“No one would blame you if you quit,” my roommate said, after I’d returned to Unity Village after another family funeral. I was in my last term at Unity Institute when the unthinkable happened: my 9-year-old grandson was killed by an act of violence, murdered in his sleep by his own father. To say that grief was complicated was an understatement. Shocked into protective numbness, quitting school was the last thing on my mind. The hyper-focus on assignments was a welcome relief from the flood of anger, rage, sadness, helplessness, and guilt that would surge along with my snarl of questions for God.
Did I forget “The Prayer for Protection” that day for my grandson? Did I not pray enough? Does prayer even work? Where was divine intervention—what happened to grace? What kind of God would let this happen?
Suddenly, nothing made sense. Unity Principles I’d taught for years now felt like a foreign language I couldn’t comprehend.
Classmates, teachers, friends all offered their support—mostly silent support, for what could anyone say? Their love and compassion carried me through the most painful season of my life. Somehow, I made it through the last term of ministerial school, L&Os (licensing and ordination oral exams), ordination, and graduation. It was a bittersweet time: while classmates were celebrating ministry job offers, marriage proposals, and new beginnings, I was heading back to California to be with a grieving daughter, her shell-shocked teenager, and an upcoming murder trial.
Life as I’d knew it, plans for the future, and—most of all—my relationship with God pixilated into fragments of uncertainty. Though one thing did remain, which surprised me: I could still pray. A safety-net of faith had caught me.
Many calls to Silent Unity provided comfort and strength. A weekly prayer partner was a life-line of hope. Regular sessions with a counselor and spiritual director were welcome compassionate companions. Journaling and weekly writing group, grief workshops, private tearful tantrums were all part of the process of finding the pieces to assemble a new picture of life. Ministering to a loving Unity community who values authenticity and heart connection helped to weave my threads of inner strength. It took more than two years before I was willing to consider: Could anything good actually come from this tragic loss?
When I was ready to look, here’s what I found that has served me in ministry:
My heart was cracked open. I felt the pain of the world—a tenderness emerged for those grieving loss, and surprisingly, I also felt glimmers of compassion for those who had perpetrated loss. The man responsible for the crime was behind bars. He was once a boy himself. I ached at the thought of the depth of his despair and separation that drove him to harm another. In a crystallizing moment of clarity, I knew what my role as a minister would be: a lighthouse of love. If my words and presence could bring just one person back from the edge of darkness, serving in ministry would be worth it.
Now, I am able to sit with people in the deep places of their grief, confusion, anger, and disappointment. I can listen. Hold sacred space for them to be. Let them know they are not alone; that Holy presence, divine Love is at work companioning them to the other side of whatever seems insurmountable. I am able to hold the power of possibility for their soul, knowing the magnitude of their unconquerable Spirit, the eternal Essence, that has the capacity to rise from the rubble and ruin even stronger than before. As Sufi poet Rumi observed:
“Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.”
The death of my grandson is one of four family deaths in five years: father, mother, sister passing—one per year. This close encounter with loss has prompted me to re-think and re-work my concept of who and what God is to me. Paul Smith’s work on The Three Faces of God has been very helpful.
Going through grief, the Second Face—the Intimate God—was the one that served me the most as I dialogued and prayed and listened for the God I’d felt so close to since childhood. The Third Face—the Infinite God—Creator of all, was one I surrendered to when I realized there would be some things I would never understand about my grandson’s death. The I Am, the Inner First Face of God, is one that has taken time to ease back into.
Before this experience, I would meet people’s pain with Principle. Now, I have learned that citing Unity principle is not helpful when someone is in deep pain: an I Am—First Face of God prayer—may not reach them or serve them at all. I discovered that meeting people where they’re at is more important than trying to pray “by the book” and sometimes a silent “I am here and I see you” is the most effective prayer of all.
In Unity, we don’t talk much about death. Unless it’s the story of Myrtle Fillmore saying goodbye to her staff, seemingly choosing her departure with the announcement that she could be more effective “from the other side.” Or unless it’s the story of Charles Fillmore who had no intention of dying, but when facing his last hours on earth, felt like a failure because he could not overcome death.
Thankfully, more Unity resources for coping with death and grief are emerging. At the 2017 Unity People’s Convention, I was grateful to attend an excellent workshop on grief support by Revs Ogun Holder and Therese Lee. Please post in the comments if you know of other Unity resources.
The layers of healing continue to peel. Sometimes a song in the grocery store will bring on a “grief burst” and I’ll be pulling out a Kleenex in the produce section of Safeway. In times of loss, may compassion, support, prayer, and self-care gently return you to the treasure of your heart.