"Grief is a sign that we have loved something more than ourselves. . . Grief makes us worthy to suffer with the rest of the world," Joan Chittister writes in Gospel Days. In this heartfelt documentary, Nancee Sobonya explores grief as a process that brings us into a direct and often painful encounter with the fragility of the human body, the losses that suck the life out of us, the dependence on others that we try to avoid, and the vulnerability that embarrasses us.
Grief is a mystery, and Sobonya respects that fact and refuses to be dogmatic about its stages and phases. For the past 20 years, she has worked in the field of death and bereavement, including 17 years as the Bereavement Outreach Coordinator at Pathways Hospice. She also teaches at Starr King School of Ministry and is a minister of the Ridhwan School of Spiritual Development, guiding people on their inner journey of self-discovery.
In an interview, Sobonya has stated: "Many times grief unmasks us and we are stripped down to our real, vulnerable self. . . . As the loss burns and the waves of grief crash through them, some people discover something inside themselves that they never knew existed a depth of compassion, of understanding, of strength and courage, a connection with humanity." To illustrate these points, the filmmaker presents interviews with seven people who have experienced deep loss: Isabel Allende (Paula) who reflects upon the death of her daughter Paula who lingered for over a year in a coma; Loretta Huahn whose husband was struck down with colon cancer; Kenner Storss who lost two friends and two godchildren in the 9/11 crash of the airliner into the Pentagon; Lee Mun Wah, a filmmaker and diversity trainer who still mourns his mother; Zen monk and Vietnam veteran Claude Anshin Thomas (At Hell's Gate) who met death overseas but had no knowledge of how to deal with his feelings of loss; Vinnie, a recovering drug addict who is now a counselor; and Alana Lorraine, a singer in the Glide Ensemble whose dear friend Roosevelt died of AIDS. The Rev. Cecil Williams, pastor of Glide Church, talks about counseling many of his members who are grieving.
The Gifts of Grief covers the subject of mourning from many different angles and offers key insights into the challenges that come with the death of those who are near and dear to us. All the spiritual traditions teach us, as does this documentary, that within the suffering and pain are lessons that enrich and deepen our lives in the long run. Sobonya does a remarkable job drawing out the emotions that connect us with these valiant souls who have learned from their journey into darkness and isolation. Each of them becomes our spiritual teacher.