Recently, I have had the opportunity to reflect on how important community can be in someone's life. While I have been supported over the years by many different communities as I have celebrated certain markers in my life and dealt with the more difficult things that have cropped up, where I wanted only a few select people to know what was going on, the death of my mother has brought about an entirely new sense of community for me. I realized what may seem elementary to some, but was an "aha" moment for me. There are many different communities that surround me and each one has its own unique and different way of supporting me, just as I support them differently.
For example, I teach in a seminary, and, since my mothers' death, those who have been the most supportive of me are my students, both current and former. Now, this may be because I am an adjunct professor and so not an active part of the faculty or it may be because the most intense time I spend is with my students. Since I teach mostly about dying and death, the conversations we have are intimate and draw us closer -- heart to heart -- as we laugh, cry and come to deeper and newer understandings of how we, as clergy, can assist those who are dying as well as their loved ones. So, it is natural that it would be the students who would more intentionally reach out to me.
I am also a member of The Riverside Church and sing in the Chancel Choir and have done so since 1986. Much of this community is filled with people who, for the most part, are professional singers or are students in conservatories. Many are members of the church. The support from this group is very different. Because I am clergy, the tables are usually turned and I am the one assisting them and supporting them. And yet, in their own way, they too, have supported me.
I also work as a per diem chaplain at New York Presbyterian Hospital's Department of Pastoral Care and Education. This group of amazing people did not fear to reach out to me, were present and silent when I cried on the phone with them; they did not offer platitudes. They listened to my pain and offered prayers, silently and aloud, for me and for my family. And they welcomed me back with open hearts and arms when I returned to work.
I am also currently doing a sabbatical pastorate for a church in Briarcliff Manor. The members of Briarcliff Congregational Church have been an amazing group of caring people. They have supported me and held me up without even realizing it. While some of the leaders of the church knew that I was dealing with my mother's dying in-between being with them on Sundays, including flying back and forth to Florida, most of the congregation, while not knowing what was going on, were supportive in their own loving way. I am most grateful to God for them and for being with them during this time of my life. They have been a true blessing.
I am also a part of a chaplain's list serve. With the age of the Internet, living, dying and grieving have become as much a part of the exchange between people as any other part of our life. And so, I received much support, words of assurance and comforting comments from them. For the most part, their comments were extremely helpful and reminded me of God's presence in those moments when I felt most alone.
I also have a Facebook page, where I posted a note about my mother's death and who she was for me. I was overwhelmed with responses and comments from people -- very sensitive and caring comments -- from people who knew my mother when I was in grade school to those who never knew her, but know me and reminded me that I am who I am in large part because of who she was and what she instilled in me.
The cards I received from all of these communities were overwhelming. I received more than 70 cards and notes and lost count of the number of e-mails. Up until my mom's death, I had not thought much about sending people condolence cards -- besides most of them are so corny and not what I would offer to someone. Yet, these cards, chosen so carefully by so many, helped me to grieve and helped me to begin my healing process.
One other amazing "community" were the stranger with whom I dealt on a day-to-day basis in my traveling back and forth and in running errands, etc. Every single person, from flight attendant to grocery store clerk, to the staff at the rehab where my mother was, were incredibly kind to me. Most had no idea that I was dealing with my mothers' dying. And yet, they seemed to go above and beyond to be helpful to me. I truly believe that God placed them, and all of the others mentioned above, in my life at this time in order to help me deal with what was going on. Whenever I even sensed a roadblock coming my way, I could feel myself starting to get upset, and yet that roadblock never came. Instead, kindness was awaiting me.
The last community is, of course, my family and my extended family. I could not have been as present for my mother without the support of my family and, in particular, my spouse, Pat. Without that support, I would have been lost and overwhelmed. Again, God's hand has been at work here, since our relationship has spanned more than 30 years, we were able and are still working to, maintain our strong love and commitment to each other, even as we both grieve my mother's death.
Each of these communities brought its own sense of sacredness and grace to me as I continue to mourn my mother's death and celebrate her life. I have learned a great deal about what it feels like to be cared for, especially since I am usually the one in the role of support person. I am so thankful to God for bringing into my life each and every person who reached out to me in ways I would never have imagined would have been so helpful to me. My gratitude runs deep.