Loss and Renewal: From Darkness to Light – Deborah Thornton

Homily- Loss & Renewal – Part 1:  Deborah

Good morning. I’m Deborah Thornton, a longtime member of UUCSS. I’m glad you are with us today as we reflect on loss and renewal and the process of moving from darkness toward light.  

My thoughts on this topic are informed by my personal experience following the tragic death last year of my beloved daughter Anna, also known as Scout. You heard Scout’s voice during the prelude. You saw her name on the memorial quilt for children of our congregation,  where she is literally holding up the world.

My heart was shattered by that loss. The past year has been a slow, painful process of recovery, with occasional moments of happiness and hope. I never chose that path, and I would give up everything I learned along the way if it would bring my daughter back. Since that’s not possible, I’ll share what I’ve learned in the hope that it might help others—with the clear understanding that everyone’s path is different.

 One caveat: My remarks today reflect my personal experience and should not be construed as professional advice. I know the subject of loss can stir up strong feelings. If that happens for you and you’d like to request support, please email layministers@uucss.org.

I’m speaking on loss and renewal because I know something about loss, and renewal is our worship theme for this month. Any other year, that would be a natural choice for September, because it’s a time of transitions and new beginnings. But this year, many of us are reeling from an overwhelming barrage of losses—including the loss of our sense of what’s “normal.” How can we possibly find renewal in the face of all that loss?

Franciscan priest and Christian mystic, Father Richard Rohr, says: “Loss and renewal is the perennial, eternal, transformative pattern. It’s like a secret spiral: each time you allow the surrender, each time you can trust the dying, you will experience a new quality of life within you.”

I turned to the natural world to help me make sense of loss and renewal—in particular, the moon. We’re four days away from the new moon. It’s the darkest point of the cycle and a symbol of renewal, as darkness transitions to light. It’s a time to set a new intention, explore a new way of being. Traditional gardeners say the new moon is a good time for planting, because lunar gravity pulls water up and causes seeds to swell and burst.

That advice about planting made me wonder what germination might teach us about loss and renewal.

If you need the source, I purchased the photos from Getty Images on August 26]

When I Googled germination, I discovered that the process is a good metaphor to describe my spiritual and emotional journey through grief. I see five lessons here: go deep and settle in; crack open; send down roots; reach for the light; and be open to what’s possible.

The first step in germination is to plant the seed and let it rest in the darkness of the soil. The first stage in moving from loss to renewal is to surrender to the dark, hollow place of grief, without denying it or looking for the exit.

By “dark” and “darkness,” I mean the emotional depths that some people describe as a place with no light. What Rashani Réa called “a hollow space too vast for words … through which we pass with each loss, out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.” Darkness is by no means a pejorative term in my book. I believe darkness is fertile soil for growth and transformation.

The Sufi mystic, Rumi, had a deep appreciation for darkness. He said: “In the blackest of your moments, wait with no fear.” “Life’s waters flow from darkness. Search the darkness. Don’t run from it.”

In her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit says: “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

This deep, dark place is where the seed gathers moisture and prepares to sprout. It’s where we begin to digest and metabolize our loss. Come here as often as you need to, and stay awhile.. 

Something is stirring. Be still, and listen.

The next step in germination is for the seed to crack open so roots and sprouts can emerge. 

The next step in moving through grief is to crack open and let your feelings flow.

In his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, psychotherapist Francis Weller urges us to see grief as vital and necessary, rather than something to be endured, and to develop “an apprenticeship with sorrow.” The first task of that apprenticeship is to learn how to be with and honor our grief, however it shows up.

Cracking ourselves open and letting our feelings flow can be messy and scary, but it’s essential if we are to move through grief in a healthy way. There is no shame in this. As Leonard Cohen says in his song, Anthem, “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything — That’s how the light gets in.”

Grief brings up powerful, primal emotions that show up differently for everyone. As Buddhist teacher Frank Ostaseski noted: “Grief has a unique rhythm and texture in each of us. It cannot be rushed. Some people cry oceans of tears, some are angry or nauseous, others are numb with an absence of expression while still others experience wild, out of control displays. Everyone finds their own way to grieve.”

As we heard in Rashani Réa’s beautiful poem, “There is a cry deeper than all sound whose serrated edges cut the heart as we break open to the place inside which is unbreakable and whole, while learning to sing.”

Letting ourselves express deep, raw emotions is difficult when we’ve been taught to keep a stiff upper lip. It’s even more challenging in the face of “toxic positivity” that puts a sugar coating on everything. Trust me, the last thing someone in the throes of grief needs to hear is, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “She’s in a better place.” Responses like that invalidate our authentic emotions and can cause shame and stress.

We need to promote a culture that respects “the inherent worth and dignity of every human emotion.” We need to teach our children—and ourselves–to recognize the full range of our emotions and express them in healthy ways, and we need to learn how to support others in ways that validate their feelings instead of minimizing them.

May we be open to the sorrow, to the pain of grief.
May we be present for our sorrow and all emotions that arise.
May all beings learn from and transform sorrow.

I invite you now to reflect on your experiences of loss and consider: What is longing to be renewed in you?

Welcome back. I hope you found that reflection meaningful. Let’s see how that germination is coming along.

Wow! Look what happened while we were away! That little bean has begun to reach down and reach up all at once. It has a beautiful network of roots that will anchor the plant and allow it to absorb nutrients from the soil.

Roots help us process loss and move toward renewal. We need spiritual, emotional, and social roots to hold us steady as waves of grief wash over us. I don’t know how I would have survived my traumatic loss without the emotional and spiritual support of family, friends, and community, including this beloved congregation.  

Strong roots are especially critical when we face collective losses that impact us as individuals and as a society, such as the many forms of loss we are dealing with at the present moment. In these uncertain times, we need to send our roots down deep to support and nourish ourselves and each other.

In the words of UU Minister Gretchen Haley, “What our faith asks of us, what our faith imagines for us, is that somehow, right at that moment when our hearts break, we will find our way to see through that heartbreak. We will stay put – not close off, not run away, not hurt back – but keep on being in relationship, doing what we can to repair the world and each other.”

Our friend the bean began to reach toward the light while it was also sending down roots. Grieving humans generally need a little more time before we’re ready to consider the possibility that there might be something beyond the depths of our sorrow.

What I find inspiring about this stage of germination is that the sprout reaches for the light having never known anything but darkness. Let me say that again: the sprout reaches for the light having never known anything but darkness. That, my friends, is what Desmond Tutu meant when he said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

No matter how deep our sorrow, something eventually begins to unfurl within our hearts, often when we least expect it. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed it well when he said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

I was planning to close with a lesson from the final phase of germination, that moment when the sprout breaks through the soil and basks in the light. I had a juicy quote from Otto Scharmer of MIT’s Sloan School of Management about connecting to future possibilities. To be perfectly honest, though, I’m not there yet. I can’t speak from an experience I haven’t had. 

I’ve come a long way from scraping up the shards of my shattered heart last year, but renewal is still aspirational for me. Instead, I’ll lean into infinite hope and heed the advice of Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute: “Retreat and reflect: Allow the inner knowing to emerge.”

There is more love somewhere. There is more love somewhere.
I’m gonna keep on ’til I find it. There is more love somewhere.

Amen, and blessed be.