Five Days in a ‘Thin Place’
A Pilgrimage before Coping
As someone who has volunteered in hospice for ten years and has written on the spirituality of dying and death, I am often asked about grief and coping with loss. I used to balk and say, “I do dying and death; not grief. I know nothing about coping with loss.”
While I still do not presume to claim that I have clinical expertise or professional pastoral experience in grief and coping, the death of my brother eight years ago this week taught me more than any book on the subject. One lesson may come as a surprise, but it remains the most important one for me: don’t rush to cope.
Now, when people ask for the best book to read, a consoling prayer to offer, or a yoga routine to manage the grief, I say, read, pray, try asanas all in time. But allow yourself to sink into this raw space and discover what is there for you to welcome. It may be scary; you will not be in control; you may feel uncomfortable and embarrassed by the range of emotions that erupt. But feel it all before you venture into covering up with coping.
My big brother was always one to be up for exciting adventure. While he brought lots of fun to the family, he also lived on the edge in a way that felt dangerous to me. Some of that danger was feigned—like when he guided my sisters and me on a hike and pretended we were lost once we got deep into a mountain trail. I suffered a meltdown as a result and he took me home before resuming the adventure with my sisters who were older, wiser, and clued into his antics. He could be a real trickster.
His quest for adventure brought him to real danger on more than one occasion. The first time happened when he was about 13, riding his bike home, cut left onto our street, thinking he could beat a bus coming the other way. He couldn’t. That night my mother instructed me, “Pray for your brother. He may not make it.” I understood and started praying fervently.
Dennis was in the hospital for several weeks and then continued to recover at home for many more months. Somehow, he made his room into a place where I liked to go. From his bed in an upper body cast, he coached me how to shoot pool. He also taught me a thing or two about classic rock, introducing me to Jefferson Airplane and the Doors as a way of encouraging me to move beyond the Osmond Brothers. He persistently pushed my boundaries of safety, stretching me just a little beyond my comfort zone to new and thrilling places.
On April 7, 2010 he took me to a place I had only read about in Celtic spirituality. For five days I experienced “thin places” throughout the gritty cities of Oakland and Berkeley—hardly the peaceful destinations of Celtic pilgrimages, but during those days, these cities where we grew up were full of pockets and expanses where I experienced the veil between this world and the next to be very thin.
The poet, Sharlande Sledge, writes,
“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.
Most writers and pilgrims speak of these places as far away, in remote wildness, a requirement that ensures the sacred otherness is felt by the intentional seeker. But Dennis took me on a wild and scary pilgrimage right there in the inner cities. It began with a phone call around 8:00 p.m. I had just sat down at my desk when my sister called. “It’s Dennis. He didn’t make it,” she said.
I understood each word she said, but I could not comprehend the meaning. I repeated them verbatim, and asked, “What does this mean?” I finally asked, “What are you saying? Is he dead?”
His was both an expected death and unexpected. Expected in that he had suffered mightily with chronic pain ever since his accident as a teenager and had found relief in what is euphemistically called “self-medication.” It was unexpected because I never thought he could leave us so soon. I could not bear it and had told him so.
He ended up doing what he had done since we were kids. He pushed me just beyond my comfort zone to a place I had only read about: thin places.
After I hung up the phone I drove to Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, California. When I arrived, I sensed Dennis was around, but rationally I knew that was impossible.
“Obviously, I am just disoriented,” I thought. I called my sister on her cell to find out where the family was. We couldn’t figure out our respective locations so we stayed on our phones as we both walked around the hospital grounds. Finally, I realized we had been walking in one big circle around the hospital, one behind the other. I finally turned around and there she was. We couldn’t help but laugh. Our brother was dead and there we were laughing. Dennis was most certainly there. Our brother, the trickster, had set up this impromptu episode of hide and seek.
The following day I started taking care of “the arrangements” so my parents would not have to attend to the harsh logistics of burying their son. I located a mortuary that would transfer and cremate my brother’s body. I went to the cemetery where the cremains would be placed. These interactions all seemed surreal to me. Never did I expect to hear myself say, “I am here because my brother died yesterday and my family needs your services.”
In between each appointment I watched the world around me continuing at its frenetic pace, but I no longer felt part of that frenzy. Time seemed to slow down. I felt at a distance from the rest of the world, as if I had become surrounded by a gentle, protective cocoon. On more than one occasion, a hummingbird came by and hovered around my face that day and in the days that followed. As I attended to logistics, I smelled my brother distinctly in two places: as I drove past the Alameda Coliseum, where Dennis had been to more than one “Day on the Green” back in the day; and at the corner of Telegraph and Dwight in Berkeley where there used to be a camping store he had once showed me. These places hadn’t made me think of him in the past. But out of the blue I smelled stale whiskey and his sweat wafting through my car and dissipating just as quickly. These weird and new experiences were both scary and consoling. I felt like I was in a new place I had never been before, a place that was gentle yet strange. All the while, I was in the place where we had been born and raised. Oakland and Berkeley had become a thin place.
In our world, we aren’t often given space and time to stay in these thin places for long. We are expected (or we expect ourselves) to get back to work even as grief continues its own work on you. The following Monday, I got dressed in my academic uniform of black pants and jacket ready to teach my graduate seminar. I felt both numb and intellectually prepared to teach the text I had assigned that day. But as I walked into the school, I began to sob uncontrollably. It was embarrassing to me, so I did the only thing I could think of: I ran up the stairs to my office and locked the door, taking stock for the first time of how vulnerable and exposed I was after living in that thin place for five days.
Twenty minutes later I stood in front of the small group of students. I remember nothing from that class session except this: as I stood in front of the room, with the noisy busses passing by outside, I felt an energy move up my legs, slowly inching its way up my torso to the top of my head. It was as if some armor was protecting me or closing me off from that soft, thin, cocoon-like space I had lived in for the last five days. Then I began to teach. That’s when I started to cope with my loss of my only brother.
I saw a therapist who taught me helpful coping strategies. I then turned to books on grieving and studied coping theories. All this research was my own way of coping—to get on with my life, I found comfort in the predictable ways of the academic world where the veil remains hidden.
On a few of occasions subsequently, I was thrust into that thin place again. Once I heard Dennis laugh at my expense when a closet full of toiletries fell to the ground while I was trying to forget my grief and “do something constructive” like organize the closet. I yelled at him, “It’s just like you to laugh at this!” On another day when driving on Maple Avenue in Oakland, I saw him driving a white truck in the opposite direction. He had a big grin on his face. I took a double take and saw his grin grow bigger. When I looked in the rear-view mirror after it drove by, there was no truck. And when I finally could muster the will to go to liturgy, I rebuffed well-meaning students and colleagues who rushed to ask how I was. I sat next to a local homeless man who showed up that day for the first and only time. He held my hand and said nothing as I wept throughout the entire service.
Therapists and medical doctors view hallucinatory experiences and miracles as part of the grieving process. In hindsight, I see them as unexpected glimpses into a mystical way of being that is usually beyond most of us. Without intentionally taking a pilgrimage and planning to experience a thin place, I was thrust right into that sacred place where the veil is thin; where heaven and earth touch. It was scary and consoling, gentle and astonishing—a place I would not have gone on my own, so my big brother pushed me. And for this I am grateful.