For the Week of October 16, 2017: When Life Hurts, What Sustains You?

It’s difficult to imagine the many lives that have been lost or devastated in the past few weeks by fire, hurricanes, shootings or bombings.  Each day seems to only bring more reports of tragedy–loss and destruction.  Last week I wrote of friends diagnosed with metastatic cancer  and those who had lost their homes in the California wildfires.   They have all occupied a permanent place in my daily thoughts, my concern for them and hope for their recovery filling the pages of my journal.  It was difficult to imagine any more heartache and tragedy coming in the wake of the past few weeks, but last night we learned of another loss.  This one affected me even more than the others, because it was the death of a friend’s grandchild, the victim of an automobile crash and a drunk driver.  My emotions ran the gamut of shock, sorrow and not a little bit of anger ignited by the circumstances of the death.  An unnecessary death of an innocent child.

But now, I am struggling to know what to say or how to offer support and help for the family.  I am worried how they will cope and deal with a tragedy no one should have to experience.  I walked early this morning, sifting through my thoughts before returning to write in an attempt to make sense of it all.  Gradually, what I was writing took on the form of a prayer, first for the child whose life was lost and then for her family, struggling with overwhelming grief and heartbreak.  I am not one who prays regularly, nor do I attend church each Sunday as I used to do so many years ago, and yet, I know that writing each morning as I do is both a meditation and a prayer, something I recall the poet, Denise Levertov, saying in her final interview:   “When you’re caught up in writing, “it can be a form of prayer.”

I don’t think our friend and her family are members of a church nor very religious, and I wonder now what will help them through this horrible loss.  Certainly the support of their close-knit family will be important, but could their prayers or the prayers of others help?   Perhaps, as the book, Healing Words:  The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, written by Larry Dossey, MD, suggests.  It’s interesting that in this day of modern medicine, something as basic as prayer can have beneficial impact on our health and well-being. Dossey summarizes a number of studies demonstrating the positive influences of prayer on health and healing among patients with breast cancer, HIV, and coronary disease, among others.  I remember the words of one writing group member a few years ago as she reflected on her recovery:  “I believe that everyone’s prayers helped me make it through with grace and strength.”

We find prayer in every religion and culture, written in every language.  Studies have found that religion and spirituality are very important to the quality of life among many cancer patients.  Prayer sustains us and offers solace.  For me,  daily writing is a deeply spiritual practice.  Although religion and spirituality are related, they are not synonymous.  Religion refers to a specific set of beliefs and practices, usually within an organized group, while spirituality is more concerned with our beliefs about the meaning of life.  You may think of yourself as religious or spiritual or both.

Whatever our religious or spiritual beliefs, one’s faith or spirituality can provide strength and comfort.  “As part of our wholeness,” Stephen Levine said in a 1994 Sun interview, “we need our woundedness.  It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves.”

The tragedies in your lives may seem like a dark night of the soul and even challenge your faith, but life’s difficult and painful experiences also offer the chance to explore your spirituality, deepen your self-understanding and compassion for others. “My faith grew, and I prayed a lot,” more than a few of my writing group members remark after cancer treatment.  Others turn their writing into prayer, as L. did, asking for mercy as  she struggled through chemotherapy:

A wad of pain
In the pit of my stomach
Lord have mercy

I focus on it
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy…

L.’s writing, begun in response to a group prompt, led her into a prayer.  Writing can, as hers did and this morning, mine, even become the prayer itself.  Writing takes us deep into ourselves, and in the wake of life’s tragedies, sorrow and suffering, it can become a prayer of sorts, a deeply spiritual practice.  We write raw, honestly and as we do, the irrelevant and unnecessary falls away to reveal the meaning in our lives.  Call it what you will–hope, prayer, faith, or meditation–we stumble onto a higher consciousness, something larger than ourselves.

When K., a young woman in her twenties, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, she confessed to the writing group that she had never been one to go to church.  Now she felt as if she needed to rely on something bigger than herself.  “I think I need a boost in the power of faith,” she said.  “Faith, I have decided is an important part of human life.”

In Buddhism, understanding nourishes faith. The act of looking deeply within ourselves not only fosters self-understanding, it can strengthen our faith.  V., who died of metastatic breast cancer several years ago, wrote throughout her cancer journey, often humorously, sometimes poignantly.  As she neared her final weeks, she examined her faith, acknowledging that although it had been challenged by cancer, her faith had offered her strength and solace.  .

But our relationship has changed.  In asking me to surrender to this illness, God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free.  And I have found this to be a most precious time.  My cancer has challenged my faith, and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had.  I have found true surrender, enormous peace.

V.’s words are ones I return to often in my writing groups as I think about what sustains us all in dark and seemingly inconsolable times in our lives.  Faith, prayer, meditation, the community of others’ support–we learn again to open our hearts to caring, compassion and connectedness with each other– it lets the healing in.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Today, my heart is again heavy with sorrow and the weight of unanswerable questions. I have turned to what sustains me in times of sorrow and pain:  long walks in the quiet of early morning, a practice of writing–my meditation, my prayer.  What sustains you in those incomprehensible moments of loss or tragedy?
  • Reflect on the beliefs or spiritual practices that sustain you.  Write about the importance of prayer, meditation, faith or community during difficult times in your life.
  • Perhaps your faith has been challenged by unexpected tragedy.  Perhaps your illness or struggles led you to a spiritual journey you didn’t anticipate.  Where have you found solace and strength in the midst of hardship?

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
This entry was posted in expressive writing, reflections on life, writing and spirituality, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing from life, writing to heal. Bookmark the permalink.

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