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Peter on Grief and Communities

Well, that was unexpected.

For the last year, ever since my mom's health took a sharp downturn, I've been my dad's ride to Florence Congregational Church on Sundays. That community has been important for my dad and the weekly outing with me was something he always looked forward to and enjoyed, so I didn't mind taking him there. It meant giving up attending my own Quaker meeting for the duration, but I had already been questioning whether silent waiting worship was working for me. I was ready for a sabbatical.

A month ago, my dad was Section-Twelved into a geriatric psych hospital when his dementia started to make him emotionally volatile. I had been visiting him every day at his assisted living facility which was right on my way home from work, but the hospital was almost an hour away. I didn't see him at all for three weeks, and when I did visit him there, it actually took me a couple of seconds to recognize him. He was slumped forward in a wheel chair, looking very gaunt and drained, and Cat and I weren't able to rouse him enough to say more than a few words.

A week later, he was discharged and transferred to a nursing home in Amherst. I had toured half a dozen nursing homes and this was a good one, with a more intensive memory support unit than assisted living could provide, plus some physical therapy. My first couple of visits there found him too sleepy to open his eyes, but on Friday I found him awake and relatively energetic. He had been sitting with other residents out in a common space listening to a musical performance, and clearly enjoying it. When I sat down next to him and took his hand, he smiled and asked, "Is that you?" I'm pretty sure that means he recognized me. I wheeled him out to a quieter room and read aloud to him a couple of chapters from a kid's book about Apollo 13. He stopped me now and then to make comments, but he was really incoherent. He's lost almost all of the nouns from his expressive vocabulary. Still, he seemed contented and happy, and when I asked him if he wanted to go back and hear more music, he was enthusiastic. I told him I'd be back in a couple of days, and when I left, he wasn't clingy the way he sometimes used to be.

Yesterday (Saturday) I was irritable and glum trough a day of puttering, and last night it took me forever to fall asleep. Crankiness lay over me like a blanket. When at last I consciously opened up to it and let it in, I realized--oh, yeah, this isn't annoyance; this is grief. The colors and outlines of grief are very familiar to me.

This morning I went alone to Florence Congregational Church. I wanted to let them all know what was up with my dad and to tell them he probably wouldn't be coming back, and also to say goodbye myself, since it was time to go back and start rebuilding my connection with my Quaker meeting. 

Even if I were still Christian, I could never be Congregationalist. Protestant church services haven't ever worked for me, in spite of my Methodist upbringing. My hunger for God has led me to sing Gregorian chant in an Anglican monastery, to raise organic vegetables in a gardening co-op, to build housing for refugees in a Christian commune, to draw down the God in a Wiccan coven, and to sit in silent worship and feel Spirit bring me to my feet and speak in Quaker meeting. But Protestant hymn singing and sermons just feel flat and flavorless to me.

Still, I was feeling sad about leaving the community at Florence Congregational and the kickass pastor there who's been all kinds of supportive. (That is one of the things I've always felt the strong lack of, both in Pagan and in Quaker settings. God / the Gods speak to each of us directly. We have Pagan leaders and teachers, and we have weighty Friends and recorded ministers, but we don't have anything like pastors we can go to. A high priestess isn't the same thing, and neither is a care and counsel committee.) I found myself grieving that loss along with grieving my dad's dementia. 

But I did not expect to start weeping uncontrollably as soon as I sat down to wait for the service to begin. 

One after another, people came up to ask about my dad, and to ask how I was doing, and to offer hugs and support. I got it under control once the service began, and when the time came for prayer requests, I was able to stand and tell them about my dad's rapidly advancing dementia. And I told them that I had come this morning partly to say goodbye, because I didn't think I would be coming back either.

But, I told them, I found now that I couldn't do that. Over the year that I've been attending, that community has become very important to me as well, and I cannot say goodbye. I will start attending Quaker meeting again, but I'll keep dropping in now and then to stay connected to that congregation.

I'm still very much a Pagan, and that makes all of this a little weirder. Pastor Irv and I have talked openly about my spiritual identity. With the rest of the congregation, it just hasn't come up. At some point it might need to. I'm a polytheist, a panentheist, and a neo-Platonist. I'm a Pagan and a Wiccan and a Witch. In their church, I'm a sojourner in a strange land.

And I can't leave them, because I'm one of them.


Daniel Wilcox said…
Peter, Thank you for sharing this personal sad time of you and your dad. My dad's already gone, died almost 4 years ago, but my mom is suffering serious dementia and in a care facility almost 6 hours away near my sisters. I can no longer call her; she's unable to relate via phone. So I make the 11 hour drive about once a month. Sadly, she often doesn't recognize me, and is attentive only for 5 or 10 minutes. Last time she thought I was a man who has 3 little kids. Have no idea who that could be. And she told her nurse that she used to have a boy and a girl:-( even though the nurse had told her that me, her son, was here.

Anyway, I hope you and your dad can yet have a few aware times. They go away, way too soon.

I agree with you about a disadvantage of Friends is that "we have weighty Friends and recorded ministers, but we don't have anything like pastors we can go to."

During a tragic time, 10 years ago, I received incredible empathy and encouragement from a Friend who spontaneously sang during worship, though not even knowing about my tragedy! HOWEVER, when I did share and so needed hugs and deep closeness from my meeting, there was none.

It's wonderful that you received such deep emotional support from the Congregational Church. I agree with you though that "Protestant church services haven't ever worked for me."

One question: Would you recommend a past article by yourself or a book on your view of reality? I can really understand your positive views of neo-Platonism and, particularly, panentheism. What baffles me, however, is your saying you are a "polytheist"! I am a retired world literature teacher and think that polytheism for today, not only is irrational, but superstitious, and contrary to everything we know about science, on the same level as astrology, etc.
Hystery said…
Peter, I'm so sorry about your Dad. I'm also thankful to you for writing about it as several members of my family are facing their last stage of life and I'm sort of lurching and tripping through that.

I recently began attending a Presbyterian church. Since our Meeting is so far away and the weather has been treacherous, I thought I'd make visits to the churches in my community to get a sense of them- a kind of ecumenical "hello, there!" But I got hung up in the Presbyterian church with their social justice, Quaker-influenced new minister and their welcoming, though tiny, congregation. Now my kids have gone and had their first communion. (Oh, dear!!) We're still Friends and attending our meeting, but we think of the Presbyterians as our foul-weather, from-time-to-time church and I'm feeling more encouraged to seek community among other folks too. I just had to throw aside that rule book I've been dragging around about who can and who can't speak truth to me. Turns out that book was way outdated anyhow.
Anonymous said…
Daniel, thanks for your kind words. As for books or past articles that might clarify my polytheism, I would send you first to a recent post of mine, "Peter on Reading Neoplatonists (part 1)" The philosopher Iamblichus (245–325 CE) provides an intellectual framework for thinking about the One God / the many Gods that is the most complete and coherent that I've yet found. I'll be posting more about him soon.

Hystery, thanks also to you for sharing your experiences. I'm glad you've found a spiritual home-away-from-home. Communion in a Christian church continues to be something I can't quite do. Part of that comes from the time I spent as a high church Episcopalian, where I came to regard the Eucharist as actual transubstantiation, which makes it pretty high voltage. Protestant churches are more apt to regard it as a commemoration rather than an actual miracle...but as I said, I could never be one of those mainstream Protestants.
Daniel Wilcox said…

Thanks for the references.

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