It was my long week of anniversaries: an adoption date, a wedding anniversary for a marriage that ended in divorce, and the eighth anniversary of my teenage son’s death by suicide. Annually, when this week cycles, I have learned to lean-in and ride the emotional wave, taking care of my tenderized heart. I do not know what to expect; it is a practice of being present.
On Tuesday evening, I received a call from my boss, the superintendent of schools, telling me a teen had died by suicide in Seward, Alaska. Our school district team kicked into gear to provide service and support for staff, students, and families. Two intense days passed, and I knew I’d made healthy, helpful contributions to schools in the town a hundred miles away. Thursday, it was confirmed I needed to go to Seward, for an 8:00 a.m. appointment with a film crew on Friday—the same day as Justin’s death anniversary; he had died when he was sixteen. There was no way out, I had to do it.
Everything in me resisted the two-hundred mile round-trip drive, on a dark unlit two-lane road, in icy winter conditions. I recalled Richard Rohr’s wisdom, “If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter—because we will be wounded. All suffering is potentially redemptive, all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what you do with them.” I would go and also visit our principals and their schools. It wasn’t about the film crew, a bigger mystery was unfolding.
I left my home at 6:00 a.m. with a passenger—my fourteen week old Labrador retriever pup, curled up next to me on the seat. No moon, it was pitch dark. Miles and miles passed. I turned off the music; the rhythm of swishing windshield wiper blades remained. Memories flitted—one in particular that changed my life. A few weeks after Justin died, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi arrived for a talk to spiritual directors in Denver, Colorado, USA. He came straight to me and wrapped me in his arms. He said, “I’ve just learned your son died … tonight we will pray for his new guides ….” Numb with grief, a light pierced my confusion: if Justin had guides, then heaven couldn’t be static, a place of arrival. A Catholic, I understood I had mistakenly constricted God and the afterlife into a static place and landscape.
I’d driven nearly two hours. Indigo blue light revealed black silhouettes of towering trees and jagged mountains. Mist and fog swirled. Suddenly I was aware that my destination, at the end of the road, was the town at the head of Resurrection Bay. Tears tickled my nose and eyes. I would park at our schools and be present to the stories and grief of these people, in this time. Unseen grace and years of redemptive suffering guided me. I thought of Matt Licada’s words, “You are wedded to the unknown now, and you are willing to give your heart to others and to this world—to use even your sadness, your hopelessness, and your aloneness to connect with others, allowing yourself to be crafted as a wild translucent vessel of kindness.”
– Pegge Erkeneff, January, 2014
Reprinted from Listen: A Seeker’s Resource for Spiritual Direction, April 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 2 (Spiritual Directors International © 2014). Reprinted with permission of Spiritual Directors International. To order copies or a free subscription of Listen, call 1-425-455-4506 or go to www.sdiworld.org.
*Read this article, other reflections, and a book review of The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hahn in Listen. Click here: April 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 2.