MONCKS CORNER, S.C. — There is no way we humans can exit this life without experiencing a considerable share of grief and loss.
But Sister Ann Billard believes there are lessons that grief can teach people as they age, whether they grieve the loss of loved ones or mourn the passage of time and diminished dreams.
“Grief holds a richness of possibilities,” she said. “Grief is not the end point, it is the bridge.”
Sister Ann, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston, S.C., leads seminars on grief and loss, part of her lecture series on “Discerning the Call of the Second Half of Life.”
The Trappist monks at the Roman Catholic monastery have sensed a need for such discernment among those who come to Mepkin to participate in retreats and seek solace in the pastoral setting. As more and more South Carolinians live into their 80s and 90s, they want to help people find a clear and vibrant spiritual path to those years.
“It is so important but we can’t do this alone,” said Brother Guerric Heckel, — who was instrumental in organizing the lecture series.
The 3,400-acre Berkeley County, S.C., monastery, home to 15 monks who work and live in silence, has long been a place of contemplation and prayer to visitors, whether they come for an afternoon to experience a walk through the Mepkin gardens or stay for a longer retreat.
Founded in 1949 on a former rice plantation donated by publisher Henry Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, the Roman Catholic monks at Mepkin Abbey belong to the worldwide Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists. They adhere to the rules of St. Benedict of Nursia, the 5th-century monk who called for a life devoted to prayer, contemplation and simple work.
On Thursday, as she painted a path to confront unresolved grief and loss, Sister Ann drew her audience into the biblical story of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus as a way to navigate through change. Christ comes in the form of a stranger to two disciples in the passage recounted in Luke 24:13-35. He listens intently as they pour out the story of the cruel death of Jesus on the cross.
Being able to tell the story of death or loss “is very important in the grief process,” she said. Slowly, as the stranger draws them out about the terrible events in Jerusalem and Jesus provides his own interpretation, the disciples come to realize that Christ’s suffering and death represent the fulfillment of ancient scriptures.
“What does Christ do? He begins to re-weave the story,” Sister Ann said.
As they walk with the stranger, the disciples begin to accept the reality of their loss, experience the pain, and then adjust to the “new now.” When they invite Christ to stay with them and share a meal, suddenly “their eyes were opened” and they rushed with renewed vigor to tell Jesus’ other followers that the prophesy was true and that Jesus was alive.
Too often, Sister Ann said, people cannot embrace a new energy because they are stuck, believing if they grieve alone or just stay busy that time will take away the sorrow. Sometimes, people cover the hurt of death of parents and children, physical problems or health issues by withdrawing from others or abusing alcohol or drugs to hide their pain. But that cannot lead to true resolution until meaning can be found in the loss.
“In re-investing in the new reality, we say goodbye to what was,” she said, although she stressed that people will always have a relationship with “what was lost or who was lost.” Sometimes, she said, it is therapeutic to write a letter to yourself that will explain or seek forgiveness, express love or lay out what, in hindsight, might have been done differently.
The Rev. Cathy Jamieson-Ogg, — on a five-day Mepkin retreat, said she gleaned wisdom that she hopes to use not only for herself but for her church, Trinity United Methodist Church in Blythewood, S.C., which is hosting a grief seminar beginning in May.
In today’s fast-paced society, “I think there is sense that we’ve rushed through the grief process,” Jamieson-Ogg said, when people need to be more patient and immerse themselves in healing.
Norman Cookson, of Garden City, S.C., attended the seminar with his wife, Joan, and realized that loss accompanies every stage of life.
“I always looked at grief as being death, but she brings out that all the losses in your life is all grief-encountered, and I never looked at it in that way,” he said. “There are times in your life when you are grieving and you don’t even know it is grief.”
The lecture series continues in June, with a lecture on “Harvesting Our Gains,” and in October, transforming paid and suffering into loving energy for others.