“Protect then push. Protect, protect, protect, protect. Then one day, you’ll need to push.”
The woman advising us knew what she was talking about. Joyce Ashton was a bereaved mother herself as well as a professional grief counselor who’d written and lectured with her husband Dennis about major loss and bereavement. We were sitting in their living room in December, five months after our 18 year old son’s burial.
The gravesite without its stone. The ground was frozen. We waited for a spring thaw.
All our years –– over 15 at that time –– of living outside the US, yet it had never once occurred to us to spend the holidays anywhere but the country in which we lived “abroad.” Until now. We fled our drafty Munich monastery with hastily packed carry-ons and flew a world away from isolation that weighed like a glacier on our spirits. We arrived in the Rocky Mountains of the American west where family waited to take us in.
The children needed levity. I couldn’t even give them a strand of cheap tinsel. Randall was down thirty pounds (12 kilos) since July, ashen, his eyes sunken. I moved like a burn victim released from a year in solitary confinement. My five months of deliberate retreat from human interaction and the terrifying world out there had left me, when I now stepped off the airplane, blinking at lights, recoiling from sounds. Brittle and liquefied, jittery and ready to melt into any caring arms. I was both.
As we sat in the Ashton’s living room speaking short hand known to the grief-stricken, I knew Joyce’s advice to “protect then push” was right. And that Balzac was wrong. “Give to a wounded heart seclusion,” he’d written, “consolation nor reason ever effected anything in such a case.”
At least Balzac was partially wrong. Seclusion had been a gift to my heart. A severe gift. But just that afternoon while meditating a clear inner voice instructed me: “Retreat was a gift to you. But you can’t stay there. If you do, you might never emerge. And if you wait too long to emerge, too much will have died in the meantime. You must go out.”
From the US, I wrote this email to a friend:
You worry about my withdrawal. Don’t. I know that every tale of spiritual rebirth is a tale of withdrawal: to the wilderness, into a whale, into a vessel, into a tomb, into a mountaintop, into a grove. . .This is no surprise, as mortal life itself is a descent from the light and warmth of preexistence into a dark and isolated womb followed by the stressful entrance into a world of blaze and clatter. (No wonder infants howl at birth!) Right now, I’m in gestation, huddling tightly in a womb. I will learn everything this sanctuary can teach me.
I also wrote in my journal about Christ’s model of protecting and pushing:
Been studying Matthew 14. Many careful readings. Christ’s love of his cousin John the Baptist, Christ’s grief at JB’s violent, cold-blooded murder. Some of Christ’s disciples had been John’s disciples, so they were grieving, too. How He longed to go into a desert place apart – isolation – to grieve, (did He commune with the Father there? With the Baptist?) but He couldn’t tarry there long because so many needed Him. And how Christ turns in compassion to the throngs needing His blessing. None of their burdens was as great as his. Lame? Blind? Leprous?Just hungry? He was bearing all of them, and more. He bore it all. Still, he didn’t dismiss them. Was his compassion awakened/enlarged due to His “acquaintance with grief” (Isaiah), his sudden loss, a loss foreshadowing His imminent crucifixion? He actively turns towards others as an extension – completion? – of his grieving process. And what happens? The great miracle of loaves and fishes, itself a type and shadow of the Last Supper.
A week after seeing the Ashtons, getting that inner voice public service announcement, and reading Matthew 14, I sat in another room, this time in Germany. I’d contacted the gentleman who oversaw our church congregation in Munich, telling him I needed to meet with him as soon as we were back in town.
That man (whom we call our bishop) was a truly good soul, a sympathetic, soft-spoken young father and first-time expatriate doing his utmost to lead our scrappy little gaggle of members. And I had the distinct feeling that we terrified him. Or at least really worried him. Or presented him with a peculiar challenge.
From the start we signaled we wanted no visits, no leadership responsibilities, in spite of two decades of back-to-back leadership “callings” in our congregations everywhere we’d lived. In fact, I’d told our bishop to please not even call on me to pray aloud in meetings. Not because I couldn’t or didn’t want to pray (what else was I doing all week long, anyway?), but because every time I bowed my head –– I knew this –– I poured out tears like a jug gushes water.
As a couple and family we were working so hard every day and night all week long to just keep breathing, to keep ourselves together, to access spiritual strength and get the divine guidance we craved, not to mention to deal with the many unanswered questions about Parker’s accident, the fallout in the lives of others involved in that accident, and the potential legal implications. Every day was dire. Every day was a face-to-face encounter with The Big Issues.
And we’d just arrived in a new country. So there was that.
But Sundays. They weren’t like the sanctuary that was my weekday world, not much like our makeshift monastery. What could be, though, but a morgue? At church we tried to swerve around but couldn’t help but hear the normal chit-chat, those hallway conversations about how tough it was to not have 24-hour pharmacy drive-throughs. How irritating to not find diapers sold in bulk. How annoying that there weren’t more cinemas that showed movies in English. And how hard it was to send a son off to university, or on a mission, or to some place without decent WIFI.
And this all made us feel like we were aliens, sensitive to the point of being skinless, flinching and wincing at normal human behavior: glibness, facile answers, chirpiness, glee, dogma-as-bandage, platitudes.
We regularly side-stepped out.
People side-stepped around us.
I’m surprised they tolerated us as much as they did. Mourning, especially with strangers, takes super human patience and a divine dose of sympathy. I know everyone was doing their human best.
What resulted, though, was a vacuum-packed existential isolation, a loneliness-to-the-point-of-desperation I’d never felt before in my lifetime exacerbated by the fact that it was happening exactly where we’d always felt most at home: in our faith community.
So as I was saying … I asked for an interview.
“You wanted to talk, Sister Bradford?” my bishop asked, his eyes open and soft.
“Well, not really. I don’t want to talk. But I know I need to.” I think I was already crying.
“Please. Please, tell me what’s on your mind, on your heart. How can I help you?”
He was tall with a visible goldenness to him, this man. He held his hands folded on his desk. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
How could you help me? Ideally, I thought, ideally … you could weep long and hard with me about our son. Or not even cry. You might ask about him. But I won’t beg you or any of my brothers and sisters here to feign interest, pretend heartache. No, can’t do that. Solicit sorrow?
“I’m …” I interrupted my own freight train of thought, “I think I’m ready to help. I’m ready to reach out and do something here. Do you have something I can do, something you need me to do?”
Bishop: “You want to serve here at church?”
I nodded, still crying into my lap. A box of tissues came from his hand.
I looked up from my lap. He was gracious, silent.
Then he took a long breath. “Well. That is interesting, Sister Bradford.”
He went on: “We’ve been praying and fasting and discussing over the holidays while your family was away how we could serve you, how we could possibly help your grieving family. And we got the impression that as soon as you were ready, Sister Bradford, you would tell us. And when you would tell us, we would have work for you to do.”
Me again: “??”
“How ready are you to serve, Sister Bradford? What can you take on? I want to be very sensitive to––”
I remember in that moment feeling a single rusty engine rev exactly once in my lower thoracic region. I butted in:
“––Whatever … whatever you need me to do. I am ready. I want to share what we’ve learned, what we’re learning.”
He leaned back in his chair. He smiled. Then he leaned forward: “We’d like to ask you to teach the teenagers. Sunday School.”
“And … seminary.” (An extra weekly youth instruction.)
“And would you teach the women’s class?”
“Once or twice a month?”
“Would you be able to teach the adult gospel doctrine class?”
Nod. Smile. Two engines churned. Maybe a third.
Nod. Smile. Joy-heat rising.
“And there is … one special and wonderful sister, a shut-in for years, serious health problems. But she lives 45 minutes away. You have a car. Can you visit her?”
Slow nod. Big eyes. Little sniffles.
Once I got that gig up and running, a couple of months later I also began team-teaching mid-weekly evening classes –– what we Mormons call Institute ––a gospel study course for all young adults in the greater Munich region.
You might say I found “push.”
I also found loss. By that I mean that as I pushed myself in an effort to serve others, I connected with people and there found more loss than I had previously known existed among us. It was everywhere, in all forms. (I could make a list here, but you know as well as I do that that list would use up all my battery and yours.)
Before major loss became my personal story and not someone else’s fiction, I was oblivious to much of its world, its look, its contours, its devils. The hook is this: Once loss was my story it wouldn’t have been enough––in fact it would have been a reverberating secondary loss and a dead end story –– to remain withdrawn in that narrative cul de sac for good. That wise inner voice had instructed me: Don’t let your sanctuary become your sarcophagus. I had to push.
So strengthened from my months in retreat, I now served. As much as could. And at the same time, so many, many people served our family. We wept three years later when we left our community in Munich.
If I lost my monastic retreat, it was never meant to be my permanent residence. Because outside its protection I found life.
And Inspiration. Power. Friendship. Help. Wisdom. Answers. Guidance. Comfort. Love. Tenderness. Meaning. Hope. Compassion. Holiness. Visions. Answers. Strength. Light. Vigor. Humor. Resilience. Relief. Brothers. Sisters. Community.
Loaves. Fishes. Miraculous Nourishment. God.