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May 22, 2012 | Jeanie Senior

Collaboration with Poet Helps Deacon Through Grief

When her husband David died of cancer, the Rev. Senitila McKinley turned to painting as a way to work through her grief. Her friend Drew Myron sought understanding through writing poetry and what turned into a collaboration about loss and sadness, love and gratitude, emerged as a collection of paintings and poems. 

“Dying sucks. I’m not gonna lie,” David McKinley told Myron, on what turned out to be her last visit with him. Talking to Myron later, Senitila McKinley was equally direct. “Death is not a crisis,” she said.  “It’s a beautiful part of life.”

The different approaches offered by the couple, who had been married for 33 years, sent Myron to her journal to write a poem, which she shared with McKinley. In the months that followed, they shared the paintings and poems that emerged as their work expanded to encompass not just David’s death but other losses.

“An artistic exploration that centered on one man became a larger meditation and appreciation for the weighty beauty of being with the ones you love to their very end,” Myron says, recalling the hours of conversation the women shared.

“There’s a mystery about the joy of grieving that we don’t take time to explore.  We think that only mystical people have a meaningful understanding of death. But it’s not true. It shouldn’t be a mystery,” says Senitila McKinley, who is a deacon at St. Luke’s by the Sea in Waldport, Oregon.

“To look at death and grief as a gift is not reserved for those who have a defined spiritual journey, but for everyone that has known love.”

Ordained in 1993, McKinley grew up in Tonga, an island in the South Pacific, where her father was a longtime minister in the Free Wesleyan Church.  She joined the Church of England when she was 19. She and David met in Tonga, when he visited the island; a few weeks later, they got married and moved to Waldport.

In 1992, she founded nonprofit, community-based Seashore Family Literacy, which serves low-income and homeless youth and families, providing food and clothing as well as educational programs. Senitila and Myron met in 2005, brought together by their appreciation of children and concern for families in need.  Myron, an award-winning poet, is Seashore’s writing instructor.

“I’m trying to learn something about love/ how it gives what cannot be seen,” Myron says in her poem How to Breathe. “We cannot sense space without light/ can’t understand light without shade/ I’m trying to learn something about faith / like a farmer, a fisher, a lover wounded and waiting.”

Senitila’s paintings are by turns exuberant in bright colors, chaotic, sentimental,  somber.

“Let’s  not talk of grief, of weather / the way darkness gathers,” says Myron’s poem Now. “I have enough ends. Tell me / a story of starts.”

A special edition book, “Sweet Grief: Paintings & Poems on Love and Loss” is available for $10 +s/h. Proceeds benefit Seashore Family Literacy.

Senior is communications manager for the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon.