Sermon: In Tragedy Lies Opportunity by Bridgette Raes

2019 July 10
by DoMC

In Tragedy Lies Opportunity

First Unitarian Congregational Society, Brooklyn, NY

Bridgette Raes

July 7, 2019

It was October 27th 1997.  The social worker assigned to my dad’s hospice care was coming by to check in with my family and help us understand the status of my dad’s health. The daily routine for weeks leading up to this felt painfully the same.  The hospice nurse would arrive to our home by 8am and stay with my dad until 5pm.  By five, my grandparents, my mom’s parents, would come to relieve the hospice nurse, my mom arrived home from work by 6 and my sister and I made it home from work sometime before 7pm.  From 7pm on, the care of my father was on me, my mom and sister.  My 46 year old father was dying from malignant melanoma and these were his final weeks after a 15 month fight.  On that night of October 27th, we all came home early to meet the social worker and to learn that my dad was semi-comatose.  We were told that he could last in this state several hours, days or weeks.  There was no way of knowing. 

After the social worker left, I went to sit with my father on a chair we put beside his bed.  Watching his body struggle to take its next breath, I wished for it to be his last while also terrified that it might be.  As I sat there, I felt the presence of someone behind me and a hand on my shoulder.  It was my grandmother.  I could hear trembling in her voice as she said,  “You’re too young.  You’re not supposed to be going through this.”  I paused,  sniffed back tears, looked up at her with tear-filled eyes and simply replied, “Says who?”

Call it divine clarity, shock, or just my tendency to rationalize under distress, my “says who?” response surprised even me.   But it was true.  Nobody ever told me I wasn’t supposed to be going through what I was experiencing at 23.  Nobody promised me that my dad would live to see me grow fully into adulthood, see me or my sister get married, or meet his grandchildren.  These were promises never made to me.

My dad died about two hours later.  

Now, 22 years later, I can honestly say that many blessings have come from this tragedy.

I want to be clear,  My father’s death has been the most difficult thing I have ever lived through.  It broke me into a million pieces and for months afterwards, it felt like someone had chopped off my feet and told me I needed to learn how to walk again, and that was just the beginning.  The process of recovering from the loss of a parent can be endless.  As I have said to other people who have dealt with the loss of a close loved one: That hole is never filled, but over time you learn how to plant beautiful things around it.

It’s not uncommon to feel entitled to a tragedy-fee life. When bad things happen, we think, “this isn’t fair!  I don’t deserve this. But, I’m a good person!”  We wonder if God is punishing us.  We get angry at the terrible injustices of life, feel like victims and, as we scroll through our Instagram or Facebook feeds, assume that we’re the only one not living a worry-free existence.  Young girls are told stories about Prince Charming, and ‘happily ever after’ is endlessly drilled into us through the fairy tales we hear as children. We see version after version of perfect lives in movies and on television and we cling to the idea that somewhere a neat little bow is anxiously waiting to tie up all the loose ends of our lives.  We’re all waiting for that moment, that sweet sigh of relief, that all is right in our world. 

Yet, this promise of a tragedy-free existence was never promised to us and I have learned that in tragedy always lies opportunity.

While painful, the death of my father brought me countless blessings.  To name a few:

I discovered my own relationship with God after his death.  Prior to losing him, I was a long lapsed Catholic with no interest in religion.  I felt God was there, I just didn’t need him.  After my father’s death, cobbling together my own personal faith and beliefs about spirituality was the only way I could begin to put the pieces of my life back together. It’s quite likely that my father’s death is the reason I am a Unitarian Universalist standing here giving this homily today.

I left my career as a fashion designer after my dad died and started my own business as a personal stylist with a mission to empower women.  I can undoubtedly connect a need for a career that helped others to the death of my father.  When my book was published in 2008, it was dedicated to him for this reason.

I became acutely aware of the gift of life and how precious it is.  Few know this experientially, especially when we are young.  At the same time, my dad’s death taught me how insignificant we all are. While my dad’s memory lives on today in so many ways, if he were to come back, my family would have a hard time figuring out where he exactly he would fit.  Learning this has kept me humble, to not focus on my own self-importance or think the world revolves around me.  One day my physical footprint impressions in the sand will be washed away by the ocean too.

I was also forced to face my sometimes turbulent relationship with my father and peel back the layers of how this affected me as an adult. I spent years playing this out by dating emotionally abusive and unavailable men who made me question my own worth and value.  It was through this that I learned to heal myself and marry a kind, generous, and supportive man. 

One of my favorite quotes is “Sometimes life tosses you a piss filled balloon, and you’re wearing cactus gloves.”

Life can suck and it can suck hard.  It can feel unfair, painful, devastating and tragic.  So understand, finding blessings in tragedies doesn’t mean we don’t allow ourselves permission to feel pain or grieve, or give ourselves the gentle room to process.  If we don’t deal with these emotions, the pain will show up again and again, in different forms, until we do.  Think about trees that need to be pruned in order to grow in a healthier way.  Thinning a dense canopy of a tree helps increase air and sunlight, resulting in fewer disease problems.   Like trees, being cut back through loss and painful times offer us the opportunity to grow back in more vibrant and healthy ways.

The day Donald Trump was elected was a devastating day for many.  And I think many here would agree, it hasn’t gotten much better.

Or has it?  

Since the election, more people have become politically engaged than ever before.  People who never considered running for office are getting elected to Congress and other local political positions.   Citizens are becoming activists, fighting for what’s right, protesting, making their voices heard, paying attention and collectively making a difference. The 2018 midterms had the largest voter turnout since 1914 and Americans are more civically engaged than they have been in more than 100 years. How many of these people were asleep before Donald Trump became president?  How many are awake now?

In tragedy lies opportunity.  

So what do we do?  How do we find balance between allowing ourselves to feel and experience grief while also seeing these times as opportunities and blessings?

The first is the micro-view vs. macro-view.  I want you to imagine an impressionist painting, like the Waterlilies.  Up close, The Waterlilies is sort of a hot mess of random brushstrokes.  It’s not exactly pretty or easy to make sense of.  Yet, when you step away and get a more macro-view, the painting is quite stunning.

When my mom was 20 she was engaged to my dad and got pregnant with me before they were married.   My mom was still in college, and my dad was back from the army with no real career path.  Having a baby was not ideal.  I was born, and then, less than 2 years later, right before my mom was ready to go back to college, she got pregnant with my sister. My dad was only one year into starting his business and my parents were still in the process of getting their lives going.  About ten years later, a fast growing benign tumor was found near my mom’s uterus.  Her doctor told her if she had waited getting pregnant would have been much more unlikely.  Ten or so years after that, she became a widow at 45 and was fortunate enough to have two daughters in their twenties, instead of being on her own to raise teenagers.

In the micro-view, the situation of my mom getting pregnant with me and my sister looked anything but ideal.  Yet, in the macro-view, it looks pretty inspired.  As challenging as it can be to not label difficult times as entirely bad, be willing to live in the mystery, to trust the process, and seek to understand that tragedies can sometimes be blessings in disguise.

I should note that not only did my mom get her bachelor’s degree when I was in kindergarten, she went on to get a masters degree as well.

Next, don’t be afraid of triggers.  The word trigger has become increasingly more common in our vernacular.  It’s now common to see trigger warnings at the start of a television show, a piece of writing, a video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains material that’s potentially distressing, especially for people dealing with grief.  On the one hand, trigger warnings can be potentially lifesaving for people who have dealt with traumas like sexual assault, hate crimes, or violence, and can protect people from content that may exacerbate  pre-existing mental health issues.  It gives them the choice whether or not to engage.  It’s not our place to judge whether someone chooses not to engage when facing a trigger. However, we should consider, responsibly, the power that can be found in engaging. 

As someone who has lived through emotional abuse through relationships in my past, I was triggered recently while watching a television show.  It surprised me because I thought I had long since dealt with my emotional abuse and put it to bed.  Yet, there it was, another layer of the onion waiting to be peeled.  It was uncomfortable and as I felt my body pulsating with emotion, I didn’t run from it.  Instead, I dared to become curious about it.  As I sat with my feelings, this pain offered me the opportunity to connect dots and notice my blind spots, like why I tend to undersell or diminish myself, people please, and carry shame.

Following that, something even more beautiful happened.  I saw myself as a champion who, despite being made to feel small, always grasped for my voice, kept reaching, and dared to love myself even during times I believed I was terribly unlovable.

My last suggestion may sound funny, but my husband I have found it helpful.  We do this when something bad happens.  Imagine the scene, my husband and I feel stunned and speechless by what we are suddenly dealing with.  It’s silent and one of us will will break the silence and say, “Do you know what is great about this?”  It breaks the tension and, invariably, leads to laughter. 

We can’t help but start coming with absurd things, almost comical, to start. For example, if we are in a financial crisis, one of us will say something like, “You know what’s great about this?  This will make retirement planning easy.  All we’ll have to do is drive ourselves off a cliff Thelma and Louise style.”  The jokes keep going until the absurd naturally turns profound and we find ourselves saying things like, “You know what’s great about this?  This financial crisis has really caused us to sit down and better understand our money.”  Not only does this exercise help lighten what feels like a difficult situation, it re-frames it and helps us find the positives in what seems to be all negative.

I will finish with a story that I read in the book Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsh called The Parable of the Little Soul:

“There once was a soul who knew itself to be the light. This was a new soul and so anxious for experience. “I am the light,” it said. “I am the light.” Yet all the knowing of it and all the saying of it could not substitute for the experience of being the light. And in the realm from which this soul emerged, there was nothing but the light. Every soul was grand, every soul was magnificent, and every soul shined with the brilliance of God’s awesome light. And so the little soul in question was like a candle in the sun. In the midst of the grandest light —of which it was a part—the little soul could not see itself, nor experience itself as who and what it really was.

Yearning to know itself as light, God told the little soul that it must separate itself from the rest of the light and call upon itself in the darkness.

 ’What is the darkness, oh Holy One?’ the little soul asked.

 ’That which you are not,’ God replied, and the soul understood.  

Yet, upon being cast out into the lonely darkness the little soul cried out, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” God replied: I have never forsaken you, but stand by you always, ready to remind you of who you really are.  Therefore, be a light unto the darkness, and curse it not.  And forget not who you are in the moment of the encirclement of the darkness.  Know that what you do in the time of your greatest trial can be your greatest triumph.  For the experience you create is a statement of who you are—and who you want to be.”



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