Dealing with Death and Great Loss

Dealing with Death & Great Loss: Learning to love someone in their absence.
Our much loved son-in-law, John, took his own life recently. It was a devastating blow. How do we deal with death?  As a minister I am often at the bedside-of-death.  The reality of death and significant loss is part of the warp and woof of my professional life. But John’s death troubled me deeply.
One of my daughters passed on to the family an article by Lucy Hone who lost her 12-year-old daughter in a motor accident.  Lucy makes some interesting points. Apart from all the well meaning things that people say to us there is a general view that we need to move on. The collective wisdom hitherto has said that we should get on with life. That means we are expected to pack up, put away, and clear out the majority if not all of the memories. Bluntly put, it’s a severing of our bonds with the deceased.
Lucy Hone writes as an academic psychology researcher and points to the current research that indicates that the majority of people show positive resilience to death and great loss, and that there are new strategies for grieving. She writes:
“ … contemporary bereavement research suggests … the bereaved who somehow manage to cultivate an ongoing connection with the dead seem to grieve more easily. Tom Attig, past president for the Association of Death Education and Counseling, who has written and taught extensively about death, bereavement, and grieving, believes that the key to effective grieving lies in making the transition from loving someone in the present to loving them in their absence. “We can continue to ‘have’ what we have ‘lost’, that is, a continuing, albeit transformed, love for the deceased.
We have not truly lost our years of living with the deceased or our memories. Nor have we lost their influences, their inspirations, their values, and the meanings embodied in their lives. We can actively incorporate these into new patterns of living.” In other words, we can work out what their legacy is.
I have certain rituals that remind me of her (says Lucy of her daughter who died). I wrap my wet hair up in her old Barbie towel after swimming, just as she used to, I wear her necklace when I need extra strength, we continue to celebrate her birthday at the same spot on the beach each year, surrounded by her friends and eating B.B.Q. Kettle chips in her honour. When I spy something that reminds me of her, that I know she would love, I post a photo on Instagram … .”
When I read Lucy’s helpful article on the World Wide Web I immediately thought of the Jewish and Christian tradition. It made me conscious that we don’t always use our theological traditions well. For me, I must confess, to face death and great loss is to move on with life. I also know that is easier said than done. I also know that when we sweep horrible things under the carpet, so to speak, they emerge at awkward times and bite us. Sometimes we are unconscious of that happening.
What do our theological traditions teach us?  When the Jews were dragged off into slavery in Babylon in 587 BC, they didn’t forget their traumatic and deep loss of Temple, City and home. They remembered. They told stories. They remembered what it was like. They developed rituals of prayer, reading and sharing together. (We get the concept of Synagogue from this experience.) Their remembering was peppered with praise.  They lamented and they praised God. Their recalling of the past and their praise of God shaped their future.
Then I thought of the disciples – those men and women who sat at Jesus’ feet and drank in his teaching and actions.  They also remembered Jesus. They came together and remembered. It wasn’t easy. Some went off fishing. Some wanted to be alone like Thomas. I know they had the Resurrection that was a huge inspiration, but they also had to deal with the traumatic change from having Jesus with them and having Jesus present in a different way.  What they did was remembered. They came together. They remembered what Jesus did with bread and wine. They shared the stories of Jesus. They wrote down those stories and the stories of their new way of living with Jesus.
I confess when I work with people who are bereaved I don’t often mention the dead by name waiting for the bereaved to do so. By doing this I am encouraging the notion of moving on and severing the bonds!  I will change that now. I recognise that we need to learn to talk about our loved one, or the great loss we have experienced. That this is helpful.  It is part of ‘transitioning from loving someone in the present to loving them in their absence’.
So coping with our grief is not a forgetting but a remembering. It is responding positively to the great ‘loss’ and remembering our loved one and loving them in their absence. There will be a difference to the remembering that becomes a downward spiral of sorrow for our loss as opposed to remembering our loved one for what they gave and give us now.  Our rituals of remembrance are not about creating a shrine of sorrow, but a memorial of inspiration.
The father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard, said that the great remembrance meals of the Passover and Holy Communion are ways of looking back so we can go forward. At the heart of Judaism’ remembrance of God’s salvation is a remembrance of the past so that they can step into the future, as is the Christian Holy Communion or Eucharist.
So I sense that to remember my son-in-law, John  (as I do my parents), my life will be tinged with a personal sorrow, but simultaneously enhanced with thanksgiving for his / their lives.
I pray and hope that this may help you.
Peter Whitaker (Rev)