Suffering As A Sacred Renewal

There was a post on Facebook today announcing a tribute to Leonard Cohen, on his 80th Birthday. I’m sharing it here, because it was moving, and timely for me. My brother David has cancer, and is in the middle of “aggressive” medical treatment. I imagined David saying these words too, as I’ve come to learn he’s expanded into the grace of loving support and prayer, despite his pain and fear.


Leonard Cohen

Posted by Allan Showalter: “Here It Is – Letters To Leonard Cohen,” a book presented to the Canadian singer-songwriter in celebration of his 80th birthday, comprises stories and essays by fans that put their experience of Cohen’s music into words. Kim Gorsuch, who has long admired Cohen, came up with the idea and organized the project, gathering the pieces and photos online at, for printing into a hardbound volume. Because the stories are too significant and too moving not to be shared, we are posting a number of Kim’s selections. Today’s offering is “What’s Really Going On Below” by Jinji Willingham:

What’s Really Going On Below:

The morning after 9-11, KUT Austin radio host John Aielli aptly began his set with “Hallelujah.” Feeling so shaken by the tragedy, the elegiac song touched me deeply, and I wept while listening to the song as I drove home, after dropping our two boys off at their Montessori program. That was the first time I heard Leonard Cohen, and I could not have known the profound impact he would have upon my life. It really is a secret chord, some kind of rich, smoky incense.

Six weeks later my four-year-old son Keaton died suddenly in his sleep – on Thanksgiving night–due to an arrhythmia, and I grasped for some kind of emotional and spiritual lifeline in the face of this devastating loss and acute grief. I called KUT and explained why I desperately needed to find out what song I’d heard on the morning of 9-12-2001, and waited for a long time while they checked their playlist, then drove directly to Waterloo Records, bought the CD, and listened to it for I-don’t-know-how-many days, until it became my spiritual practice.

At a strangely visceral level, I know–with more conviction than I know most things – that the singular combination of my son’s death and Leonard’s song, fundamentally and irrevocably altered my heart, my mind–and even helped rewire my nervous system (narrative will do that for us!), and I’ve never been the same since. “Hallelujah” truly shepherded me through the darkest days of my life, helping me find my way on the bumpy path to healing. I’ve often felt that my response to my son’s death would have been entirely different if I hadn’t heard it that morning. Instead of shaking my fist and raging with bitterness, there I was on my knees, broken-hearted, head bowed in muted gratitude, experiencing for the first time in my life that strange gift of loss, knowing–in a way that was utterly new to me–that my suffering was a sacred, renewing, and healing experience, inseparable from love, inseparable from gratitude.”

It’s moved me to hear David speak of the love and support he feels during this frightening and painful time. Despite my spiritual knowing and training, his diagnosis hit me in a way I cannot describe. Someone I love, will likely suffer. We did what we’ve been taught by life to do, tell him and show him that we are here for him. I do it by sending weekly cards. It’s humbled me to have taken years for granted with him, but I’m ever so grateful to be real with him now. The thought of death, however it crosses our atmosphere, leaves one speechless.

I feel the same gratitude the author of this letter to Leonard Cohen does, even though I’m not suffering with cancer. I see and feel the grace of something that has connected my brother and me, and my family, in a way that we hadn’t experienced before. We’ve been lifted by love, and fortified by your prayers.

Yesterday I saw a question in a spiritual writing forum, and I almost responded, defensively. They asked, “Why would God create a world where suffering exists?” God didn’t create suffering, of this I am sure. God did gift us with grace to not only endure suffering, but to be transformed by it. In that rendering, a piece of music, a card, or a prayer carries the potential to keep another connected to the vibrant field of love that sustains us all.

So, thank you Leonard Cohen, and thank you David Fry. Your gift and your vulnerability grace my life. Love moves everything, and heals it too.

Here’s KD Lang singing, “Hallelujah”

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