Grief and Gratitude

A Sermon by Nancy Smith Worthen

Nancy has lived in Rhode Island all her life. Her spiritual journey moved from Christianity in the Congregational Church to pagan worship and now Buddhist and Unitarian practice. She has worked in nonprofits as an administrator and volunteer coordinator, most recently as AmeriCorps director at the Providence Children’s Museum, Ready To Learn Providence, and Providence CityArts! For Youth. She loves gardening, reading, and contra dancing, as well listening and talking with friends. In her sermon, Nancy shares poetry and writings that have inspired her in her journey of grieving the deaths of her brother, her parents, and, most recently, her daughter, Margaret, who attended First Unitarian before she died.

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Sermon Text

I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts about grief and gratitude.  I need to mention that meditation in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh has been a part of my life for more than 20 years, and I am going to talk primarily about one Buddhist writing called the Five Remembrances, which reflects on the reality of life. Thich Nhat Hanh believes that if you deny the reality of life, you enjoy it less.  For me, this acceptance of life is linked with the practice of gratitude

Thich Nhat Hanh edited this version of the Five Remembrances:

I am of the nature to grow old.  There is no way of escaping growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Since I first discovered these words five years ago, I find myself reading them often, and sharing them with others who are thinking about impermanence and change. Most human beings are afraid of the same things — old age, sickness, and death.  Focusing on the Five Remembrances is a way to develop fearlessness by being present for the things we fear.

Long before I had reflected on these words, my brother Craig Smith died at age 20. Active in Central Congregational Church, he went to Brown University and was completing his junior year when he was in a collision on Route 95 at the Thurbers Avenue curve. He died two days later. I was 17 years old at the time of his death, and I was sad and confused.  I missed my brother, who was someone I had admired and looked up to (he was 6 feet 4 inches tall!).  He and I were so different: he was outspoken, I was shy; he was the leader, I quietly followed; his grades were outstanding, mine were okay.

After he died, I realized that I could not follow in his footsteps anymore.  I needed to be like him.  I wanted to be like him.  In some way, I became him.  I thought about what he would do in a situation and tried to emulate his actions.  I became bolder, more outspoken, more of a leader.  In some way, I knew that the actions I took were central to who I was and who I wanted to become. My brother’s death taught me an important lesson about taking action to become the person I wanted to be.

My brother’s death was my first teacher of the lesson of living in the present moment.  Knowing that things could change in one moment, I became aware of the importance of living now — not lingering in regret, not holding back in fear, not being silent in doubt, but instead taking action.  And in addition, I became deeply grateful for the moments I was alive.

My parents were also my teachers as I was growing up.  They taught me the fear, doubt, and regret that I struggled with before and after my brother’s death.  My mother was fearful of the unknown and instilled fear on me.  My father was very cautious and protective. Their reaction to my brother’s death was to blame God, become withdrawn and bitter, and not accept help.  I knew that I wanted to grieve differently, so I asked for help and received the help I needed.  Asking for help and accepting assistance was a lesson I learned during this difficult time.

Another lesson from my parents was regarding aging.  I saw my parents enter old age, ill health, and death in a natural progression and accepted this natural sequence, which was a huge learning for me.  My father gracefully accepted the limitations of old age, realizing that he needed to let go of certain physical activities and letting them go without complaint.  I remember his actions now as I struggle with similar limitations.

My co-workers were also my teachers.  I was lucky enough to work in several vibrant and creative non-profit organizations like the Providence Children’s Museum and Ready to Learn Providence.  My best lessons were about the joy of teamwork and the beauty of community.  At our best, staff worked as one, embodying cooperation, open-hearted hard work and satisfaction through our positive action.  I saw the community that my co-workers created through careful and positive leadership, and learned again how actions create results.

My daughter Margaret, who was born in 1984, suffered a severe stroke at age 22.  Margaret taught me about change, as all children teach their parents about change as they grow up and learn new things, changing from infant to toddler to youngster to adolescent to adult.  Seeing my daughter change from an athletic, healthy, beautiful, and articulate college student into a daughter who could not walk or move her arms or eat or communicate was a harsh lesson in change.

My reaction was shock, denial, fear, and sadness.  Where was my daughter, the one I knew and loved?  She was right in front of me, but changed.  I sat with her and got to know this new Margaret.  I sat with her and learned to stay in the present moment, rather than linger in the suffering of regret and anxiety, thinking about what might have been, like new apartments after college, jobs, marriage, and grandchildren.  I sat with her and surrounded her with love in every way I knew how, with music, with beauty, with kindness, with touch, with friendship.  She and I learned to make art together.  Holding her hand with a pencil or paint brush, we created over 100 paintings, as well as hand painted dolls and bags. Some of you may remember an art show of our work together in the Atrium gallery in 2016.  The painting on the altar is one we painted together using this hand over hand technique.  We had fun painting together, the subjects and colors we chose were bright and cheerful. And this activity gave Margaret a voice in the world, and a way to communicate with her actions.

She died in August of 2015.  I am currently getting to know how to be with this new Margaret, who does not have a body but is with me as I walk through my life.  I feel her as I look around my home, when I paint and dance and garden, when I listen to music, when I am in church, when I see mothers with their daughters, when I meditate.  I feel her present in the love I have for my partner Barry’s children and grandchildren.  The act of loving brings me to Margaret, and I feel she is alive in me. The actions I take in my life are motivated by this deep love, which grows from my love for Margaret.

In the process of learning about impermanence, I learned that living in the present moment was crucial to my ability to feel some sort of peace.  I learned to listen to my heart, to meditate on the quiet beauty of the natural world and to be grateful for the simple gifts life brings.  In a strange and beautiful way, the deaths I experienced helped me see the beauty in the everyday moments of my life.

I want to close with a poem by Carrie Newcomer about a gratitude practice.

Every night before I go to sleep
I say out loud
Three things that I’m grateful for,
All the significant, insignificant
Extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life.
It’s a small practice and humble,
And yet, I find I sleep better
Holding what lightens and softens my life
Ever so briefly at the end of the day.
Sunlight, and blueberries,
Good dogs and wool socks,
A fine rain,
A good friend,
Fresh basil and wild flox,
My father’s good health,
My daughter’s new job,
The song that always makes me cry,
Always at the same part,
No matter times I hear it.
Decent coffee at the airport,
And your quiet breathing,
The stories you told me,
The frost patterns on the windows,
English horns and banjos,
Wood thrush and June bugs,
The smooth glassy calm of the morning pond,
An old coat,
A new poem,
My library card,
And that my car keeps running
Despite all the miles.

And after three things,
More often than not,
I get on a roll and I just keep going,
I keep naming Ang listing,

Until I lie grinning,
Blankets pulled up to my chin,
Awash with wonder
At the sweetness of it all.