Through Grief to Love and Belonging

During one week in May I experienced two significant losses in my life. Mom had battled dementia for a few years, deteriorating cognitively and physically until it was her time leave this life. I had been grieving for a while, hurting from seeing mom suffer at times and missing her ability to put just the right words together whenever I needed to be comforted. Although not unexpected, her departure intensified my grief, which of course remains to this day.

That same week represented my last days at a job I had held for more than a decade. I had grown personally and professionally, made significant contributions to advancing our mission and developed strong relationships with colleagues. While excited about new adventures professionally, I realized that I was undergoing a parallel grieving process in missing what had been some of the most satisfying moments and connections of my career. Even as I took advantage of increased free time to engage on community and political issues, I was also grieving the state of our world, the violence, hate and tribalism that dominates the headlines.

One of my first full time jobs after college was as a community organizer, and in our training it was drilled into us that there is a distinction between our “public life” (relationships at work, school, and community where we advance common interests) and our “private life” (where we have a relatively few relationships that are without conditions and we are our full selves). This distinction has been helpful in setting boundaries, particularly at work, but my simultaneous grieving processes in my private and public lives has forced me to recognize that the lines are blurry.

Working through grief has enhanced my understanding of, and appreciation for, two elements of both my private and public lives: love and belonging.

Before and after my mom’s passing, I experienced and witnessed such incredible love: from my dad’s patient, loving care for mom at every single moment to how our family is growing closer together and continues to learn from mom — the ultimate caregiver — about living out unconditional love. In public life, love is not a word that has traditionally been embraced, but I’ve seen that changing recently. In response to the hate infecting community and politics, a friend organized a benefit concert titled “A Love Revolution,” which fed my soul and raised funds for faith-based efforts to resist anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Over recent months, I’ve seen the word love invoked more and more in social change efforts, even professional settings like conferences and reports.

Part of the reticence to invoking love in public life is that it is often viewed as a feeling and so tied in our society to our private lives, romance, family and very close friendships. But viewed as an expression of relationship and action, love has a much deeper meaning that encompasses how I interact with colleagues and even people I don’t know. If I truly believe that all people are created equal (and I do), I must love my neighbor as myself (and in my religious tradition, I’m even taught to love my enemies — still working on that one). I have never been afraid to tell people close to me that I love them; but my grieving process has impressed on me that I shouldn’t fear expressing my care for others I know, those I don’t know, and even those I don’t like, as love.

Another important part of getting through grief has been growing in my sense of belonging. For the loss of mom and everything she has meant and means in my life, my connection to family, friends and people who knew her has been, and will be, vital in getting me through. In my work and community life, I’ve also been supported by “belongingness,” relationships and understanding my place in the world. I’ve been influenced by john a. powell’s calls for belonging to counter the othering and exclusion that divides us, and that message has never been more urgent. For me, part of getting to belonging has been wrestling with my own privilege as a white male so that I understand how I can best show up in efforts to advocate for a more just society. It’s become fashionable to address issues of “DEI” (diversity, equity and inclusion) in the workplace, but making this real and more than talk can be elusive. Belonging is helpful in evaluating whether we are walking the talk, as it has been described as “the outcome of holding space where everyone truly feels empowered to speak up, make change, and shift the culture.”

Grief is a part of life, and I recognize I’ve been privileged to have significant relational, financial and other supports to help me through the past few months. As an introvert, my natural tendency is to deal with challenges on my own. But this experience has brought home that it is in connecting with others that I am most helped and now inspired to help others also get to love and belonging.

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