the OUUC spark

January 19, 2023

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Being with Grief - Rev. Mary Gear

"We do not aim for erasing people’s pain—only for making it so that they do not face it by themselves."

~Liz James, “How Do Unitarian Universalists Mourn?” World Magazine Fall 2020

Last Fall I shared with you that my youngest brother, Greg, is ill with cancer. I’d like to offer an update and some words about grief.

First, an update on Greg. He received this new diagnosis in October and since then has had surgery and a 6-week course of radiation and chemotherapy. He is doing well right now and I am confident that he will continue to do as well as he can.

What we’ve learned about this cancer is that treatment can slow the progression and that the cancer is not curable. That means Greg is receiving treatment in order to prolong his life for as long as possible while giving him a good quality of life for as long as he has.

I visited Greg and his family in South Carolina over the holidays and was grateful to spend time just hanging out, talking, taking walks, and watching Michigan football. I was with Greg when he “rang the bell” to celebrate his final radiation treatment. Everyone in our immediate family has visited Greg over the past 3 months and it is so good to be together.

Greg, my family, and I are doing as well as we can. And we are grieving. We are grieving the toll of this illness on Greg’s body, mind, spirit and life. We are grieving the losses he has suffered so far. We are grieving the uncertainty and the unknown as we look toward the next scan and the next steps. I know that many of you have experience with cancer or other serious illness and know what this is like.

What I have learned about grief is that it takes time, energy and intention to be with the feelings, and it is not easy work. I’ve learned that, while grief and loss are universal experiences, everyone wants and needs something different for support, so it’s best to ask. I’ve learned that it’s important to share what is happening and share our feelings, and that it is essential to hold hope while we face what is real.

I know that I am experiencing anticipatory grief, the likelihood that this illness will cut Greg’s life short. There are many kinds of grief and many reasons that we grieve. Most of us are familiar with the grief that happens after death, when we lose someone we love. Anticipatory grief is the grief that happens before death. Those of you who have been caregivers know this grief. While there are different kinds of grief, and grief is grief with all the feelings that come with it-sadness, anger, worry, fear, vulnerability, facing our own mortality.

Throughout my years as a social worker and minister, I’ve accompanied many people through loss and grief. In my time with you at OUUC, we’ve had many losses. Loss and grief are not new, and the reason for this grief is something new for me.

I am grateful to have had 12 days with my brother and his family in South Carolina over the new year's holiday, and I am planning my next trip across the country. I have also advised the OUUC board and staff that when my brother and family need me, I will go. I don’t know when that will be; none of us do.

Some of you may be inclined to not ask anything of me during this time. Please don’t follow that inclination. I find great joy in my ministry, and I need all the joy I can get right now! I will be happy to brainstorm with you on how to best meet your request.

It is a skill of the heart to be with someone who is grieving. With the amount of change and loss that we’ve all experienced these past few years, this is a skill that is important to build and practice—we all need extra care right now and we don’t always know the grief that someone is carrying. It’s part of caring for each other and being in community. Thank you for practicing with me.

Blessings on your week,

Rev. Mary

What You Can Do

While the experience of loss and grief is universal, every person grieves differently, and our needs vary. Many of you have asked that you can do to help support me and my family. Thank you for asking, and here’s a few things that would help.

  • Know that I have good support for my emotional and spiritual life. By now you probably know that boundaries are important to me and to the health of a minister and a congregation. I have friends, family and colleagues who are supporting my emotional and spiritual growth through this, and who will help me hold hope. I will not ask any of you to offer that kind of support, and there are other kinds of support that you can offer.

  • Know that questions are hard. It might feel normal and caring to ask: How are you? How is your brother? I know that those questions seek to connect and show care. And frankly, I don’t know how to answer them. Greg is mostly fine, doing as well as he can and keeping his spirits up. And he has cancer. I am doing my best to show up well in my life and work, and I am deeply sad.

If you’d like to show connection, love and support, you might consider these actions instead of asking those questions:

  • Say: I’m thinking of you and your family.

  • I’m sending love/care/prayers to you and your brother.

  • I/we care about you and wish you and your family well.

  • I can only imagine receiving such news.

  • I wish I had the right words; just know I care.

  • Or say nothing and offer a smile, touch or hug.

  • Or send me an email or note; that way I can take in what you have to say as I am able to receive and process it.

Most of my communication about Greg will be with my family and support system. I will communicate with you when Greg and I are ready to do so.

  • Sunday mornings are a unique time. I do a lot of preparation for Sunday morning worship, not only crafting a worship service and message, but preparing myself spiritually for holding the needs of the entire community when we gather. Part of my preparation is to set aside my personal challenges, turn them over to the care of the Spirit for a bit, as I open my heart to serving the needs of our community. Please help me keep my focus on my ministry and service to you, because my strong call to ministry feeds me and gives me strength to handle the challenges in my life.

    I know that Sunday morning is when many of you see me and want to connect. Please do connect—I want that, too! And if you must say anything about my personal life, please see the suggestions above.

  • Make it OK for me to be away. The staff and some volunteers have helped me prepare for my being away. I am very grateful to be part of a supportive staff team, for the good work of the Worship Arts Team and the Pastoral Care Team, and the many of you who help keep things going at OUUC. Thank you.

    In addition to being away from OUUC for periods of time, I am also prioritizing my work to get the most essential things done. Grief is hard work, and I find I need more time to regroup. My body and spirit need rest and walks in order to work through the grief and to show up well to serve you. Please be patient and kind when I am not immediately available, or it takes some time to connect with me. Please also be kind and understanding when I suggest that someone other than me can meet your needs.

Thank you for your support and care.

Rev. Mary

Some Resources on Grief

Here are some resources at OUUC for loss and grief:

Caregivers/grief group facilitated by Pam Turner and Rev. Carol McKinley.
Contact Rev. Carol or Pam for more information. Pastoral Care Team members offer a ministry of presence for anyone going through a transition.

This website is by David Kessler, a leading expert on grief.
There is much good information here, including this page on what to say and not say, what to do and not do:

“What’s Your Grief” is a website developed by counselors Eleanor Haley and Litsa Williams.

Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) list of resources about loss and grief:

World Magazine articles about grief (World is the magazine of the UUA):


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