“A Reflection on Making Sense of Grief and Loss” Remembrance Day, 2013,
Unitarian Church of Edmonton
Rev. Audrey Brooks, Unitarian Chaplain, 169C HUB Mall Interfaith Chaplains Association,
University of Alberta, Edmonton
Brian and I are sharing thoughts today about losses we experience in our lives. Remembrance Day is an appropriate time to do this, because there is no greater loss to a family than the loss of a child to the terrible human affliction we call war.
It is a mandatory truth that all living things must die. But when it happens suddenly and tragically, the loss is greater than it would be, if a person lived a full life and died in the usual way: with family at the side, with prayers and wishes for the next part of the journey (if that is the belief system) and with a final good-bye if this world is seen as the only resting place.
Nevertheless, if death doesn’t happen because of war, like occurred recently for Canadians deployed in Afghanistan, it is cancer, or a traffic accident, or some other event that is unexpected. We listened to the news on CBC this morning, to hear that Typhoon Hy-Yin devastated the Philippines, with 10,000 feared dead in just one city area. No words of condolence could ever heal the hearts of the survivors of this horrible natural disaster. which, we are told, almost obliterated the northern part of the Island from the map. Countries all over the world are coming to the aid of the people of the Philippines, but the reality of the event and the accompanying destruction of that country, will not easily pass from memory. What shall we do, to respond to the grief and loss that fragments the lives of those vulnerable people? Brian has suggested sending donations for disaster relief to the Canadian Red Cross, which is already partnering with the Red Cross in the Philippines, to bring aid to survivors. And that is a start. Because that country is so far away from us, it is hard to do more than make donations and empathize with a situation so big, it defies our personal intervention.
Whatever its cause, death means means that the story we were living before the tragic news came, is shattered. The world we thought was stable and real, is now changed. There is an acute grief process after a tragedy, where we construct the meaning of our lives differently. Our lives are changed forever by what happened, and, even though the finality of death is not challenged, it is still bittersweet.
In my own family, the death of my 7 year old brother happened on VE Day, in 1945. Every Remembrance day I think of that death. I was 5 years old, and I remember the Victorian Order Nurse in her long cape and white cap, standing at the door with a policeman. I was the one who opened the door. They asked for my mother, and I said she was in bed. Both mother and I had the mumps, and my brother had decided to go to school on his own, not knowing that school was cancelled, because of the celebrations of the WWll Victory in Europe. He apparently got on the bus, and when he got off at his school, was hit by a truck as he crossed the street. The nurse and the policeman were there to tell mother that my brother was dead. I will never forget that day. Family life as I knew it was changed forever.
The new meaning for our family was that my brother became the family saint. I still have pictures of my grandmother, and other family members, making the trip to pray at his grave, over many years. Visiting his grave became a family pilgrimage. The trauma of his death never left my mother. She occasionally talked about him, how he learned to read from the cereal box before he ever went to school, or wondering why he had no shoes on when he was taken to the hospital. When she was about to die herself, at the age of 84, she insisted that she be buried beside my brother in Winnipeg, even though there was a family plot here in Edmonton. Her heart was with him all those 60 years after his death. She said she would haunt me if I didn’t follow her wishes. I said, “Mom, we must record your voice telling me what you want me to do,” and she agreed, because we both knew my step dad would never agree to have her remains taken away from Edmonton. She also signed, in her wavy and uncertain handwriting, a notation on her personal directive saying she wanted to be buried in the same grave as her son. Suffice to say it was done, and I have not been haunted by my mother’s ghost.
Preoccupation on the events of his death and getting stuck on his story, helped keep my brother’s death at the forefront of the family. Though there were other deaths, some of them natural and others because of accidents, the details of their deaths were added as commentaries to his.
Kubler Ross who wrote a book: On Death and Dying, outlines five stages of grief, (Denial and Isolation; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; Acceptance), that are helpful to understanding what people go through, when someone they love has died. While these concepts might be useful in normalizing grief, they do not go far enough. Each grief is different, unique and more complex than can be addressed by any simple formula.
There are questions and speculations about what happened, and why. and often presents as, “If only …..” Or “Why didn’t I,” (or someone else) take responsibility for seeing that things were safe?” or “Why did God allow this to happen?” People of strong faith often have their faith challenged and can feel abandoned by God, others are sustained through grief by the strength of their faith. Caregivers may blame themselves for a death, even though the death was because of aging.
In my brother’s death, the questions were: “Why didn’t my aunt come over and watch the kids while mom was sick?” “Why was dad out celebrating instead of being at home?” In fact everybody blamed each other for not watching out for my brother, and this blame lasted until my mother died. She never forgave herself, or the other people who were around, for letting my brother die.
As a pastoral care minister, I know something better could have been done to help my family in their journey of grief. Even as a small child, I knew that everyone froze, that there was nothing positive spoken at that time. There was no counselling that I knew of, no way of sharing what was going on in the family. It all got buried with my brother. And because of this, it sat and festered, instead of there being any movement toward healing. As a small child, it was not acceptable in those times, for me to attend my brother’s funeral. So, family life as I knew it was changed forever. Yet, as years when by, his death was still part of telephone conversations I overheard, that brought out fresh emotions, about unfinished business connected with my brother. He became a cult figure to relatives, who relived the events of his death, with mother, in a ritual that never saw an ending, until her own death. There was always a strangeness in this for me, even as an adult.
Families are complicated, and so is grief. There are layers of grief, and layers of family stories. When there is violence, like in my brother’s sudden death as a child, or violence caused by cancer or other diseases, from the ravages of war; from catastrophic natural disasters; not forgetting the depth of family trauma from suicide, there is both a physical and spiritual reaction that requires profound attention.
One mother whose son was killed by someone who shot him seven times, tells the story of his loss on a film, which was shown at a workshop I attended on Making Sense of Death. The mother declared, “I see his death every waking hour, with several scenarios of his death. I can’t walk around without seeing him dying. He wasn’t violent; he was scared of a butterfly.” The whole scene is as real for her, as if she saw the blood from each shot; a trauma she will live with the rest of her life. This is a post traumatic stress consequence of her son’s death. It was impossible to accept, this unexpected and particularly violent death, since some of the shots were also fired at her son’s back, which caused her great anguish.
What do we do with that kind of grief? There are no fancy fixes or immediate ways to step aside and let it pass. We shatter and keep shattering, engaging with this loss until there is some kind of “time out,” that allows healing to begin. There can be no specific or special formula for putting the grief of loss to rest. Grief is the same kind of sacred journey that life itself is. It has its own hills and valleys that cannot be mapped using reason or magic spells.
I know there many strategies that grieving people can use to move on from grief. They can create a new narrative by journaling about the lost one, or create scrapbooks to keep memories alive; even celebrate remembrances of joyful occasions shared with the deceased. Another useful tool is counselling with professionals who know what they are doing.
Coping becomes finding whatever works, but it also means that some kind of spiritual support has to be there. It can come from friends and family, or from a church community, where others who have walked the path of grief and loss themselves, can offer comfort and understanding. Ultimately, we grieve until we don’t need to any more; where the beloved one is kept in our hearts and in our memories, as a precious gift we once had but had to let go of, so both the one who is gone, and ourselves, can have peace.
Blessed be that process, that we not enter it alone, but have loving hands and hearts to guide us through it.
Rev. Audrey Brooks, Unitarian Chaplain,
Interfaith Chaplains Association,
University of Alberta, Edmonton Campus,
Office 169C HUB Mall
Homily: ”Loss and Grief” a homily by
Rev. Brian J. Kiely
November 10, 2013 Unitarian Church of Edmonton
Having gotten used to being scandal driven of late, Canada’s media this week – in my opinion – manufactured one around the use of the white poppy. It’s not a new symbol. It was first introduced in 1926 in the UK by pacifists there. The simple message is ‘Remember Peace’. Harmless enough. Unfortunately one of the student leaders of the campaign made a rather poor word choice when he was quoted as saying it’s for people who, “don’t want to celebrate war.” It touched off a firestorm starting with the Minister for Veteran’s Affairs who called it ‘disrespectful’ and was picked up by any number of columnists and commentators. The discussion has become quite rude in some places.
Personally I stand with the the Royal British Legion who comment that the wearing of the poppy, “is a matter of choice, the Legion doesn’t have a problem whether you wear a red one or a white one, both or none at all.”
I am lifting this up to illustrate our service on loss and grief for I find the fact that there is a controversy more telling than the controversy itself.
I believe it points to a tension in our society surrounding the acceptability of grief and all of its attendant messiness.
A long time ago I read a book by Thomas Moore called Care of the Soul. His thesis was that we live in a society addicted to the light, to the bright, to the next thing. If there is loss we are directed to ignore the pain or play through the pain and go on to the next victory.
Moore lamented that we seldom give ourselves time to grieve losses, time to rest in darkness, time to tell our stories for as long as we must in order to heal over the wounds. He called that soul time. I agree with every fibre of my being.
There must be balance. Now, I am a big fan of asking “What’s next?” and moving on. But there is a big difference between having an idea for a church adult program fall flat and say, losing a loved one. It’s fine to shrug off the professional failure after a little analysis of why it didn’t work, and then go on to the next task. But the loss of a loved one, of a career, of health…that demands something more of us.
Sure we need to embrace the future and at some point move on out of our grief, but when that exactly can happen in a healthy way differs from person to person. And even when we do move on, it is the wise person who knows that grief never entirely goes away. The dead and whatever else we have lost be it relationship, career, health and so on will demand their due from time to time.
Cultures and religions and even societies have understood this. This is why we have Samhain- or All Saints/All Souls if you prefer. This is why the Latin cultures have the Day of the Dead celebrations. It is one reason for Good Friday. It is why we have funerals and memorial services. And it is why we have Remembrance Day.
King George V created the commemoration on suggestion by Australian journalist Edward Honey who in the fall of 1919 called for five minutes of silence in honour of the war dead.
It became, and remains, the only annual civic ceremony of grief in Canada. I think we need it. I like to think that most people include not only all the war dead, civilian and military in their silent reflections, but also those wounded or displaced or in the broadest sense harmed by war.
To see it as a celebration of war is to miss the point entirely. Certainly, there are men and women in uniform, and that simple fact will make it unpalatable for some. I know my mother, terrorized by the Black and Tan regiment in Northern Ireland a century ago, got physically ill when she saw olive drab.
Certainly the ritual as practiced in Canada is military in character. But with the exception of the four people standing post with empty rifle barrels pointed to the ground, there are no weapons, no hardware, no celebration. Yes there is a gun salute somewhere, but it is usually far away.
I have been to many cenotaph ceremonies large and small and will attend again tomorrow. What I see is respect for sacrifice that also generates a healthy fear in the serving military that they too could be called upon to give their lives. That thought alone is about the best anti-war message I can imagine.
But mostly I watch the older vets, the ones with canes and wheel chairs, the ones still haunted by long ago battles. You can see that none of them think that war is a good thing, no matter that for some it was a lifetime highlight. They lost too many friends to believe in war as a good thing.
And there is something more in their eyes: It is as if they need this one day of mourning, this one day of saying, “I am sorry that you didn’t make it pal,” in order to go on living their lives. The ghosts we acknowledge and welcome into our lives from time to time are usually kind enough to leave us alone most of the rest of the year.
If there is a failure of understanding in the supporters of the white poppy it will be that some of them do not grasp this need to grieve the loss, even so many years after the fact. To suggest that the red flower is a celebration of war is just not accurate. The motto of the day is “Lest we forget.”
Lest we forget the dead;
Lest we forget the horror;
Lest we forget the sacrifices.
For if we forget, then war may become attractive again. The changing of the mission of Canada’s military from peace keepers to an active fighting force suggests that our government has forgotten. Tomorrow it won’t only be elderly vets remembering with tears. There will be younger faces wet with grid as well, for now we have a whole new crop of casualties from Afghanistan and elsewhere to remember as well.
Tomorrow evening the fifth annual Prayer Walk for Peace will begin at City Hall at 6 p.m., hours after the banners have been furled and the tears have dried. I will be there as well, for once the mourning has been done and the dead remembered, then will I be ready to ask “What next?” and look to the needs of the future.
Each person experiences loss as Audrey’s presentation reminded us so well. And those losses need to be held gently, mourned and grieved. For our own health and peace of mind we do need to sit in sadness for a time, but not forever. In the same way that ignoring loss is unhealthy, so sitting with it for longer than it needs us is unhealthy. We must also remember to rise up from our grieving and reengage with the world.