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The Spiritual Journey That Healed My Grief

Losing Daddy to cancer crushed my soul. I sought solace at church, but I also found unexpected comfort in talks with a Buddhist, a shaman and a New Ager.

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sisters, aarp, religion, spirtual
Hannah E. Buckman
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I grew up attending an African Methodist Episcopal church, learning to look to Scripture during challenging times. Yet, after my father died of esophageal cancer, my grief was so deep that I began to lose faith.

I was a daddy’s girl, and he was my rock. Even after I was grown, he looked after me, checking to make sure my car tires weren’t too low when I visited. He was quick to drive his 20-something “baby girl” to the gas station if they needed air. “You need to learn how to do this yourself,” he’d say as he attached the pressure gauge. I’d watch and instantly forget, because I knew he’d always be there to do it. And then, in the spring of 2004, he wasn’t.

For months after Daddy’s death, I slept on my couch in front of the TV because there was no noise in my bedroom to drown out my grief. Some nights, I’d dream about him. When I woke up and remembered he was gone, my heart would break all over again. I lost 20 pounds, forgetting to eat. If I did remember, everything tasted so bland that I’d take a couple of forkfuls before pushing the plate away.

Crying on the phone to my girlfriend Tracy, who had lost her mom the year before, I kept asking, “Why won’t the pain go away?” She tried to comfort me, saying, “It’s only been three months … God will make everything better.”

I didn’t feel like God was making things better. I had prayed hard for my father to beat the cancer, yet he had continued to shrivel up.

Another friend, out of concern, invited me to services at a metaphysical chapel. I found myself worshipping side-by-side with other Christians, as well as Buddhists, shamans, Jews and those who subscribe to New Age spirituality. I’d seen Oprah tout some New Age concepts, but this was the first time I’d met people who believed and practiced their faith differently than I did. Still, we shared a connection to a source greater than ourselves, tolerance for those different from us and a deep commitment to healing.

At a time when I rarely had the energy to hit a happy hour with friends, and I could barely make it halfway through the mystery novels I loved, I found comfort in talking with other seekers. During workshops, many shared moving, intimate truths about fears, losses, regrets, pain. Each had found renewed strength and refuge in spirit. I held on to their stories for steadiness, for assurance that divine love is ever-present to strengthen me, too.

A Buddhist named Michael taught me to stop wondering when grief would go away but rather to embrace the idea that it might be with me forever. I went home that night and sat cross-legged on my living room floor for two hours, imagining that the dull ache in my chest was destined to be my new norm. As I stopped fighting the pain and accepted that I could live with it, it started to lessen. Every so often, I’d even feel a tiny flicker of hope.

A New Age believer named Tonya taught me to respect the cycle of life. I had felt angry and cheated that my father had died before my 31st birthday. He’d never walk me down the aisle or see his grandchildren grow up. But this sister helped me to see that death isn’t an end but a progression. I started to notice pieces of my father in my nieces and nephews. Now that I’m in my 40s, I see aspects of him in myself.

A fellow Christian, a preacher’s kid named Nicole, shared how she had coped with her father’s death. She asked me if I would give up one of the years I spent with my father for a chance to lessen my grief. Her question allowed me to see my grief as a blessing. My pain was so deep because my love is so strong.

A shaman named Anthony shared his belief that signs from nature often serve as messages from our ancestors. To this day, whenever I see a dragonfly, I believe it is a sign from my father reminding me that everything is OK.

The year after my father died, I felt gripped by despair. Yet the light began to peek through the clouds when I opened my mind to unfamiliar spiritual ideas. Slowly, my appetite came back. I left the couch and returned to my bed.

I’m still in the pews at church on Sunday. But I return to the multi-faith chapel for workshops sometimes. The church hadn’t let me down. God simply expanded my view of what faith could be.