Meeting Community

Bittersweet Wisdom

We all have something to say about loss, because all of us have experienced it – yearning for what used to be, but is no more. And perhaps, as our years pass, we wrestle with the issue of loss even more, having chewed some of the gristle of life, as it were, not just the low-hanging fruit.

Reno Friends Meeting hosted an online discussion about “Experiencing Loss” in February 2022. Several members shared personal stories of grief and on-going sorrow. Some shared stories of healing. More recently, we hosted a gathering for our broader community where anyone could attend and all could share memories of grief in the safe space of our Meeting House. We encouraged people to bring pictures or memorabilia, and to light candles in honor of their losses. Such endeavors to examine grief resemble archeology – gathering up scattered bones and attempting to understand how we might put the pieces together and make some sense of the whole.

Many recognize Buddha’s First Truth: “Suffering is real and shared throughout humanity.” This teaching is often accompanied by a parable which can be paraphrased thus: A grief-stricken mother brought her dead child to the Buddha and asked that he restore the child to life. He agreed to do so, but only if she would first bring him a mustard seed from a household that had not known loss or grief. After much searching, she realized that no such place exists. She redirected her life toward the service of others, and in healing them, she healed herself.

There are, of course, many forms of loss. Some losses arrive by sudden tragedy, and some approach us gradually, as expected, like retirement or a long-anticipated and unpayable debt that finally comes due. Some losses are experienced directly and tangibly, while some are felt almost “virtually,” like erosions in our ecosystems and our social fabric. Hawaiian scholar Jonathan Frisk recently coined the term “ambient trauma” to express the cumulative buildup of emotional harm that is felt by most people throughout our world today.

Eventually, we come to realize that loss is not a deviation from “normal life,” but rather is a fundamental aspect of the normal state of our being. We may come to understand that life is “bittersweet,” always a blend of sadness and joy. Kahlil Gibran writes of this in The Prophet (1923): “Some of you say, Joy is greater than sorrow, and others say, Nay, sorrow is the greater. But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

With his concept of “Optimysticism,” Quaker palliative care chaplain Carl Magruder offers God-as-Love as a force of hope in the face of sorrow. Magruder calls grief “the secret place where the road to hope begins.’’ We must grieve in order to have hope and in order to connect with the pain of others. Our physical mortality is one fundamental source of grief – old age, sickness, death. Perhaps the most powerful teacher of all, death, comes for us all, no matter how well we diet, exercise, and sleep. We see others die, and we know that we will, too. That knowledge can clarify what matters most to us. “There’s nothing like knowing you will be hanged in the morning to focus the mind.”

Emotional loss can be harder to endure than physical loss, especially a loss that leaves a “hole in the heart.” Bereavement, distance from someone, lost love, a relationship that ends, the loss of a beloved pet – all these can cause deep grief. For those who are fortunate enough to have it, supportive friendship and community are important for withstanding such pain. For others, release from grief can be found in workshops, public ceremonies, and the arts. Unfortunately, some people seem to give up on love altogether – choosing a kind of emotional suicide – as a way to avoid further loss. A well-known psychotherapist and spiritual guru Francis Weller describes his long-term attempt to avoid the pain dealt to him in his teens, when his father suffered a stroke that ended communication between them. In later life, Weller wrote of those years, “I was trying to slip through life without getting caught. My tombstone was going to read: SAFE AT LAST! Didn’t work, it never does. We must grieve in order to move on,” he concludes and councils us.

Ultimately, our great losses cannot be made right. At best, loss can bring an awareness of what is precious to us, make us really see what we love. There are at least four ways we can work to transform our grief and loss into sources of healing: First, as already mentioned, we can recognize loss as an opportunity for personal growth. The pain of loss illuminates for us our deepest values and loves. It teaches us about who we are, and what is important for us to do. Moving on from loss can be a way forward to a fuller life. In her poem, “Kindness,” Naomi Nye explains, “Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment…. Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”(1952)

Second, sorrow can be a source of healing because it is also a form of bonding. Grief is a social process and our wounds allow empathy with others. According to psychotherapist Francis Weller, we are not capable of handling grief in isolation. We need our relationships, social ceremonies, and religious connections to comfort us.

Third, and related to the point above, one’s grief can transform a person into a source of healing for others. Catholic priest Henri Nouwen has elaborated Carl Jung’s concept of “the wounded healer” like this: “When our wounds cease to be a source of shame and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers…. Our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole beings.” (2018)

Finally, grief can offer us profound connections with beauty and creativity. We may find solace in watching the wind in the trees, leaves on the sidewalk, rain on our window panes, or the glory of clouds at sunrise and sunset. But also, in the expression of creative acts, we can put our sad feelings into works of love and beauty. Vedran Smailovic, “the cellist of Sarajevo,” is renowned for having performed in a ruined downtown marketplace for twenty-two days during the Siege of Sarajevo – one day each in honor of the twenty-two people who were killed by mortar fire while waiting in line for food there. During the thirty years that have followed since, Smailovic’s courageous performance has inspired countless works of visual art, music, literature, and journalism – all efforts for channeling grief into healing.

The bittersweetness of life is ongoing, regardless of whether we are experiencing more sorrow or more joy in any particular moment. Wisdom reminds us that neither extreme will last for long and that our awareness of loss (and finality and death) helps to give our lives meaning. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where sadness is taboo, where everyone is supposed to be cheerful, and where the expected reaction to loss is to quickly “get over it.” The Religious Society of Friends, as a faith that emphasizes the importance of personal integrity, can help provide a firm foundation for persons who are struggling with loss and grief. We can provide reassurance that the work of a mature person is to hold both grief and gratitude simultaneously, and develop compassion for the suffering of others – maintaining an open heart to all the joys and sorrows of our lives.

Earl Piercy, Reno Friends Meeting attender and blog contributor, retired from teaching Sociology for the Nevada System of Higher Education at Truckee Meadows Community College in 2014. This article was originally published in Western Friend.