Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday, I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another. To follow, please leave your email address.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Finding Our Compass Points

When someone we love dies, the world we knew ceases to exist. The future is scrambled, and we no longer know what direction to head. The center no longer holds.

I’ve carried a quote by Thomas Merton with me since high school. I was riding my bike from Minnesota across Wisconsin, wanted something to read, and found Merton’s slim book Thoughts in Solitude in a convenience store:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

Before I married Evelyn, I seriously debated whether I wanted to be a monk or a husband, which was curious because I’m not a Catholic. She wondered, too. I made my choice and married her on the day that Merton made his vows to be a monk.

Eighteen years later, and fourteen months after Ev died, I arrived at Gethsemani Monastery and stood where Merton wrote these words. I went because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my life. Without a future to work toward, without her spark, I had no drive to do anything.

For a week I walked around the monastery. Every couple of hours I went to services that began at 3 a.m. I walked through the fields and woods that Merton walked, and toyed again with the idea of becoming a monk. Being at the monastery centered me.

Every evening, as the black and white-robed monks sang Compline, the last service of the day, they wrapped my heart in hope: “Before the ending of the day / creator of the world we pray / that with thy gracious favour thou / wouldst be our guard and keeper now.”

I didn’t find any answers or a direction for my future, but I did realize that I felt more alive in the woods than inside the monastery looking at icons and singing Gregorian chant, as beautiful and as moving as they were. I was more John Muir than Thomas Merton.

I returned to California and my beloved Yosemite. As I hiked alone through the sanctuary of the mountains, I worked my way through grief and rejoined the living. Fifteen years later, I still don’t have a vision for the future, and I may never have one. But I realized one thing.

It’s not what I do in life that matters. It’s how I live each day.

I do not need to know where I will end up. I only need to know how I want to go through each day. I only need to be faithful to a guiding principle, whether this is compassion, social justice, creativity, or challenging the boundaries that hold people back from caring for each other. I don’t even need to know how I’ll accomplish this. Every morning I just need to get up and ask, “How can I be part of this journey today?” Then say yes to what shows up.
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If grief is part of your journey, then you will live in a desert for a time and face its mind-numbing despair and chaos. Do not give in to the alluring melancholy of death. We are more than our sorrow. We are more than our loneliness, our bitterness, and our anger. There is a community of support around us, even if that community is scattered around the country.

If you can smile at someone, and they smile back, it’s a good day.

If we can cry when people are hurting, if we can laugh when people are happy, if we aren’t too proud to ask for help when we’re faltering, then we will be okay.


Do not close yourself inside a hard, protective shell. Stay open to wonder and to the surprise that lives in others. Follow what brings you life. Death can take care of itself.

2 comments:

  1. I'm inspired anew by your words that you do not need to know where you will end up or even the exact route to each day's goal. I haven't been in a very hopeful state and needed that reminder. Hope, after all, is simply knowing you will have the best day possible...and what that means and all the details...that's the journey...not hope.

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  2. I used to plan everything out, Anne, and this included the future into retirement. Then Evelyn died. That future disappeared, as well as all the work I put into making that happen. Now I have a general direction, general goals for the coming season, and I try to let surprises reroute my plans for each day. Undefined hope each day.

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