When I was a child, my godfather had a requirement when parting. He would say, “Never say 'goodbye,' always say 'so long.'" If I forgot, I would be corrected, remembering to reply as he wished with a smile and a kiss before leaving. Uncle Jack said “goodbye” was too final, and that “so long” was better, since for him it meant we would see each other soon.
He was a charming and handsome doctor who received his degree at the American University in Paris. A true Francophile, he would tell me sentimental stories of his life there, followed by French lessons during which it was of supreme importance for me to roll out the “rrrr” sound at the proper pitch and cadence. I loved those times with him, and the happy childhood memories have held fast, even though the future would have me let him go to a sad end.
Things never panned out for Uncle Jack; he made a long and tragic slide into alcoholism, dying without ever bringing his gifts to the world. Years later, at his deathbed to say my farewell in the manner he had always preferred, I bid him a tearful “so long.” He is among many dear ones, now gone, whose spirits live on in me.
I have come to understand that at the core of my uncle’s self-destruction was his own unattended grief. There was much that he had lost, yet in his generation there was not much available in the way of support. Our religion reassured us that all our dead were in heaven and that suffering was to be endured, for we’d all be on our way there someday — a message that can exacerbate sorrow into deep isolation, and an untouchable loneliness. Indeed, one was considered weak for being unable to “move on.” Unfortunately, people, like Uncle Jack, can harbor sorrow like an impermeable secret, cutting them off from engaging fully with all that they love, and even themselves.
Life has schooled me. I have learned to place a premium on love and being present. My ability to feel — and express — my grief in a healthy way engenders a centering peace. I am grateful to have had my human teachers (as well as my inner ones) who have stressed the importance of allowing my heartache.
These days, we are swirling in chaos as all manner of life undergoes a collective death. Whatever one’s political worldview, there is an inescapable reality that we are in the midst of big change. We are groaning under the strain of this shift, one both deeply personal and impersonal — a collective passage. We are terrorized by the daily reminders of grief and suffering which do not quit.
However, grief bears many messages, one of which is that within sorrow is a healing balm. I have gained true sustenance by opening to my own losses, especially in meeting them as a natural cycle of life. I have also discovered that coming together in community for conscious and heartfelt grieving is incredibly helpful in bringing us into emotional balance and spiritual health. Here, by gathering to witness what we are each bearing, the possibility of awakening inner resources, finding strength, and even finding an abiding peace, can be discovered. Honoring who or what we have lost — in ourselves, others, and the earth — has a profound impact that revitalizes our precious hearts and days.
I am thankful to be part of a gathering for sacred story that does just this. It is called The Tree of Living and Dying (TOLD), offered by The Spirit of Resh Foundation (Resh), a local nonprofit organization supporting people to enhance life by embracing death. Of their eight principles, I resonate with "love is the connective tissue between all life." Resh offers TOLD gatherings twice a year, meeting around a central hearth — a symbolic world-tree — where we share story and tend to our love and to our grief. The next one is this month. I will be there, remembering what I learned from Uncle Jack — he was a good teacher and I loved him in all of his broken heartedness. I hope you will join me at the Tree of Living & Dying "Gathering for Sacred Story" from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday, May 20, at Gathering (formerly the Haven), 1970 Ashland St. The cost is $10 in advance, or $15 at the door. To registrater, to go www.reshfoundation.org.
Christine Healey is an event planner and developing writer. She has raised six daughters and is now authoring new chapters in her life in Ashland.