Grief and Gravity

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
Grief and Gravity

When loss befalls us, we may wish to float above brutal reality. Our loving community helps us to endure coming back to earth. Today is our annual remembrance service–please bring photos and other mementos for our altar.

Worship Leader: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Worship Associate: Mary Grebenkemper

Special Music: Veronika Agranov Dafoe, piano

Chalice Lighting (c) 2019 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Blessed is the dark, in which our dreams stir and are revealed.

Blessed is the dark of earth, where seeds come to life.

Blessed are the depths of the ocean where no light shimmers, the womb of all earthly life.

Blessed is the light into which we wake,

the light that sparkles on the waters:

that calls the tree forth from the seed

and calls the shadow forth from the tree.

Blessed are we as we move through darkness and through light.

Reflection (c) 2019 Mary Hengen Grebenkemper

Today our congregation honors and celebrates the lives of our deceased loved ones much in the manner that Día de los Muertos is celebrated from October 31 through November 2. In an unexpected synchronicity with this holiday, a close friend forwarded to me an email with a eulogy for Amy Rosenblatt Solomon by United Church of Christ minister and psychotherapist, Erik Kolbell. Thirty-eight-year-old Amy was a pediatrician, wife, mother, and daughter who dropped dead inexplicably, with her children beside her, while running on a treadmill.

Erik was faced with giving a eulogy for a family that was not religious. 

“…we must believe in something,” he said “if this is so, let us believe in one another.”…Remember,” he added, “that a bad theology is no match for a good casserole or a stiff drink.”

Eric gave voice to hope after this unbearable loss– that by looking after one another, the loss of Amy and the memory of her will be bearable. “In a word so torn by hatred,” said Erik, “in our world, now caved in upon itself by this one unbearable loss, let us bear it together.  What better remembrance of Amy’s inextinguishable light that we now illuminates each other’s lives, look after one another, be exceedingly patient and unreasonably kind to one another.” He added, “And when words fail or are not called for, when they can only settle like dust in a twilit room, be willing simply to sit with the silence, as the poet Rilke said, and keep company with the one who is sad.  It is in doing this that we heal those who have suffered most greatly here, and in so doing it is how we  come to heal ourselves as well.”

When I lost my twenty-seven-year old daughter, Jessica, to suicide, I was so devastated that I wanted to float above that brutal reality. I was in an emotional and spiritual crisis.  If it had not been for the support of family, friends, suicide loss support groups, and the community and choir here at UUCPA, I would not have been able to dig myself out of that black hole I dwelled in. 

Singing in the choir brought momentary breaks from grief. Studies show it boosts those feel-good endorphins and lowers that stress hormone, cortisol, strongly activated from this kind of trauma. Plus the connection felt in joined voices eased the alone feeling I had. Bruce’s jokes are an added bonus. 

Yet, I was in such a spiritual crisis, I thought “Poof! She’s gone! What’s the point?! Why try?!” Our Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern guided me through this crisis with her gifts of wisdom, support, and comforting words. In the Celebration of Jessica’s life, held at UUCPA, Amy’s eulogy honored Jessica, addressed thoughts and intense feelings churned up in such a time as this, and offered ways we can make Jessica live as long as we live. I will condense and paraphrase what she said about remembering Jessica.  

“Remember times you were with Jessica–the times when you were inspired by being with her,– the better parts of yourself that were strengthened just by being with Jessica.” Let her inspire you to do what is best in you and most important to you and she will always be among us.”

In our UUCPA community, we strive to live out the inspiring words of Rev. Erik Kolbell and Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern– reflected in the opening words of our services at UUCPA:  “Welcome to UUCPA where we come to transform ourselves and each other.”

Sermon (c) 2019 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

When the movie Gravity came out in 2013, there was a distracting flurry of comments about how things really work in space. I’ve seen lots of movies and television shows about ministers, and the industry never gets those right either, but I guess for people who know and care a lot about what astronauts do and what are the proper procedures for maintenance of space telescopes, these slips were distracting. Neil deGrasse Tyson published a dismissive list of the technical aspects the moviemakers got wrong. Also, as one comedian put it, “Gravity is so unrealistic. It shows George Clooney talking for thirty minutes with one woman.”

I’m not surprised that the real import of the movie was lost in the nitpicking and the jokes, because it was about something we really don’t like to talk about, or think about, or deal with, and we’ll chase any number of distractions in order to avoid it. Gravity is about grief. And it’s worth watching with this in mind, because what Alfonso Cuarón, the director and co-writer, and Jonás Cuarón, the other co-writer, have to tell us about grief can help us through it.

When we first see Dr. Ryan Stone, she is floating in space. She doesn’t seem to belong there; she’s fighting nausea; and she’s not an astronaut or engineer by training; she’s a medical doctor. But she has a reason to have signed up for this space-station repair job. Her young daughter died from a fall in a playground, and ever since then, Ryan has tried not to touch the ground. First she drove as much as she could, always driving, never stopping, never settling. And then she went into space and got away from the earth altogether.

Gravity has not been good to Ryan. You can see why she wants to leave it behind. Of all the things that could kill a person, drowning or poisoning or a car crash, the writers chose a different fate for her child: she fell. She died from gravity. That moment of gravity inflicted upon Ryan one of the weightiest, most heavy losses a person can endure.

And then there’s the very word gravity, so similar to grave . . . Gravity, grave, and grief all come from the same root, the Old English for dig. Earth holds us, which is all very well when we are happy. But when grief comes, we may want to float above everything. It is so, so hard just to be awake, to be aware, to continually encounter the solid reality of a world that reverberates with absence, because the one we love is nowhere to be found. There is no escaping our feelings, we know that, but if we could just float, maybe we could float away and never feel anything again . . .

Ryan gets her chance, because the mission goes wrong, and suddenly it is very likely that she is going to die up there, that very day, in space. Alone and unmoored, she is tempted to just give in and give up.

But by the close of the movie, she wants to live. And in its final moments, she digs her hands into the earth, grateful just to be here, and when she stands up on those shaky legs, the camera looks up at her as if at a colossus. With that shot, Cuarón is telling us that Ryan Stone is heroic, and she is. She hasn’t saved the world from invasion or her city from destruction. She has simply done what each of us must do at some point, when even to be on earth, of earth, is excruciatingly painful. She chooses life, the whole weight and heft of it, just as her name suggests.

When sorrow comes for us, we may want to just float. And that can be good medicine. Music, sleep, the shadow worlds of movies or books, might give us some relief for awhile. In the end, though, we are creatures of earth, and we need gravity. We must remain tethered to reality and all the pain it brings, or else float forever in a half-existence. As the introduction to the movie says, as the camera pans over an unimaginably large, indifferent expanse, “life in space is impossible.”

When we realize that we cannot float forever and we find it unendurable to touch the ground, friends can be the bridge we need. The touch of a hand, the sound of a voice, good food made by good friends, tether us gently: not demanding that we return to gravity’s relentless pull until we’re ready, but letting us know that we are of this life, this earth. Creating something together, whether a cantata or a conversation, offers threads of connection when we still feel as if a stronger one would hurt too much. When others express their griefs and losses, never as a comparison or competition, but humbly, out of their own need, like those who have brought names and mementos today, they anchor us to the life we share. And bit by bit, we may follow that lifeline back to healing and joy.