This past weekend I went on silent retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House (JRH), a place that has become a second home to me. This was my first silent retreat since my dad died. I tried to make a silent retreat a few months after he died, but the grief was too strong. I was packed, ready to leave, and my body started to shut down. I was unable to move, my body’s way of clearly saying, “Nope. We’re not going. Stay home.”
After that, I was eager to get back to JRH. It’s a special place for my family. Years before I started going there, my dad and our close family friend, Sr. Arlene (who my brother and I call our third grandma), made annual silent retreats together there. Then I started going in 2016. Then my mom started going a few years after that. Although we never made retreat together, the JRH is a shared experience for my parents, Sr. Arlene, and me. We all know each other’s favorite spots, our favorite trees and swings along the walking paths, and our favorite cookies that Chef Jeff has at-the-ready 24/7.
I typically go on silent retreat twice a year. When I made a 5-day silent retreat in January 2022, I left that retreat with the word “alignment.” That was my word for 2022. My decisions this year would be grounded in what aligned with my spirit, heart, and soul. That meant I pivoted away from my EMS research and moved more fully into my spiritual direction work and building discernment-based writing classes. Then my dad died a month later. Four months after that, I ended a relationship with a woman I loved deeply, but, ultimately, the relationship didn’t align with my soul and spirit.
As I drove to JRH this past Friday, these and other memories came back. My mind recounted the past year moment by moment. And then a familiar feeling struck: Grief anger. Deep-seated anger at, well, everything this past year brought. Anger-bordering-on-rage that left me with questions that had no answers and no one to hold responsible. How could my dad die? Why didn’t he hold on so my mom and I could be with him when he transitioned? Could I have done more to prevent him from getting COVID? Could his healthcare team have done more? What if my dad had been wearing a mask during that interaction that left him with the virus? What if the person who gave him COVID had been wearing a mask? Would my dad still have died?
I paused. I breathed into the anger. I asked the anger, “What’s going on, really? What’s underneath you?” Heartache. Heartbreak. Those are my words for 2022.
In that spirit, the weekend retreat began.
Once I arrived, I went on a walk to find a swing that my mom purchased in April in my dad’s memory. We thought it would have been out on the grounds for this retreat. My mom chose a swing that overlooked Lake Winnebago, under a tree that inspired a poem I wrote during my January 2022 retreat. I couldn’t wait to see that swing. But it wasn’t there – or at least it wasn’t where I expected it to be (I later learned his swing was in the maintenance garage).
I wandered the retreat grounds under the safe canopy of the trees searching for his swing. My anger came back, surfacing now as desperation. I went up to every swing as if I was trying to find my dad, as if somehow this swing would bring him back to me. No swing with his name on it. The spot where his swing was supposed to be was empty. Seeing the emptiness was almost too much for me. The sadness under the anger returned. So I walked and walked until a leaf caught my eye. I followed it and sat under a tree. I let myself feel the sadness. Then, I felt my dad’s presence and heard his voice as clear as day say, “I’m right here, sweetheart.”
The next morning, I sat in the great room that overlooks Lake Winnebago and lots of old trees. Then, I journaled:
Saturday, October 29, 2022, 8:30am
I can’t remember a time when falling leaves have captured my attention and imagination. What have I held onto? What parts of me – parts of my identity, shape, form that move in the breeze, storm, and stillness with me – need to be dropped? What dance would those parts do as they ride gravity to the ground? Is it light like a leaf? Heavy like a black walnut? What new life will come from it as it decomposes and returns to the earth? How will it feed me in the days, weeks, months, and years to come? Eventually it will be indistinguishable from the material around it. A once vibrant golden leaf will become part of the dirt and nutrients for the tree it stands on.
Yet, its life is still there, nourishing and now even holding and supporting the trees, the roots, the very foundation that needs to be deep and sturdy to hold the weight and anchor it in the toughest and best of conditions.
Coming up here, I realized my word for 2022 is “heartache and heartbreak.” Funny how I started this year with the word “alignment.” Heartache and heartbreak put me in alignment. Dad died. I ended a relationship with a woman I loved because, ultimately, it wasn’t the right relationship for me – it didn’t align with my spirit and soul. Heartache and alignment are connected. I needed to let go of my dad to allow new life within myself to emerge and to allow a different, deeper connection with him to develop. I still don’t know what’s next for my love life – except that . . . . nope. I really don’t know.
As is the case with most of my retreat experiences, I left with more questions than answers. But what’s grounding me is knowing what broke my heart this year will nourish me and will become part of my root system.
Questions to ponder:
- What has captured your attention or imagination lately?
- Is there a relationship for you between heartbreak and alignment? If so, what is it?
- What/who has broken your heart this year? Whose hearts have you broken?
- Do you feel aligned? If so, what areas do you feel it? How do you know when you’re aligned?
- What heartbreaks are part of your root system? How have they formed who you are today?
- Grief brings gifts. What gifts has your grief brought you?