
When Mary suggested we pray for a woman who had recently died, someone gasped. How to keep everyone apprised of death and loss in a community of 450?
And with an average age of 80, most residents had lost or would lose those to whom they were close and often without warning.
Death was not the only challenge to be grappled with here: consider also loss of home, family, a history in the world, sometimes independence, often health. My heart melted into a hive of honey for these sweet beings, embarking on or setting into a new and likely final life here.
Luckily for them, Mary’s Woods is an exquisitely appointed residence, adjacent to Marylhurst College in Lake Oswego, lush grounds running all the way down to the river. The buildings are light and attractive. Flowers abound, trees in full flower, and yet it was unavoidably apparent in this setting how what flowers eventually dies.
After a piano piece by Jon, which everyone sang along to, I was invited to the microphone. Looking out at the sea of beautiful faces, almost like angels,
I was overcome with compassion. It was all I could do not to race around and hug each one, to try to fill whatever space had been hollowed out of them.
I was grateful, once again, for the near death experience I was offered thirteen years ago in my native Ireland, following a profound accident. When huge logs flying off a speeding lumber truck cracked me over the head, I went hurtling through the air and into oblivion. I remember a moment of skimming through the sky like a rag doll, freed of gravity, a body spun out of the orbit of earth.
Suddenly I was floating, whatever this I was – it was not located in space but seemed to be everywhere – and it felt free and saturated in LOVE. I could see the broken woman on the sidewalk, blood spewing out of her head, and everyone racing in circles, crying, screaming, calling ambulances.
But I had no concern for that body. In fact, I was puzzled that anyone at all was upset. From where I existed, every single moment seemed imbued, permeated, overflowing with an indescribably joyful love. Nothing was out of place in any way. This scene – and every scene in the entire universe – was playing itself out in utter perfection. Why oh why couldn’t they see that?
I told my attentive audience about the magnetic pull of love I had experienced, an exquisite tide sweeping me into the arms of God. I spoke of how excruciating it was for me to be informed, not in words but through a deep knowing, that my work on earth was not done. I had to come back again and learn to embrace the heartbreak of being in a shattered body, weighted down by gravity and duality.
I tried to convey how it must have been for those loved ones of theirs who had passed on, how they perhaps could not resist the allure of God’s boundless love, an ecstasy far beyond human understanding. I offered how they too were in for a treat, how death, as I had been shown, is the most glorious, liberating, exquisite gift imaginable.
It is those who are left behind, however, who have a challenge. I spoke of the poet Lisel Mueller who only began writing poetry in her late 40s, following the death of her mother. She could not believe that the world would go on, that flowers would keep blooming on that momentous summer day, and she wrote, “So I placed my grief/ in the mouth of language/ the only place/ that would grieve with me.”
Sighs of knowing ushered through the room.
Then I shared with them a poem by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, written after the death of his beloved mother.
IN MEMORY OF MY MOTHER
I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
Of a Monaghan graveyard; I see
You walking down a lane among the poplars
On your way to the station, or happily
Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday –
You meet me and you say:
‘Don’t forget to see about the cattle – ‘
Among your earthiest words the angels stray.
And I think of you walking along a headland
Of green oats in June,
So full of repose, so rich with life –
And I see us meeting at the end of a town
On a fair day by accident, after
The bargains are all made and we can walk
Together through the shops and stalls and markets
Free in the oriental streets of thought.
O you are not lying in the wet clay,
For it is a harvest evening now and we
Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
And you smile up at us – eternally.
When I looked up from the poem, I found a sea of faces softened by flowing tears and heaving chests. A charm of women and men who had lived long enough to lose much of what they loved. I saw firsthand the power of poetry to evoke deep emotion, long held memories. It was a stunning sight, the room flooded with love, as if one heart had broken open and rivers of eternal grief were now flowing in divine harmony.
Then I led them in a gentle guided meditation, suggesting they imagine a beloved they had lost and conjure a happy memory of that person. Having taught writing for decades, I was used to people who didn’t consider themselves to be writers balking at the undertaking. But these brave beings picked up their pens and wrote unabashedly in their newly acquired Forget Me Not Journals.
One of the most moving aspects of teaching writing is observing a person with his or head bowed to the page and pouring out the contents of a delicate yet indomitable heart. Watching these debilitated, wounded, physically compromised people taking to it so passionately was an inspiration.
As I wandered the room, offering encouragement to some, suggestions to others, one woman sat stone-faced, her Forget Me Not Journal closed on the table before her. When I asked her if I could somehow help, she shook her head, looking away, “This is very difficult for me.”
So I stroked her back softly and told her how courageous she was to be here and perhaps a seed would be planted for later blossoming. She reminded me of my own mother, thin, brittle, terrified of revealing the unspoken pain of ages. I wanted to fold this woman into my arms, swaddle her like a baby in gentleness. I learned later that her husband had died just days before.
The woman who was enamored of lace also sat unmoving. I realized that she was from a foreign country, how writing in a new tongue could be intimidating. I told her how Lisel Mueller was German and wrote in English, her second language, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Everyone else was ready to share.
One woman had lost her father in a fishing accident. A retired nun said she had not felt her mother so deeply since she’d last seen her on her death bed. Another’s mother had died when she was only twelve but here, seventy five years later, she could still recall that afternoon sitting in the attic while her mother sewed, the slant of light through the window celestial.
A delightful man, his body almost doubled over in pain, shared how his father had often left home to commune with God and would disappear for hours, not to be found by anyone. The woman next to him, apparently his wife, offered to share verbally her memory of her son who had died when he was 50.
“I remember him best when he played his drums in his room,” she said, a tear sliding down her face. Afterwards, I hugged them both, one under each arm, these tender, fragile beings who had endured so much. I learned how their son’s daughter had died soon afterwards in a freak hiking accident. I assured them as sincerely as I could how both father and daughter were immersed in an unending ocean of love now, how they could not be in a better place, and how they would want us to be happy in this brief, mysterious, tumultuous life of ours.
After our writing and sharing session, Mary asked me to help distribute little pots. We were going to plant Forget Me Not seeds and water them, in remembrance of those who had passed on. All of us briefly became gardeners in the field of Love where there is no separation.
Several people said they knew why I had to come back to life, to share this gift that had revealed the deeper truth to me and now to others. And I, who had for a long time wished to go back to that place of peace and profound love again, now felt awed and glad for that long, sometimes torturous journey back into this world. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, as the song Desiderata goes, it is still a beautiful world.
Mary, our chaplain, broke down in tears as she concluded the ceremony, her tender heart moved deeply by the poignancy of it all.
On that miraculous afternoon, it was as if the bittersweetness of our humanhood could, for a moment, merge with our divine nature, the unique threads of our lives stranded together into one seamless, gorgeous whole.
Next morning, before I left, I raced down a steep hill to the river and at the bottom, met an elderly resident, black sunglasses shading his face, a large hat protecting his head from the rare Portland sun. He smiled at me, said he was bracing himself for the ascent.
I had seen him much earlier that morning, heading out slowly towards Marylhurst College and here he was now, close to completing his daily circuit. He told me he goes every morning for his Senior Coffee at McDonald’s.
“65 cents!” He beamed at me. “People tease me that I don’t go to Starbucks but where can you get a better deal than this?”
I nodded in agreement, relishing this man’s precious indulgence as much as he obviously was. He shared that he had lost his wife several years previously, that his daughter in Lake Oswego had guided him to Mary’s Woods. Far from being depressed, he seemed a beam of bright light, a warmth radiating from his very centre.
Bob, he said, was his name as I introduced myself, and as we parted, we shared a warm hug.
“Ana,” he said with gravity, “I will remember you.”
Just as I will cherish the treasure of each of those vulnerable souls who shared for a brief moment the supreme gift of their heart.
On the drive home to Shasta next day, I had to pull the car over onto a byroad and weep, tears of ancient, collective grief pouring off me like a river undammed as it transmuted into the pure gold of undying love.