It has been a challenging few weeks, a time when I have been caught between competing professional and emotional obligations – conducting my mother-in-law’s funeral on the one hand, and grieving her death on the other. Funerals should be familiar territory for me. As a Presbyterian minister for over a decade, during which time I also had a period as a Hospice Chaplain, I conducted hundreds of funerals, reflecting and writing extensively on that aspect of my ministry.
Coordinating the funeral arrangements – both practical and pastoral – for my mother-in-law drew me back into a professional space I had left many years before. All in the midst of grieving for someone who had become my second mother, indeed a mother whom I had come to know and love and relate to for longer as an adult than I had my own mother, who had died 25 years earlier. My wife – a nurse – found herself facing a similar tension in the days leading up to her mother’s death. One cannot shake off one’s professional role and obligations any more than one can shake off the emotional ones.
Nor does the manner in which we attempt to deal with death and grief in our Anglo-Christian culture necessarily help, whether in terms of the practical logistics that must be attended to, or in terms of the less practical (though no less significant) process of grieving. Sizeable decisions regarding funeral arrangements must typically be negotiated with family within a day or so of their loved one’s death – in my mother-in-law’s case, following a number of days during which her children had nursed her to the peaceful death they had hoped for her. Emotionally wrung out, sleep-deprived, they were having to decide upon caskets and service sheets and catering numbers, all so seemingly insignificant in the face of the enormity of the grief process they were now finding themselves swept into. And then there is the funeral itself, and the euphemistic language we so often wrap around the process of death and grief – ‘passing on’ or ‘over’, ‘going to a better place’, fond descriptions of the one we have ‘lost’. It is as if we do not name death as such, it is somehow easier to handle. Unfortunately, all the psychological evidence would suggest otherwise: that failing to name death for what it is, can in fact serve to inhibit our grieving.
Around the same time as all this was happening, Rev Prof Lloyd Geering was preaching at St Andrew’s on the Terrace in Wellington on the occasion of his 99th birthday. Reflecting on how his views on life and its meaning had evolved as his experience of life had progressed, he noted that:
we humans do live in two worlds. But they are not the material world and the spiritual worlds our forefathers assumed they lived in. Rather they are the physical world and the world of human thought.”
That perspective is echoed in the writings of former Catholic Priest-turned-poet-and-philosopher, the late John O’Donohue. As have many of us – myself included – O’Donohue stepped back from traditional ministry (in his case, the priesthood) having found himself having “less and less in common with the hierarchy.” It was therefore as much a surprise to him as it was to anyone else that the first book that he wrote, in 1997, ‘post-priesthood’ as it were, should become an international bestseller (Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom). Yet what O’Donoghue and Geering have in common is an openness to re-imagining the world – life and death, faith and philosophy – as we allow our experience of that world to impact upon us. More importantly, as we find new ways, perhaps less constrained ways, of engaging with and putting into words those experiences of life and death that we might otherwise avoid by means of long-established ritual and well-worn euphemism. In terms of grief, I have yet to discover words that capture it more accurately and eloquently than these of John O’Donohue:
When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you becomes fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone.
There are days when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.
Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.
It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.
Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.
Max Reid: Since leaving parish ministry some twenty years ago, Max has held various management roles across the health and social service sectors, including in aged care, mental health, and currently as Chief Executive Officer with Kidney Health New Zealand. His faith, such as it is, now finds its place and purpose beyond the confines of (dis)organised religion, as he continues to ‘meaning-make’ in the face of life’s wonder, mystery and paradox.