Grief and gratitude, life's strong currents

Grief and gratitude are two strong currents in our lives, and when they flow together it creates a river of healing.

Right after Mother's Day, I received shocking news. My sister, Ginny, my only sibling, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Only 71 years old; this seemed unbelievable. Grief seeped through me. At first I was numb. I wasn't sure what to do. I was in the middle of a chapter committee meeting in Monroe, Michigan, and she had been flown to a hospital in Denver from her little town of Antonito, Colorado. I found myself just walking by the river that flows through Monroe incapable of doing anything but crying. At first, I thought I would just stay in Monroe and go back to my home in Detroit in the morning. It was as if a part of me disassociated with what I had just learned. Then after some more tears and the comfort of the committee members, I "woke" up and drove home that night making reservations to fly to Denver in the morning.

When Ginny and I met with her neurosurgeons, they explained that this tumor was extremely aggressive and had spread to both hemispheres of the brain affecting communication and mobility. The options offered were not viable, as nothing was going to restore her brain functions, and there was a danger that any procedure they might do could worsen her situation. We chose palliative and eventually hospice care.

Once that decision was made I called our community's president, and she assured me I could bring Ginny to our health care facility in Monroe. She put into motion all that was needed to make that happen. The social worker at the hospital worked with the staff in Monroe to get everything into place so that we could fly there the coming Saturday.

I then began receiving calls from the three women from Antonito who had taken Ginny to the emergency room at the county hospital. They had stayed with her the whole day waiting for her to be seen. These women have been faithful companions with me on this journey as they helped to find her bills, mail, etc. that I needed to obtain the necessary information to take care of her finances and other legal matters. A neighbor from Antonito took care of feeding her dog and watching over her house — helping in numerous ways.

The next two weeks were intensely focused first on making sure Ginny was safe and then getting all her affairs in order. It seemed at every point — from the Delta representative providing wheelchair service from curb to plane seat, to Monroe staff offering to work on Saturday to pick us up, to the nurses and aides, to my local community member flying to Denver to accompany us back to Michigan, to my friends offering love and insight about what to do next, to all the representatives of the various offices and services I had to contact, to the growing number of people from Antonito who called to express concern, sadness and gratitude for my sister — I experienced a generosity, kindness and assistance which filled me with gratitude.

The sorrow, loss and grief flowed, but I felt as if it was being encompassed and held by a deep gratefulness. I began to "take a long loving look" and saw the gift in how things happened as other possibilities would have been so much more difficult to handle. At first I felt torn between my feelings — grief or gratitude — which one should I spend time with? Am I cheating my sister if I don't stay with grief? Am I cheating those who assisted if I don't stay with gratitude? But as I held them, I saw they were not opposites competing for my heart but one flowing current in my life offering healing at this difficult moment.

I don't think it is a coincidence that as this was happening in my life, major events happened in our country that brought grief to many of us. President Donald Trump in his first overseas trip treated our European allies with arrogance and a punitive message, suggesting that the strong NATO alliance was not necessarily a priority of his, and within days he made the decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

His positions on both were not factually based; he offered for both rationale that were misleading and, in some cases, just plain wrong. Many people I know used the words "heart breaking" and "grieving" to describe how they were feeling. It seemed as if democracy and the future of our planet were both diagnosed as dying.

Then the response came pouring in. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that even if they couldn't rely on the United States, the NATO alliance would hold strong. David Brooks in a June 2 New York Times editorial captured the worldview of Mr. Trump and his advisors as one that sees life as a competitive struggle for gain, with selfishness as the sole driver of human affairs. He then reminded us that there are "other drivers that motivate human action — solidarity, love and moral fulfillment. People are wired to cooperate. … They have a set of universal intuitions that help establish harmony between peoples."

In the face of pulling out of the Paris accord, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Politico reported the incredible response from business leaders, university presidents and mayors around the county making commitments to comply with the U.S. targets and contribute to the Paris fund. It was reported that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is donating $15 million to the Green Climate Fund. The Vatican gave a clear response, seeing the Trump's decision as "a disaster".

In the midst of a grieving heart, I found gratitude toward all those who exercised their power and influence to show the world that the United States still holds cooperation and the common good as values and ideals.

The experience of grief — both personal and political — opened my eyes to see anew. It awakened me to the currents of selflessness, generosity, solidarity, neighborliness, compassion and love that are often there but held at a distance. I know that my contemplative practice enabled my vision to widen and my heart to become more open.

Many of us face a time in which we are experiencing grief in many forms. My prayer is that we cultivate a contemplative look at the suffering we experience, and see with fresh eyes the current of gratitude flowing through us moving us toward the river of healing. 

Editor's note: Nancy's sister, Virginia, died peacefully in her sleep at around 9 a.m. June 28, 2017.

[Nancy Sylvester founded the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue iccdinstitute.org and has served as its director since 2002. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.

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