breathing lessons


During the days I was in Texas before my dad died, my friend Christy sent me a record by Darden Smith called Love Calling. The whole album is filled with songs of informed hope and determined love. Her offering was truly a gift I needed in those moments. One line from the title track says,

some days the heart beats the rhythm of the falling tear.

What he was saying in the song was different than what I heard, I think, but in the context of my grief I found comfort in the rhythm of life (and death) that he described. I could feel the drumbeat, sometimes quiet and slow and at other times hard and exhausting; in both cases, it was the rhythm of breathing in and breathing out, of emptying and filling out, of holding on and letting go. The lightness and the weight, the relief and then the pain, felt like breathing without being able to get enough oxygen.
Trying to live on thin air.

My acupuncturist, Shea, says that in Chinese medicine they talk about how we carry our grief in our lungs, which makes more sense with each passing day. When the sadness settles, I feel like my breaths are shallow, as though I have over-extended myself, and my lungs are full, but full of empty and absence. I walked home from my appointment with an unexpected song in my head: the Hollies:

sometimes all I need
is the air that I breathe
and to love you

And I thought of Ginger’s invitation to worship each Sunday at our church:

Open your hands and relax
Breathe in the breath of God
Breathe out the love of God

The rhythm of life. And death. Alongside our inhaling and exhaling is the beat of our hearts, the pulse of our existence, the quiet drum of grace that keeps us going. In these days of grief, the beating of the heart takes on a new meaning. The syncopation of sadness is excruciating. At the risk of mixing metaphors, grief feels like improvisational jazz: there is a form, even a pattern, but it is difficult to follow for the uninitiated, leaving us to be surprised, if not sideswiped, by its seeming randomness.

Yet there is rhythm. The rhythm of the falling tear, or the breaking heart; the rhythm of memory, of absence, of getting up and going on. By the beat and breath of life and death we keep time (we don’t make time, or tell time) — sometimes we don’t know what we keep it for or from, but we breathe as best we can and keep going.

Today marks a month since both my father and Gracie, our eldest Schnauzer, died.

As one who lives with depression — and who has had three relatively light years of late — his death opened the doors in the floor in many ways. The one saving grace is at least this time I know why I’m depressed. And, I trust, it has not come to stay indefinitely. The sadness sits on me like a lead coat; I can feel the weight. I find relief in the doing of daily things: going to work, going down my to do list, and cooking.

I have one main recurring thought. I find that I want to contact friends who have lost parents and spouses and siblings and children over the years and say, “I had no idea what you have been through.” My seminary training, my years as a hospital chaplain, or even my years just living on the planet did not inform me well. I don’t know how I could have done it differently, but I understand things now I did not before. I feel a rhythm I had only heard described. The initiated around me have offered profound comfort because they know they cannot fix it. There are no words, no actions, only the rhythm of the falling tear952sparrow. And unending love. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” So, it might be said of the arc of grief. This is going to take time.

One of the biggest surprises for me is how painful it is to be in worship on Sunday morning. Being there is heavy and hard. Sunday, I didn’t go to church. I stayed home and cooked and spent time in the garden and basked in the companionship of Ella, our remaining Schnauzer. I’ve worked not to over-analyze what makes it so hard. Mostly, I feel as though the relationship between faith and grief, between sadness and grace, is more complicated and layered than simply saying, “God will make it better.” One of my favorite songs is “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” The chorus says,

his eye is on the sparrow
and I know he watches me

Watches. Not catches. Nothing separates us from the love of God and there is much, including death, that separates us from those we love. Some days the heart beats the rhythm of the falling tear. Many days in fact. Breathe in the breath of God; breathe out the love of God. That will have to do for now.



  1. Interesting the Chinese image – I remember being surprised that my heart could physically hurt; the connection to the lungs makes sense to me.

    You are welcome to share my “15-minute life:” After Tim died, I discovered I was capable of knowing what I wanted / what I needed / what I was feeling / what I could do only in increments of 15 minutes (and even then, only after several weeks – it started at five or six minutes). Beyond that, I made no promises. Slowly, slowly, slowly, it became 20 minutes and eventually 30 ….. Be patient with yourself.

  2. After our Dad, and then our Mom died, my sister and I both came to the same conclusion you did; we had no idea what friends were going through who had lost a parent. I wanted to go back and apologize to some of them for my total cluelessness. At the time, I thought I was being compassionate.

  3. in isaiah 61, isaiah says “i have come to declare the year of the lord’s favor and the day of his vengeance to comfort all who mourn.” i find myself doubting that our world even has a moral arc, but this verse reminds me that it is long. his vengeance comforts me, when all the oppression, exploitation, and degradation finally has to be answered for. it comes to full fruition in revelation 21: “i will wipe every tear from their eyes. there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold! I am making everything new.'” God’s anger is not like our anger: his is restorative whereas ours is destructive. this is what i have to lean on when i am mourning, that God is making everything new and it will all come to full glory one day.

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