Sunday, November 23, 2014

Loss, Collective Grief, The Illusion of Control

Last week, my friend Jules died, and yesterday I attended his funeral. I feel heart-weary and numb, and I have a lot ahead of me over the next few weeks. The experience of collective grief, of being part of this huge community of people who were touched and inspired by this man, is intense. This is one of those losses that will resonate for a very long time.

It’s hard to think. I came home from the funeral and reception yesterday feeling blank and exhausted, swirling with feelings about church, my Catholic upbringing, the confusion I have about my role in this community, of how I have come to belong and at the same time still not quite belong. About the feelings I have around a job that slowly became not just a job, but a role in a large, close knit and spiritually rich community. To stand in the avalanche of must-do’s and interviews and follow-ups and an endless tide of e-mails and realize suddenly that I am emotionally and spiritually connected to a community; that I am in service to a force that is far more than a checklist.

Growing up Catholic, I understood about self-sacrifice, but being in service is different. At the funeral the priest pointed out that service is more than do-gooding, and I think I understood what he meant. You can perform a litany of good deeds without the spirit of service. I don’t think it negates the deeds, but I do think that a deep desire to serve, that is connected to something beyond our personal needs, is what illuminates the Jules’s of the world. Simply said, I think it’s love.  

The last eighteen months or so have been about me coming to understand with a deep sense of finality that suffering is inescapable. Try as I might, I have not been able to run away and construct some stone fortress into which no chaos, no pain, no grief, and no emotional connection can come. I’m in deep. And no matter where I went, I would still end up in the same place. To paraphrase Mary Oliver, there’s no sense wasting time looking for an easier path.

There will be more people I care about who will die. Everything is uncertain, and no amount of trying to control the swirling chaos of life is going to change the outcome. I can’t resist it or hold it at arm’s length or bend it to my will. I can only be present to it. I’m here, I’m connected, I’m a part of this and all of the pain and the richness and the goodness and the love that comes with it.

The below interview was filmed when Jules was 91. He died at 96. He was still volunteering at the Information Desk up until two weeks before his death.

--Kristen McHenry


Steven Cain said...

What a beautiful heart he wears on his sleeve.
My condolences.

Kristen McHenry said...

Thanks, Steven. He was a giver to the end, and an inspiration to countless people. Family members coming to check in at the Desk for their loved ones who were going into surgery felt instantly at home with Jules. No matter how stressed or angry or upset they were, Jules managed to calm them down and somehow, by the end of the day, they were hugging him and thanking him for his care. Most of the people who interacted with him remembered him if they came back even years later. said...

Jules seemed like a very good and wise person. He lived almost a whole century, so he lived and experienced the immensity of almost all that's been the last 100 years. I'm so sorry for your loss, my dear. But he's in heaven, with my dad and with all the good people the world has ever known. You may have doubts about all this. I have none. Several spiritual experiences I have had in my own life have left me 100% doubtless. I hope you're able to cheer up and enjoy a wonderful upcoming Thanksgiving. Your friend Jules and hundreds of millions of others are enjoying an existence so wondrous, it's beyond our finite human comprehension!