Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Grief and Healing

I recently had the privilege and honor of participating in an interfaith memorial service, a celebration of departed alumni, family, and friends, at Princeton University, my alma mater. It was with gratitude and humility (and not just a little bit of trepidation and sadness) that I took to the lectern when it was my turn. I offer up my words in hope they may help someone else struggling with loss and grief.

Celebration/Memorial Service Reflections
for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Ally Alumni
Saturday, April 13, 2013


Assalamu calaykum

This is the standard Muslim greeting. It means, “Peace be with you.” If you would like to respond, the response is Wa-calaykum assalam. “And upon you be peace.”

Thank you.

Since I have the microphone, let me thank the organizing committee and everyone who made this weekend happen. It has been a gift.

I am humbled and a little nervous to be up here today. It’s been overwhelming to be back. I was fairly out when I was on campus, in the early to mid 1990’s, so I thought I was OK. Yet it turns out I have had more to heal from in that experience than I thought. I know I am not alone in this.

I am glad I am back though, and and I am grateful to be here with you, to be here now. This celebration has been beautiful. Thank you to all who have come before me.

We’re here today to celebrate the lives of departed classmates, friends, and family. I love that frame—we celebrate rather than mourn.

Yet, to celebrate, I need to come to terms with my grief and my loss. And I have had my fair share (I know I am not alone in this as well.). One loss that is very recent happened 5 months ago when I lost one of my closest friends, William Brandon Lacy Campos, which is why it has been so meaningful for me to be asked to be one of the participants addressing you today.

Brandon was 35 years old, a Queer, Poz, African-American, Afro-Puerto Rican, Ojibwe and Euro smorgasbord (his words, not mine). He was a poet, a playwright, a blogger, a journalist and a novelist. He wasn’t a Tiger, but nobody’s perfect. Brandon was fearlessly honest about his struggles. He was someone I was proud to call brother. He was family.

My grief is fresh and has reopened old wounds, triggered other memories of loss. I’ve seen this weekend that I’m not alone in carrying grief or having wounds that still need to heal.

As a Muslim, I turn for guidance to Surat al-cAṣr, one of my favorite Surahs, or Chapters of the Qur’an.* It’s brief, thank goodness!

Inna’l-insāna lafī khusrin
Illa’lladhīna āmanū wa camilū’sāliḥāti
Wa tawāṣū bi’l-ḥaqqī wa-tawāṣū bi’s-ṣabrī

I’ll give you a translation and my interpretation of it:

In the Name of the Divinity, the Gracious, the Compassionate,
Time itself is witness
Surely all humankind experiences suffering
Except for those who have faith and do good works
And live their lives as examples of honesty [and as inspiration for others to be honest]
And live as examples of patience [of forbearance in bearing the troubles that befall, and as inspirations for others to be patient].

This is how I interpret it:
In the Name of the Divinity, the Gracious, the Compassionate

Time itself is witness
This is a universal truth, for all people, across all time

Surely all humankind experiences suffering
Grief, loss, pain and suffering are something everyone experiences at some point in their life. This tells me that I can expect to have some challenges and also that I am not alone in the experience.

Except for those who have faith
Here I am given a solution to my problem, and I believe that “faith” here is faith with a small f, not a big F. This means all those who can keep their focus on the positive, looking for reasons to trust that things do get better, without necessarily closing their eyes for the ways that problems also abound;

And [those who] do good works
This suggestion is very practical, as doing good works or charitable actions gets me out of my head—try it, do something for someone else, you’ll see. It is also pragmatic because if I take action to improve the world around me, I can ameliorate or remedy the problem which may be the cause of my suffering. Here I am directed to focus on solutions instead of problems and to be a part of those solutions, to participate in bringing them to the world;

And live their lives as examples of honesty [and as inspiration for others to be honest]
We all know the value, no, the necessity of living as authentically as we can. We all know the costs of not doing so, the isolation and alienation that results, the lack of intimate connection to others—because, how can we be close to anyone if we do not let them know who we are and we are constantly lying about ourselves or keeping ourselves from them? That barrier is always up;

And live as examples of patience [of forbearance to bear the troubles that befall, and as inspirations for others to be patient].
This last line tells me that I will face challenges, and that while I strive and strive to face them, patience will be a great tool.

I love this Surah because it is so simple and I can recite it when I am troubled, like a check list. Am I being patient? Am I giving time time?

Patience is not the same thing as passivity or inaction. Am I being honest, am I living in faith rather than fear, am I doing service? All of these are actions.

But I still need to be reminded to be patient, that there is a Mystery to this thing called life. The timeline upon which I demand change or think it is best is not mine to determine. I may have some good ideas (I went to Princeton, right?), but there might be better ways to fix the problem and there just might be another Plan.

Brandon’s is not the only loss I’ve experienced. In the last 10 years, I know at least 30 people who have died: suicide, drug overdose, health problems, unknown causes, etc. There is a silence around this that I want to interrupt here, that I need to interrupt.

I was on campus in the early to mid-1990’s. We hear a lot about how AIDS ravaged our community during that time. But the dying did not end with the advent of antiretrovirals (first off all, you have to have access to the meds, and not everyone does). 

Our communities are still suffering.

But there are solutions.

We must love ourselves and love each other.

We must hold ourselves and hold each other.

And we must remind ourselves that we belong. Simply by being part of Creation, we do. I have at times found this hard to believe, so it is a reminder I repeat to myself.

Lastly, a solution we can hang onto is to celebrate ourselves, as we are doing here today, and not just those who’ve departed, but all of us who remain.

Thank you.

Additional Links

Obituaries for B

William Brandon Lacy Campos himself, himself

*I wrote a version of these reflections only a year ago, as a guest blogger on Brandon's blog, My Feet Only Walk Forward, after a friend, Tony, committed suicide. It was written as a letter to another friend who speaks often about suicide and who struggles with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction. 

Inna lil-llāhi, wa-inna ilayhi rājicūn.
Indeed, we belong to the Divine and indeed, to the Divine we shall return.

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