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Sacred Absence

A Pilgrimage of Love, Loss & Grieving Well

“Perhaps for now it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery of how a heart so broken can go on beating…” 

  -Jan Richardson, Blessing for the Brokenhearted


So, Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went. New Year's Eve is the next emotional hurdle to make it over…and may be the most painful. Craig and I cherished our contemplative NYE ritual of journaling together about what the previous year meant, what we learned, and what we hoped for in the New Year. Friends helped me make it through both of the former holidays, but I think I’m going to stay home alone to ring in 2017. It may be a big mistake, but I just have nothing else in my bag of diverting tricks that feels any better than just being home. Even if I were to go somewhere or spend it with someone, I will feel the pain and sorrow the next day, like I did last night and today after being away for Christmas. It’s a pattern I’m noticing…the need for recovery days. So, I may as well stay in a safe place where I can express my tears and not hold them back until later.

The daily challenge for now is to learn to accept it all, to embrace Craig’s absence, and to find God and myself in it all, in a new way. Or maybe it is to learn to just let God in rather than searching, something that has been an off and one struggle most of my spiritual life.

What seems to be calling to me is this spiritual discipline of surrender. I know I wrote about *surrender early on, but I’m not sure I was even fully aware of what that meant. And I suspect my awareness will deepen as time passes. Maybe I’m not ready for it even now, because the same things make me weep, and I repeat the same mournful and pleading phrases I did from the first day. The shock, the longing, the sorrow and the loneliness never seem to go away. It is a private devastation to wake each morning to the realization that you will carry a sorrow in your heart few people will understand, or maybe even know about; that it will never truly go away; and that it will rise up in varying intensities when you may not expect it. That realization is a life sentence the grieving must learn to lock up in their hearts…or we could never function.

And one of the reasons we must find the sacredness in this unwanted absence.

“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love…we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

So, I am inching closer to that place of sitting daily with the grief, often in Nature. Giving myself over to contemplative prayer. Learning to listen in stillness. Being a monk. Focusing on the good when I can and trusting that my heart will heal, and the content of my new life will unfold out of it. But surrendering to that can feel like walking into your prison cell for the first time, knowing what lies ahead each and every long, lonely day. But also knowing that at some point the sentence will be up and the bars of grief will open.

I’ve just begun reading a book that is both extremely encouraging and makes me cry on every other page (this journey can be so paradoxical). It was written by a woman from North Dakota who lost her husband of 30 years. They had no children. They were people of faith. She worked as a free-lance writer. He was a farmer, and they worked together raising organic beef and chickens. They farmed sustainably and restored the prairie on their ranch; the one they looked out on every morning and evening together, watching and identifying birds. There are so many similarities to me and Craig, in both their lifestyle and relationship. They were soulmates, “bound by deep love.” She describes her husband as a “commanding yet gracious presence that filled up a room. His welcoming manner put people at ease.” She paints a picture of a hardworking man, as at ease with a power tool as with his emotions. Very much like my husband, Craig.

The descriptions of her dichotomous experiences since his death are very much like my own.

“I have been choosing the pain, recognizing that it is the price I pay for an almost moment-by-moment choice to keep alive and vital my union with John. It is a sacred union, built upon our earthly walk of shared love, shared thought, labor and vision.”

“…Living helplessly as I do on a more materialistic plane, I seek to define my present relationship with John, and with the Spirit, seeking tangible signposts to guide my daily walk and answer a critical question: How do I distill the essence of our union, our shared earthly vision, into a practical physical form or manifestation manageable for one person to carry forward? The core of “us,” the essence of our unified spirit, the heart of our dreams, I want to live on. I want to continue releasing its creativity.”

“…Yet to my very human physical senses, my limited physical sight and cognitive processes, this is all very remote theorizing. It exists as a veiled truth that so far eludes my emotional grasp. Thus, seeking its capture so far produces nothing but empty hands.”

Our journey, our thoughts, our longings are similar. They are some of my same inner wrestlings. Maybe yours, too.

I would like to meet her someday; maybe help her work her ranch. Or sit on the porch where she and her husband used to sit and see what further lessons she has learned since July 2013. Maybe I can share with her what I have learned since August 2016. Who knows? What I do know is that this new year, 2017, will be nothing like I imagined.


© Cindy K Steffen  2023

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