|Italiano:||En Française:||Auf Deutsch:||Espanol|
A community service organization that provides the community with grief support services, education, resources, and hope.
Paul, Tracy, "Our House" founderJo-Anne Lautman and Chad Lowe
Presented to Paul by Chad Lowe in honor of his service and dedication in making a difference in the area of grief education or furthering community awareness about the grief process.
"When I was thirteen..."
When I was thirteen years old, my Grandfather lay dying in a hospital in Florida. I had just been Bar Mitzvah’d and my father and I flew to Miami with my father’s sister and their first cousin. I remember the loud drone of the plane’s propellers and an uneasy sense of anticipation that made the flight seem endless.
My grandfather’s hospital room smelled really bad and I remember not wanting to take a full breath and let any of it in. My Aunt’s wailing voice echoed through the corridor and I stood at my grandfather’s bedside, quietly and obediently singing him the section of the Torah that I had memorized for my Bar Mitzvah. I remember my father standing behind me. I remember his hand on my left shoulder.
My grandfather was a house painter. He was a short man of slight build. I remember him as a quiet, very religious man who bound his arms and head with the little brown boxes and worn leather strips of his tefillin and prayed morning and night. In photos he has large ears, a big nose and if you were to look closely, you could see that he had a glass eye. However, he never appeared funny to me. There was always something very gentle about him. The first nine years of my life were spent in a house my father designed and built on land just behind his father’s house. I have the notion that I spent a lot of time with my grandfather during those years. I like to think that we were very close…though I’m not sure. All I really remember besides the grapefruit tree in front of the bright white little house they retired to in Coral Gables is my father’s hand on my shoulder, that awful smell, my Aunt keening out in the Hospital corridor with the shiny blue floors…and my grandfather laying before me, his breathing shallow, staring at me with his one eye.
And I remember waking to the bathroom light coming on in our Hotel and my father’s silhouette leaning halfway out the glaring doorway and telling me that Grandpa had died. Then he closed the door and it was dark.
After my grandfather’s funeral I was looking out across a field beyond the dining room window in our new house and a whirling dervish of dust and wind suddenly appeared and lazily spun down a dirt road that wound through the field. My father, who had never been very religious went to services at our Temple morning and night for a whole year…and I was taken out of the private school I had been attending because I had developed a severe case of eczema and everybody thought there would be less pressure in a public school.
That was my introduction to death and grieving. Something that as a young man I think I knew I had to go through at some point…but it wasn’t talked about. In fact, it was avoided. As children, we were shielded from it…and when it was talked about, it was in quiet, solemn, head-shaking tones that weighed so heavily on any natural curiosity I had about mortality that it became second nature to avoid the subject –forget it whenever possible. And this was how I lived my young life. Fascinated by the morbidity of war, by car accidents and newspaper photos of gangsters lying in pools of blood...by dead people. I would fantasize my father’s dying over and over even though he was still alive. I’d dream of what his death would be like…his funeral…of what I would do and say. I loved my father. I yearned for his affection and approval, and yet there was this fascination with his death. What was that about? I think it was both about my being empowered by his death…and ironically being afraid of being powerless after his death. Powerless to prevent his death…and somewhere deep inside my immortal youth, my fear of being powerless to prevent my own death.
Then the road of my life unfolded before me and ran to a dark horizon where I not only lost my father but shortly thereafter found myself and my own family lost in the nightmare of AIDS. I had a wife and two children who were infected. In time, my daughter died…and then my wife. And while the experience of their loss and the ongoing vulnerability of my son to the HIV virus is not easy to describe, what I have learned over time about being powerless has taken me to places I could never have dreamt of and has given me an opportunity to share what I continue to learn.
I think it is important to acknowledge our powerlessness in our understanding of ‘grieving,’ because while we grieve for the physical presence of those we have loved and lost, it is equally important to acknowledge that we are also grieving for ourselves. We are grieving for our own mortality… and for our being powerless to prevent it.
I think a primary piece of our suffering is our powerlessness. From the day we are born we experience being powerless …and then we experience fear. And as we grow, our fear creates shame because we can’t affect our mortality, and we can’t tolerate these feelings of being powerless. We do everything we can to avoid these feelings, to deny them and do whatever we can to prove that we really are powerful.
And though the fear that we have no power over death raises its head in the loss of a loved one, or a journey with illness, mortal or otherwise, there are other reminders that fill our everyday lives that we often are unable to acknowledge as experiences of being powerless and afraid. The seemingly innocuous irritation of getting stuck in traffic. Being unable to exert any influence over a child. Being unable to realize a desired goal in business or social standing. Having little or no effect on our political leaders and the direction of our country…our world. The feelings that these reminders bring up is so intolerable and unacceptable…that we become enraged and angry at others and at ourselves. We become depressed or bored. We become apathetic, cynical. We eat too much, buy too much, intoxicate ourselves with whatever we can lay our hands and mouths on in our effort not to feel these feelings, feel this fear. Our minds and egos point to things we own, quantities and qualities we are able to measure. Philosophies and belief systems that we have created. We collect wealth, we make ourselves strong, and stronger…we change the shapes of our bodies, the color of our hair, conquer other peoples, kill and maim in the name of what we believe…all in an attempt to prove that we are powerful. We even make an enemy of our fear and say things like; ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself,’ and we ask…as many here may do right now…’why do we have to think about this? Hear this? Why does he have to say this here…and now? Isn’t it enough that we have to deal with this in Church, or Synagogue, or when IT happens? You know…’death?’ Why now?
When I was invited here, I reluctantly revisited my memories of grieving…what I have of them…because my mind finds it difficult to remember those feelings. And I thought…what can I bring to the table here? What do I know of grieving today? And I realized that not only was grieving as real a part of my everyday life as was my fear, but I realized that we are all grieving. Our country is grieving. Our world is grieving. It is grieving its loss of innocence. It’s grieving its loss of immortality, lessening resources, greater and more vulnerable populations…its grieving the loss of the illusion that this planet, our mother earth is a limitless source of life. And it’s grieving…in so many ways, over our powerlessness to do anything about it. The condition of our world is splashed on our headlines, t.v.’s, computers and cell phones twenty-four hours a day, drumming us into an apathy, a pharmaceutical haze…a raging urge to control…anything to avoid having to confront or deal with our shame and fear of being powerless.
And then I remembered what I have learned about fear. That the saying; ‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” does us a great disservice. For as much as it is our human nature to avoid our fear, it is also our gift as humans to be able to understand, acknowledge and accept our fear. To understand that our fear of being powerless in the face of death is as much a part of our lives as is love. That without our fear, we would never be able to exercise our awareness, our capacity for love and compassion not only for ourselves in our powerlessness, but for others. Without our fear we would never be able to forgive ourselves our sins that we commit out of fear. We would never have the opportunity to exercise our consciousness and that aspect of being human that sets us apart from all other life. For it is within our ability to see our fear as something apart and not who we are. To be able to say ‘ a part of me is scared,’ rather than ‘I am scared.’ Because ‘scared’ is not who I am. It is not my identity. And that part of us that is able to see the part that is scared, that is sad, that is grieving…is the same part, that same consciousness and awareness in each of us that…right now… can see ourselves sitting and standing here, listening and talking…that part that is able to see ourselves feeling and thinking…that is who we really are. That place of awareness is our true identity. And that awareness…that consciousness which is thought . …thought…of which everything is made. The air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the ideas and dreams we have… all made of thought. And our ability to see ourselves from this conscious place apart…to see ourselves in our common human struggle, to dignify our struggle with our powerlessness…to see ourselves and experience and acknowledge our common fear…that ability gives us our capacity to be compassionate. To be able to dignify our journey with fear and powerlessness and our all too human need to avoid them. And from that place of awareness….that place apart, we can choose to be compassionate for ourselves…and by extension, compassionate to others. And whenever we experience compassion, we are experiencing our hearts, our capacity for love, our connection to and oneness with each other, our oneness with everything, and our belonging to everything that is.
Our human condition of being powerless in the face of our mortality gives us our experience of fear…and fear, in our fragile, all too human lives leads us to our love. Just as the Universe needs to expand before it can contract, or our lungs need to empty before they can fill, without acknowledging our fear and powerlessness and the dignity of our struggle …we cannot experience love…and without our love…there can be no fear. They need each other…exist together and complete each other.
It strikes me that the issue and plight that this organization speaks to reaches far beyond our individual experiences of grief and loss. It speaks to an act of acknowledgment that we are all capable of and in need of; an act of compassion for ourselves and others that understands that our whole world is grieving. That our ability to recognize and acknowledge our fear of being powerless is our opportunity and our only true empowerment…and the only way we can overcome the fearful plight of our nation and the peoples of the world. We are confronted more than ever before by our proximity to the suffering, hate, greed, and lack of consciousness that we and our fellow man are capable of. It has given rise to a level of fear never experienced before on this planet. It has also given rise to our greatest opportunity to be human.