Appreciating Death’s Role in Life

The universal reality of life is death.  Everyone must die; it is a natural phenomenon and a necessary part of the normal life cycle. Yet, even with this understanding, rarely is the western world prepared to accept death, especially the death of a loved one.  The focus of this writing is not on sudden or tragic deaths, but on those which allow time for preparedness, and occur as a consequence of illness and/or aging.

As universal as death is, the way it is viewed differs among cultures and religions.  Death is treated with dignity by some, or it may be feared by others.  Certain cultures respond to death with elaborate rituals, while others see it as simply transitioning from one life to the next.  However, what is usually present, regardless of specific traditions, is grief.  Grief, like death, is a universal experience,and it is also personal.  It is what Stephen Levine describes in his book, Healing into Life and Death, as “the rope burns left behind when what we have held to most dearly is pulled out of reach, beyond our grasp.”

The analogy of “holding on” is most present when caring for someone with a terminal illness.  It is difficult caring for a loved one who is not expected to survive.  It is sometimes hard for the dying to let go, which increases our grief, and invites guilt.  However, when faced with such circumstances, we can look to scripture for comfort.  What did Jesus do as he awaited his own death? At first he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.” (Luke 22:42).  So often we pray for a miracle.  We try to reason with God, making promises, seeking answers, none of which provides peace.  But Jesus continued, “still, not my will but yours be done.”  He handed over his anguish to his father in heaven and found peace and strength to continue his life’s journey to the cross.  We can, too.  In the presence of death, we can turn to our God in prayer, for peace and strength.

Finding peace does not negate grieving.  The rope burns eventually go away, but until then, we grieve.  Where do grieving people go?  Some turn to their religious institutions for solace.  Others are comforted by family.  Some find consolation in silence, and some seek support from professionals to help them normalize their lives.  Pastoral counselors are among members of the helping professions who are prepared to meet clients in their grief, and help them to gain respite from the pain and guilt that they feel.  Graduates of Loyola’s pastoral counseling program are trained to apply traditional therapies with a spiritual approach.  It is our spiritual approach that better prepares us to assist clients who have met death on life’s journey.

Death provides a deadline for what we can accomplish in life.  It is an important deadline since it propels us to live a more vibrant and richer life while we have the opportunity.  Irvin D. Yalom, M.D., stated that if we tune in to our clients’ narratives, we will recognize that they are subtly sharing death concerns.  As therapists, we must be prepared to hear them. As pastoral counselors we are uniquely prepared to address them.  Although we grieve when our loved ones die, we can be mindful of Dr. Yalom’s acknowledgement of death as “the condition that makes it possible to live life in an authentic fashion.”

Loyola Magazine » Playing through Grief: Helping Children Heal

Beverly Sargent, a current Ph.D candidate, published two books about helping children use child-centered therapy to play through the grief of losing a parent. She was featured in Loyola Magazine’s December 2012 issue.

Read more here:

Loyola Magazine » Playing through Grief: Helping Children Heal.

Top 5 Lessons I Learned in the M.A. Program

 The top 5 lessons I learned in the MA in Spiritual and Pastoral Care Program in no particular order are:

1. Be careful sharing your theology with others – What you believe about God may not be what another person believes, and even if you are well meaning you may hurt someone else by imposing your views.  In Theological Anthropology, Dr. Gerry Fialkowski told us many stories.  One that stands out for me was the story of what one well-meaning, but misguided person said to a child grieving for her mother.  It was not a pastoral response.  She said, “God needed your mommy in heaven, which is why she died.”  That child needs her mother.  Only a cruel God would deprive a child of her mother.  Is that the God I believe in? 

2. God is mystery – God continues to reveal Godself to us, God is continuously creating, and God’s work is never finished.  All we have are metaphors to describe God.  Our human minds do not have the capacity to fully understand God.  If you think you understand God, drop that concept you think you know because you have got it all wrong.  St. Augustine said, “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand.  If you understand, you have failed…”

I now live by that concept.  Surprise and discovery are what I find here at Loyola on this journey toward union with God. I am constantly reminding myself to stay open to new possibilities, new understandings, new invitations, and new calls from God.

3. Self-Care is Sacred.  – It is not selfish to practice self-care — it is self-preservation for someone in a helping profession.  We are so highly prone to burn out, and when this occurs we can cause harm to those for which we care.  “Physician heal thyself.” (Luke 4:23).  I have studied the wounded healers (like Henri Nouwen) who bind up their own wounds, and in so doing learn empathy/compassion.  They sooth others’ wounds because they first tended to their own.

4. I AM capable of being a spiritual director  – In my tradition of Roman Catholicism, priests and religious do most of the spiritual guidance.  It is only in the last generation that lay men and women have taken on a greater role in Ministry within the Church.  There are still many traditional and conservative individuals who would rather go to a priest or nun with a spiritual matter viewing him or her as “more qualified.”  I had carried this with me and it made me doubt my ability to be a spiritual director.  But then, I took Spiritual Direction with Fr. Brian McDermott, SJ.  He showed me that I do have what it takes, that I can be a spiritual director, and that anyone who has a true calling regardless of whether or not they have been ordained can companion someone in their spiritual journey.

5. There are distinct differences between spiritual direction, pastoral care, pastoral counseling, and psychotherapy – As I sit with someone in a spiritual direction session, often relationship issues enter into our space and that is okay.  The Spirit is there between us continuing God’s work of creating by mending fences, changing hearts, calling to conversion, reconciling, nurturing, tending, and challenging.   My directees and pastoral care receivers constantly teach me what they need from me. If I can assist them with that need then I will; however, if I cannot then it is time for me to refer them to another professional.

A plethora of personal growth and formation takes place here at Loyola.  I could communicate so many more lessons I have learned.  This is just a sample of life at Loyola as an MA student in the Pastoral Counseling Department.

Time to Pull up My Big Girl Panties: Reflecting on Grief and Strength

“Time to Pull Up My Big Girl Panties”

 Yep—that’s what she said.  That’s exactly what she said. 

Who said it?

Dr. Kari O’Grady—a well respected pastoral counselor and scholar in the discipline of trauma and religious coping. 

What is she referring to?

She was quoting a former student and colleague in the Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Care (PCSC) Department at Loyola University Maryland.

This is where Dr. O’Grady’s turn of phrase becomes meaningful—almost beyond words. 

Dr. O’Grady was quoting the Rev. Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn, an affiliate PCSC professor and graduate of Loyola during a eulogy. Only days before, Mary-Marguerite was in the church office with the administrative assistant of her parish when a participant in their ministry to the homeless fatally shot both women.  He fled the scene and killed himself.

Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn

In the moment that Dr. O’Grady repeated the proclamation that it was “time to pull up her big girl panties” she was making a double entendre.  In the context of Rev. Kohn’s funeral, Dr. O’Grady was honoring the life spirit of a former student and colleague who chose hope over despair and who chose courage and compassion in the midst of fear and loss.

She was quoting Mary-Marguerite’s conviction to begin a new path upon receiving her doctorate only three years before.  It was one of those miraculous moments the heart stumbles on at a funeral…when a sense of being embraced by the spirit of life and love of the newly departed envelops the bereaved in the midst of their shock and sense of loss.

It could easily be a reminder of all that the PCSC Department at Loyola has experienced recently.  Almost unbearably, Mary-Marguerite is the third PCSC faculty member at Loyola to die three years—and the third to die an untimely and tragic death.

First, Dr. Kelly Murray and her 7 year old daughter were killed by a falling tree while idling at an intersection in their family vehicle during a storm in 2009; and then, a little over a year later, the department chair, Dr. Joseph Ciarrocchi died from multiple myeloma. 

All three of these folks lived lives filled with meaning and compassion which touched the hearts and lives of many, many people.  (Their obituaries are linked below.)  And all three were colleagues and friends of Dr. O’Grady and the members of the PCSC department.  Until Rev. Kohn’s death, I did not know the upheaval that the department had already experienced.

In that moment I learned the words in the Loyola online catalog describing the Pastoral Counseling program as holistic and integrated are not just there to describe positive sounding academic endeavors in the abstract.  They are accurate descriptors of the program.  They describe not only the courses but also the clinical education, the professors’ interweaving clinical work with quality teaching, the structure of individual courses, and the meaningful faculty and staff relationships with students.

We PCSC students are being challenged to learn, grow and transform our lives in the same way that we hope to accompany others on a path of meaning making and healing. 

This is precisely what Dr. O’Grady was doing for those of us in the congregation at Mary-Marguerite Kohn’s funeral…encouraging us to “pull up our big girl panties” and receive our own sadness, loss, fears, and wounds.  Because…as she well knows… the only way through hurt to healing, is through the hurt with compassion for self and others.  And the encouragement she gave to us to gird our hearts and move forward, just as she was doing for herself, was the most profound teaching moment and modeling of lifelong learning healing I have experienced as I continue to seek to understand the call to be a “pastoral counselor.”

Grace and Peace be with you—and everyone whose lives you touched…

Dr. Kelly Murray:

http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2009-06-29/news/0906280083_1_loyola-college-murray-psychology-professor

Dr. Joseph Ciarrocchi:
Dr. Joseph Ciarrocchi

http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2010-10-31/news/bs-md-ob-joseph-ciarrocchi-20101031_1_catholic-priest-psychology-educator

Rev. Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn:

http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-05-08/news/bs-md-ho-kohn-funeral-20120508_1_memorial-service-mix-tapes-doctorate

Remembering Mary Marguerite

On May 3, 2012, I was watching the evening news and learned that an Episcopal priest and an administrative assistant had been shot, at their church, by a homeless person.  No names were given.  Over the course of the next week, more information surfaced.  Apparently, the shooter had a history of approaching the church for assistance but became agitated after being told he had to limit his visits to the food pantry so others could benefit as well.  He killed the two women and then killed himself.

At first, I felt horrified that such a tragedy had occurred, but I was able to distance myself.  I could offer prayers for the repose of their souls and prayers for their families and friends, but I did not know anyone involved.  Or so I thought.  When the names of those involved became public, the pain became personal.  I knew Mary Marguerite Kohn.  She was my friend.

Mary Marguerite, or MM, was a graduate of the PhD program in pastoral counseling.  While she was preparing to defend her dissertation, she spent hours and hours in the doctoral lounge entering data and reviewing and revising her work.  At that same time, I was using the office directly across the hall to help with the copy editing of Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion.  MM would come in frequently to visit with me and to offer support because she knew I sometimes got impatient with the pace of the academic requirements.  The process seemed to take so long!  She told me many times that perseverance was the key to success and to keep plugging away.  She set a wonderful model in that respect.

After she graduated, she became an affiliate professor at Loyola and at Fordham and sometimes consulted with me about online education.  She had a great love for her students and was deeply invested in their success.  I recall an extended email conversation about the cost of materials for one of her courses where she examined every possible way to keep the costs down and the quality high.  In addition to her kindness, I remember her intense energy, her easy laughter, and her generosity.  While I feel very sad about her death, I am also very, very grateful that I had the chance to know her.

Eternal rest grant unto her, oh Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon her.
May her soul and the souls of all the
faithful departed, through the mercy
of God, rest in peace.
Amen.