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The Body

Stepping Out of Grief

When we have walked in darkness for so long, we are sometimes allowed to step into a parallel world.

Awaits by Hollie Chastain

I had recently lost my wife of 46 years. The darkness, the terror were beyond description. The silence did not have sounds—it shrieked! I determined to continue teaching at my university, knowing that suddenly doing nothing would lead to worse results.

Then came the Pittsburgh Massacre! Somehow other shrieks found their way into my muted consciousness. Is there a oneness in suffering? Do we all somehow connect under a huge blanket of misery?

I noticed that a service of remembrance was to be held at my local synagogue. Somehow, I felt that I should go, so that my university would be represented.

Donning my best suit and name badge with the impressive title of “Doctor” I sallied forth into a part of town unknown to me. Darkness had descended, and by the time I arrived the streets were lined with cars. I finally found a parking spot on a side street, but I had no idea where the synagogue was located.

Just behind me a white SUV parked, and a woman got out and began walking. I asked her whether she knew the location of the synagogue. She said she certainly did and would show me the way if I would allow her to hold my arm as we walked on the darkened, acorn-covered sidewalks. She said she was Ms. Lavey, and she remarked that she would have to leave early due to a previous engagement.

Presently we arrived at the synagogue and went our ways, she to the audience and I, for some reason, ushered into a side room filled with dignitaries. There were rabbis, a Presbyterian pastor, a Catholic bishop, a United States senator, a Unitarian minister, the superintendent of our school system, and a spokesperson for the local Muslim League, with whom I fell into a most pleasant conversation.

It was not until the leading rabbi began to line everyone up for the platform party that I realized the usher had mistaken me for one of the dignitaries! The name badge had done its work. I quietly excused myself and assumed a seat in the audience. 

At the end of the service I quickly hurried out and promptly became lost in the dark streets. After five blocks, I realized that I was not going to be able to find my car. But then I remembered that Ms. Lavey was also in a hurry and could show me the way back if I could find her.

Retracing my steps, I stationed myself at the entrance and waited as the audience filed out. Sure enough, Ms. Lavey emerged a few minutes later. She was only too happy to help me and had been hoping that she would not have to negotiate the streets alone. 

So off we walked, arm in arm, down the darkened, acorn–strewn streets. I told her that I was a professor at a local university; she told me that her physician father had been on the faculty in the medical school of the same university. I noticed that she was wearing a small patch of cloth on her head.

We exchanged small talk—how her father was faring, life at the university, two opposite worlds somehow experiencing harmony. After negotiating a few turns, we arrived at our destination. There were our cars: my 2014 Nissan waiting for me, just in front of her white SUV.

I watched Ms. Lavey get into her car, then climbed into mine and was on my way. Suddenly I realized that my grief had disappeared! Yes, it came back later, but for the entire time—mingling with bishops, Jews, and Muslims, sitting through the distinctive service, and walking back with Ms. Lavey—the heartache had stopped. It was as if I had entered a parallel world. For the briefest moment, I was experiencing the variety of life again.

I wish that I could say that this piece is about breakthroughs in intercultural relations, or new sensitivities acquired toward other groups or religions. But it is about dealing with grief. Could it be that when we have walked in darkness for so long, we are sometimes allowed to step into a parallel world where the darkness lifts?

Forget about the “new stage of life” talk—pop psychology offered by sincerely motivated friends or counselors who are seeking to portray grief as some type of “opportunity” for a changed life. Grief shadows the future. When we grieve we can only see as far as the present. We cannot see ahead, and even if we could, there is no desire to do so.

No. What we do have, however, what we can experience, is the next day. It is the single day that brings its own offering—perhaps its own world—that can lighten our load. This offering, this parallel world, can be found by simply deciding each day to receive good from, or give good to, those you encounter.

We theologians call it “grace.” Grace received, or grace given—either can give meaning to a solitary existence. But if we can enter one parallel world, why not another—and another the next day? As we constantly pursue new dimensions we can become increasingly aware of a oneness in the universe, a meaning and hope, that can transcend loss and loneliness.

Just a day at a time.

—James Breckenridge 

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