At The End of Your Rope: Day of the Dead

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 11/02/2014

Welcome to this year’s Day of the Dead service, our annual Sugarloaf tradition.


Each year, we treat this holiday a little bit differently.  Sure, we almost always have this happily decorated center altar where we will lovingly place mementos and pictures of those we have lost to death, and light candles to honor them.  But the theme of the worship service has been slightly different each year, at least the themes that I have been a part of. 


One year we might celebrate the more traditional Dia De Los Muertos, with dancing skeletons, and food, and memories of our ancestors.  One year we might be more on the Halloween side, talking about pumpkins and ghosts.  One year we might talk more about All Saints Day or All Souls Day, the Christian holidays that are celebrated November 1st and 2nd.


No matter what angle we take, one of the goals of our Sugarloaf Day of the Dead service is to make meaning of death and loss, to help us come to terms with why the universe is organized such that we inevitably lose many of the people or animals who mean so much to us, or else we are eventually inevitably lost to them. 


The questions surrounding death – like why death happens at all, why it happens when it does, who deserves it later rather than now, how to make a greater meaning from it – these questions are often at the center of church. 


People come to church because they want to make the most of their finite lives.  People come to church because they want to know what it all means.  They come to church because they are grieving and they haven’t found anywhere else in our society where grieving is okay.  Each year, our Day of the Dead worship service gathers up all these needs and questions and we encourage you to bring them here for us to work out together.


At the Day of the Dead service each year I try to help make some meaning out of the sorrow that we might be bringing to this space.  Sometimes I say that the love we have for each other never dies, even though our bodies do, and that we quite literally live on in each other when we’ve had any sort of relationship or impact on each other.  That’s true.


Sometimes I say that our world needs death in order to live at all.  And that’s true too. The earth hungers for rotting plants and animals to fertilize the ground.  If we didn’t have those things, the soil would wither and die away, and life would end. There are whole colonies of sea animals that only live within the sudden and temporary world of a dead whale. So some years I say that although we might want us all to live forever, that wouldn’t be very good for the world at all.


But what I rarely do is say this, which is also true:  When the people and pets that we love die, we often feel desperately sad about it, and nothing, nothing seems like it’s going to make us feel better.  Not lessons about the meaning of life.  Not being with other people.  Not remembering the dead fondly. Not knowing that they live on in us.  Sometimes, we just feel unremittingly awful.  Sometimes, losing those we love does nothing but suck.


That’s what I’m calling Being at the End of Your Rope for the purposes of today’s sermon. And today, we’re going to talk, not about how it’s really all okay at some level, but about how sometimes it’s not at all okay, and what to do when that happens.


The short answer of what to do when someone you love dies and you feel terrible is, of course, to grieve the loss, grieve it in whatever way grief is coming to you.  That grief, that outpouring of emotion and pain, might feel foreign or frightening to you.  It might feel too big, like it’s going to take over and wash you away.  It might feel too bad, like worse than you ever felt before.  And you might be tempted to push that grief away from you, to avoid it, to keep it over there in a box that you carry with you all the time but you never…really….look…at….


You might feel like you’re at the end of your rope, and you’re afraid you’ll fall into something even worse.


So I’m going to tell you two things about grief, so you don’t have to be so scared of it.


The first thing is that grief is a natural process, not a foreign one.  It’s a process that’s going to heal you, but it can only heal you if you let it happen.


And the second thing is that there is a secret about the universe that makes grieving better, which I’ll tell you more about in a minute.


Rev. Darcey Laine, who is the minister of the UU Church of Athens and Sheshequin, Pennsylvania, writes so clearly on the subject.[1] She says,

Each and every person on this earth has experienced loss. We may think when grief comes over us that we are alone in our mourning, that the smiling chatty folks around us don’t know…but of course they do. Being alive in this mortal world means knowing loss.

And grief—grief is the process by which we heal those holes ripped in our life through relocation, through divorce, through death. We mammals are designed to feel acutely the loss of one we love; it is a survival mechanism that binds parent to child, that binds together family group and tribe. The more we bring people into our hearts, the deeper the hole they leave if they are taken from us.

Grief is the process of knitting back together those holes, those empty places where our loved ones used to be. We wove them so carefully into our lives, and now that they are gone we feel we may unravel without them. That hole where our loved ones used to be causes us to stumble—to wonder how can we live each day without them... Loss creates a change in the terrain of our lives, and grief is the process of re-forming our lives, transforming them into a new wholeness. Even those waves that drag us under help transform our lives. Those waves are part of the slow process of washing us clean of what is gone, of what we have lost.


So it isn’t that grief is just something painful that happens to you after someone dies, like you might get a sunburn after being in the sun too long.  It’s not something avoidable or unnecessary that should be sidestepped, as if you could be careful with griefscreen or griefblock or something.  It’s something indispensable that happens to you so that you can heal, so that you can go on living, even without the physical presence of that person you loved. You won’t heal up to be just the way you were before, because that isn’t possible, but you can heal up and live a good life where the loved one takes up a differently shaped, but still treasured, place in it.


If we don’t let grief knit those holes back together, then we are left with holes in our lives and hearts.  When we get scared of grief and don’t let it in, it’s like having a wound on our bodies that we won’t let heal, because we’re afraid of scabs. We’ll never be whole again if we don’t let healing happen, even if that healing is slow, even it if hurts, , even if it’s ugly, even if it leaves a scar.  If we don’t let grief do its work, eventually, we will hurt far worse.  I bet most of us can think of someone like that.


Let me tell you the secret of the universe when it comes to grief: Grief has a floor to it that is much shallower than you’d think.


Imagine you’ve lost someone and you feel all sorts of big things about it.  You feel shocked and dislocated, and sad, and scared, you feel numb, you feel a big hole in you.  Imagine all of these feelings and more as this giant swimming pool, all this grief, and you’ve been plunged into the deep end, and it’s cold.  You look down and can’t see the bottom, just a lot of dark.  


But since you’re already in the pool, you’re in it, so you let the pool be in charge.  And you bob around in it, sometimes feeling like there’s plenty of air and the temperature is okay, and sometimes feeling like it’s really cold and someone’s splashing waves over your head.  You bob up and down, sink and swim a bit.  But one of those times, you just dive into the water and take whatever it has to offer and you find that the bottom of the pool is right….there….


That doesn’t mean that you’re out of the pool.  Sometimes it’s still cold and sometimes it’s over your head when you don’t want it to be.  But the bottom of the grief pool is closer than you might have thought.  It doesn’t go on forever.  It just doesn’t.


And the reason why there is a bottom right there is because the secret to our universe is that there is always grace in it, waiting to help us, waiting to save us.  Grace in the world tells us there’s no such thing as all bad, even when it feels that way sometimes.


Last week, I quoted a bit from Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones at First Unitarian Church of San José in her blog post about grace.  Rev. Jones writes:[2]

We need help—maybe every day—from something larger than our solitary self, however we name that Something More (community, Love, God, spirit, universe)... For me, grace is, first and foremost, this spiritual experience. It’s that “unexpected gift,” tangible or intangible, that comes from a flesh-and-blood friend or stranger. It’s that mysterious in-breaking of wonder and thankfulness that frees our spirits from despair. It’s those times when something goes unexpectedly right just when everything seems to be going wrong.


We just have to be open enough to notice and receive it.


This grace is what happens to you when you’ve been thrown into that pool of grief and you let it wash all over you.  Grace is what happens when you let go of the rope.  It turns out, you don’t fall.  You don’t drown.  You touch bottom.  Something will come and hold you, if you’re open enough to notice and receive it.  That is how the universe was made, not only so that we have to suffer the loss of those we love, but also that if we notice and are open, something Larger comes and helps us when we need it.


Most of you know that my first husband died from a brain tumor more than a decade ago.  Before he died, he was sick and in treatment for almost two years.  Most of that time I busily pushed my fear and grief to the side and chose to live in a different part of the room, over with hope and possibility and constant, unrelenting action.


But at one point, towards the end, things got pretty overwhelming, even for hopeful, always-in-action me.  I got up one morning when Stefan was in the hospital and sat on the side of the tub.  Mornings were always the worst, because all those feelings I had shoved aside seemed to notice that there was an opening in my sleepy self and they rushed right in.  This morning, I was feeling low, overwhelmed, and hopeless.  I had not yet learned that those feelings were important to have.  I usually avoided them.  I was just too tired to push them aside right then.  And I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do.


And then, out of the blue, a song shoved its way into my head. 


Now, I’m someone who is likely to have a tune or two floating around in here.  But this wasn’t like that everyday sort of occurrence. This was a SONG IN MY HEAD, out of nowhere, and it sang itself in me, to me.


Ooooh, child, things are gonna get easier.  Ooooh, child, things will be brighter.


Grace put that into my head just when I needed it, and I wasn’t about to question the hows and whys of it.  I needed it, I was open to it, it was there.  It was one of what became so many times where I touched the bottom of my grief and found the floor. 


Grace is there for you, too, when you are at the end of your rope.  There is no such thing as a bottomless sea of sadness.  There IS, however, a possible bottomless sea of depression and despair, for folks keeping the hard work of grief away.  You don’t want to be that person in that sea. 


So on this Day of the Dead, let’s just let it go a little bit.  Let’s let the grief in, with all its scary aspects, so that we can also let the grace in, with all of the ways that grace can help us. With grief and grace, together, may we be healed.








[1]Grief.”By Darcey Laine, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church Of Athens And

Sheshequin, Pennsylvania, in the Church of the Larger Fellowship Newsletter, Quest.  Read it all at

[2] Minister’s Musings, from Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones at First Unitarian Church of San José.  Read the rest at