Reconciling Ambivalence

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Welcome (from New Unity member Qaisar Siddiqui)

It is my pleasure to welcome you here this morning to this radically-inclusive community of love and justice. Radically inclusive means that whoever you are, whatever you believe or don’t believe, wherever you are from, whatever you look like, whatever joys and sorrows you carry, and whomever you love, you are welcome here.

For those of you who are here for the first time today, a very special welcome. We know that it is not easy to arrive for the first time. You wonder what you will find. You worry. Please take a deep breath. The worst is over! Let us help to make you feel at home. Let us help you to find whether this community is right for you.

I hope that all of you find in the next hour something to inspire you, something that makes you think, something that touches your heart, something to help you in your own journey toward wholeness. Whoever you are, you are not alone. You are welcome here.

Today, our message will be delivered by our esteemed congregant, Emmeline Kelly, who’ll be looking at how we can reconcile our ambivalences, especially in times when that ambivalence hits us at our most vulnerable, and when more than anything, we crave certainty.

Reading: Into The Hour, by Elizabeth Jennings

I have come into the hour of a white feeling.
... Grief's surgery is over and I wear
The scar of my remorse and of my feeling.
I have come into a sudden sunlit hour
When ghosts are scared to corners. I have come
Into the time when grief begins to flower
Into a new love. It had filled my room
Long before I recognized it. Now
I speak its name. Grief finds its good way home.
The apple-blossom's handsome on the bough
And Paradise spreads round. I touch it's grass.
I want to celebrate but don't know how.
I need not speak though everyone I pass
Stares at me kindly. I would put my hand
Into their hands. Now I have lost my loss
In some way I may later understand.
I hear the singing of the summer grass.
And love, I find, has no considered end,
Nor is it subject to the wilderness
Which follows death. I am not traitor to
A person or a memory. I trace
Behind that love another which is running
Around, ahead. I need not ask its meaning.

Reading: The Thing Is, by Ellen Bass

To love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Message by New Unity member Emmeline Kelly

Almost ten years ago to this day, my Dad and I took a car journey that I remember very clearly. It was a beautiful sunny day, the car windows were open and the fields, filled with some kind of yellow flower, stretched out around us. We were on our way to pick up my pet hamster, Marbles, from a friend who had been looking after him for a couple of days. I remember the exhilaration of this drive, the purest feeling of joy at being alive, and although my Dad and I barely spoke on the journey, afterwards he told me that he’d felt the same way.

But what makes this drive so memorable, and so striking, is that barely 24 hours earlier, we’d sat with my Mum as she died peacefully of cancer in the local hospice. To say that these feelings of joy and exhilaration so soon after her passing were unexpected, was putting it mildly.

I felt confused and fairly guilty. Before I lost my Mum, I always imagined grief would be this relentlessly dark period of life, where I would feel nothing but overwhelming loss. But, then I had a conversation with someone who really was little more than a stranger. And they told me gently that I already had enough going on in my head and I shouldn’t judge myself for what I feel, or didn’t feel – and that feeling joy during this drive, or in anything else, didn’t mean I wasn’t still feeling sad, or that I didn’t desperately miss my Mum. “Don’t add another level of suffering to what you’re already going through”, they told me, “You will feel what you feel and these feelings will often contradict each other, and that is ok.”

Maybe it sounds like simple advice, but it was incredibly helpful to me and in preparing this message, I’ve been thinking about why this was the case. I remembered, whilst reading about conflicting emotions, that there is a word for this - ambivalence – the state of having simultaneous, contradictory feelings about a person, thing or situation. I have to admit, I’ve always got ambivalence confused with indifference. But, far from not feeling enough– ambivalence is feeling what can feel like too much – a myriad of conflicting emotions, all at once.

This advice, from the person I barely knew, helped me again when I lost my Nana, and two years ago, when I suddenly lost one of my best friends, Nick. In the weeks and months that followed these losses, I experienced a seemingly incongruous mix of utter despair, and moments of hope and joy. I cried a lot, and I also laughed a lot more than I expected. And sometimes, I didn’t feel a lot of anything. Speaking to other people who have experienced loss, these experiences are not unusual. I started to read articles on grief, talked to grief counsellors, and this confirmed it. Ambivalence in grief is very common. People just don’t tend to talk about it.

Ambivalence in grief can be further complicated by the relationship you had with the deceased. For example, someone can miss their father’s warmth and sense of fun, but there may also be a sense of freedom that comes from no longer being under his controlling influence. And to acknowledge this does not mean the person loved him any less, or that they didn’t value his many great qualities. Ambivalence can also occur when someone was a caregiver for the deceased, and suddenly find themselves without the constraints that this role had put on their life, or there can be a sense of relief that someone is no longer suffering from an illness. And if ambivalence is common amongst people who had a good relationship with their lost one, then emotions become even more complicated when the relationship was difficult, or distant, or abusive.

The advice - to try to get comfortable with the discomfort of conflicting emotions - applies to far more than the experience of grief. Often, we want things to be ‘this, or that’ when in reality, a lot of things are ‘this AND that.’ I asked a good friend recently how she was and she answered, “You know I’m really not sure. I’m lots of things, all at the same time.” And I realised actually, ambivalence, for most of us, is part of every aspect of our lives.

The danger is, that human nature tends to makes us inclined to focus on the ‘positive’, or ‘socially acceptable’ emotions, and we try to push down the undesirable, or feel deep shame that we don’t feel the way we’re ‘supposed’ to feel. Ambivalence, whether in our emotions or our opinions, can be a useful tool. Many psychologists believe that feeling ambivalence is a sign of emotional maturity. And one study at the University of Washington actually demonstrated that ambivalence can foster creativity in language, as it enables us to connect to our complex nature and to see new possibilities.

But how can we reconcile ourselves with our conflicting feelings? To return to grief, we can remind ourselves that it is ok and common to feel this way, and that any conflicting emotions do not detract from the loss that we feel.

One of the most helpful things I’ve found, in trying to make peace with grief, is to carry the memory of the person forward by doing the things they loved and trying to embody the qualities that I admired in them. I will admit that the way this sometimes goes is that I think, “I’m not horribly late, I’m just honouring how Nick would have done things”, or – “I’m living out Mum’s legacy by enjoying a take-out rather than the healthy pot of stew I’ve just made”, or – “Enjoying an extra glass of wine and then finding myself inexplicably stuck between items of furniture is just my way of remembering Nana.” But, joking aside, my Mum, Nick and Nana were kind, and warm and welcoming and I try to emulate them, both in taking joy in life and in my care for others. To me, this is reconciling ambivalence in practice, it confronts the pangs of loss, whilst enabling you to move forward, carrying your loved one’s influence out into the world.

Being gentle and kind to yourself in the conflicting emotions of grief can also open you up to what I think of, maybe slightly oddly, as the gifts of grief. Losing someone is a universal experience, and I know that many of you will have lost one, or maybe many people close to you. Sharing experiences of grief has brought me closer to a lot of people, for example, as we sat and laughed and cried, loss brought my girlfriend and I together, and enabled us to connect on a level that we probably would never have reached otherwise. And every time I stand up here and light a candle and talk about my experiences of grief, I connect with more of you, which was what led me to writing this message today.

People often say things like “What I would give for just five more minutes with the person I have lost.” And I can relate to that, there is nothing I would like more than to just sit and share a cup of tea and a slice of cake with my Mum, Nick or Nana. This everyday interaction, so mundane, and frequent during their lives (they all enjoyed their caffeine and cake) becomes extraordinary in loss. But if this is the case, then it follows that this cup of tea I’m sharing with my Dad, with a friend, with one of you, suddenly becomes the most important thing that there is. And if I can just step outside the complacency of this moment, and see that the time we share together now, may, in the future, be the thing I want most in the world, then I allow grief to give me a bittersweet gift that is simultaneously a joy in the moment and a sorrow in the mindful knowledge that this will one day be lost. And this is easier said than done, and I am still very much guilty of taking people and situations for granted.

But, if grief has taught me anything, it is that if we can live in love and gratitude now, then we honour ourselves, and the relationships we have with those both living and lost, in the highest possible way. And if we can gently make peace with our conflicting emotions, and allow them to sit without shame or judgement, then we can develop deeper compassion, both for ourselves, and for those around us.

May it be so.

Closing Words (by New Unity member Qaisar Siddiqui)

I’m not a fan of superhero films at all - they’re often horribly bloated tentpoles with too many overdone special effects and Robert Downey Jr. But there’s something that happens at the end of the Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy 2. The character Yondu, and older alien marauder, lies on a gurney in front of the main characters, including Peter Quill, who talks about the kind of father figure Yondu was;

“And, you know, today it struck me. Yondu didn’t have a talking car, but he did have a flying arrow. And he didn’t have the voice of an angel, but he did have the whistle of one.

As much as we’d like - when those close to us pass on, it’s not always peaceful, during or after. We don’t always get to have memories untainted by anger, pain, or jealousy - whether in ambivalent, imperfect lives, or in deaths that warp one’s personality.

Instead, as Emmeline’s message showed, we’re often racked by ambivalence about the person, and the subsequent guilt from not valorising their passing in the way it deserves. But Quill shows us that while our understanding of who that person was may be ambivalent, and why their lack of perfection can make it harder to mourn their death, reconciliation of some kind is still possible, and a forgiveness underpinned by love and acceptance can bring us the peace both we, and the passing, deserve.