“All Our Losses” by Mark W. Harris
October 28, 2018 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Opening Words – from Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk.
“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realize that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, […]”
Readings: “Heavy” by Mary Oliver
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
I went closer,
and I did not die.
had his hand in this,
as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,
was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel,
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry
but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?
Have you heard
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?
How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe
also troubled –
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
to which there is no reply?”
Second Reading – “For the Anniversary of My Death” by W.S. Merwin
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what.
Sermon – “All Our Losses” by Mark W. Harris
Life is made up of losses. We all know that loss is inevitable, but we may deny that it is happening to us. It is for this reason that loss is often the most difficult challenge one has to face as a human being. This is true not only of adults, but of children as well. Certain events have a traumatic effect on us and are etched in our memories, even if they now seem insignificant. When I was a first grader I had this great yellow rain slicker that had a matching hat. On the first day of school it was raining cats and dogs, and happily, I was able to wear this outfit that I loved so much. I rode a school bus to reach my two room elementary school house which was several miles away in my rural home town of New Salem. When I got to school I happily went inside anticipating my first day, but after the teacher greeted me, and I began to take off my raincoat, I suddenly realized the hat had been left behind on the bus. I remembered my metal lunch box, which had a school bus motif with all the Disney characters on board with Mickey driving, but not the hat. I burst into tears, and was beside myself with fear that it would be lost forever. My teacher tried to reassure me that it would be recovered, but I was inconsolable. My teacher said we could simply call the bus driver, and be able to get it the next day. I finally calmed down and believed it would turn out alright, and I would have my hat again. I remember to this day how hard I cried, and it makes me wonder if that hat was symbolic of something else I was feeling. Was it the loss of my life with my mother, and entrance into the world where I no longer had her constant protection. I would like to tell you that we recovered the hat, but that was not the case. Some other person on the bus must have taken it. The problem was that the bus went on to pick up more students and then drop them off at the regional high school. The bus driver didn’t check the seat until after that. Another round of crying followed. I got over it, and simply had a wet head for a while when it rained. But I always remembered this loss.
Most of us are losing things all the time. For some it can be as serious as misplaced wallets or cars in parking lots, and for others like me, it is my glasses, and more recently words. There is lots of advice out there on how to find things you have lost, such as clean up your house. The internet is even helpful in finding items like former classmates who you have lost touch with, or that favorite book you loaned to someone and never got back. It turns out that the average American spends six months of their life looking for lost objects. I mostly look around my brain for the lost words. I look up a lot of synonyms online, and often I can come up with a worthwhile substitute for the word I want. Losing something is the equivalent of giving something up, so I often say I lost my favorite shirt when I was hit by an ocean wave 25 years ago, and the ambulance EMTs had to cut the shirt off my body to care for my injured arm. A shirt like that is hard to lose because we become attached and feel like ourselves when we have that perfect coat or shirt on. How many raincoats have I left behind in Legion Halls? The problems is that life is complicated and we are imperfect, and therefore we forget sometimes. Maybe the key is to have less things to lose. Most important is never stash away something you don’t want to lose because I have found you will never find it again.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the Boston Book Festival. One of the workshops was on Love and Trauma, and it began with one of the presenters saying, “All love must end with loss. There are no happy endings.” How does your average American deal with that kind of statement? It is often said that we demand that our movies have a happy ending. I once convinced my study group to read some Indian novels, that are often stocked with one tragedy after another, but afterwards they remarked how hard it was to cope with that, and these were ministers! Of course loss is not only dealing with sadness and death, it is coming to grips with the many changes in our lives. I think my loss in first grade was about the idea of losing my mother, and those losses continue throughout our lives whether in moving away from home, leaving a job, ending a marriage or relationship, retiring, or moving away. I think it was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who once said that the little losses in life prepare us for the bigger losses such as the death of a child or a spouse. All losses sadden us because they prefigure larger ones; words mean my intellectual capacity is being slowly lost, and ultimately I will lose my life itself. I have felt more significant losses in the last few years as I have dealt with some medical issues, our sons leaving us as empty nesters, and now the specter of leaving this job and this community.
Halloween is the commercial version of the annual time of year when the so called veil between the living and the dead is thinnest. It also marks the Mexican Day of the Dead, and the church’s All Saints Day. This fall also marks a time when I am beginning to contemplate the loss of my my life here. We have resided here for more than twenty-five years, the longest I have lived anywhere, and giving up a home that is the only one my children have ever lived in is difficult. My routine of having walked down Church Street to this building, which by my calculations is something like 15,000 times, will end in the next year. As someone who thrives on routine and repeated action this is a loss that will take some time to get used to. Of course for a minister, their work is very much their life, and that is especially true for me. I love my work here whether it is caring about how you are doing, watching over the condition of the building, or upholding the history of the community. This job, this calling is who I am, so I am contemplating a tremendous loss of identity and purpose. I have begun that process already, and I can feel it in my behavior and response. In the early days of the year, there was a reticence about jumping in to the fray, and discussions about issues that I believe represent failure or inaction have brought anger or regret to the surface. When we are feeling a loss, anger may come out, or denial or sadness, and we wonder how we can move from that emptiness about loss, to some measure of gratitude for what we gained from this experience. Life often seems like nothing more than a series of losses, from beginning to end. This means we all must ask how we will respond to those losses. In retirement I will have a new home and must ask, what life purpose am I going to create here? This loss leaves me with a hole in my life. How will I fill it??
On Thursday I met with a mother whose daughter had died from an opiate overdose five weeks ago. It is sometimes said that no loss is greater than the death of a child. The young woman I will call Sarah was only twenty-two, and had been an addict for six years. It seems as though her addiction developed as a result of being unable to come to grips with unresolved losses – a divorce of her parents – all leading to the loss of close friends, the loss of her home, the loss of a summer retreat, all built upon a personal betrayal, and ultimately the loss of her father, an addict himself. What this added up to was the loss of herself, and here I don’t mean her death, but rather how her identity was lost. A few years ago there was a book and subsequent movie called Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. It was the story of a young woman who suffered from mental illness, and the course of her life was interrupted by a suicide attempt, and she was hospitalized. The title was taken from a Vermeer painting, “Girl Interrupted at Her Music.” It means that the expected or normal course of a life was abruptly changed. The girl in the painting was snatched and put on canvass forever, and so the young girl was snatched from high school, from athletics and studies and relationships to be stigmatized as such so that her life stops, and the flow of her life will never be the same. It is what happens with sexual assault, or life threatening illness, so that it marks your life forever, and though you may go on and build a new life, you never forget what happened, and it is a time in your life you will never recover. Your childhood is taken away, or your freedom, or even your very identity. This often happens to people who become addicts, and I felt this as I learned about Sarah, as her life was snatched away, and she lost who she might have become. The opiates began to dominate her life, and so she became defined by drug addiction. To others this person is often seen as a junkie, and they only see the addiction, and thus stop seeing her as a person. They cannot feel empathy for her, and only pass judgment. We forget that she was loved as a sister and a daughter, or that she was smart and funny and honest and proud. So we can lose people when we judge them not worthy of our time or our listening ear or our support. Here the loss is compounded, and if the person dies of an overdose, as was the case here, their loved ones want to dignify their life as worthy, to honor their life as good, and bring peace, and perhaps as a parent, to protect them one last time from the assaults of the world.
As a minister this has been a week where loss has seemed ever present. I think of the person whom I will call Emily who became hospitalized, and then went straight to an assisted living facility, which seemed like a good solution to her children as she was unable to live alone anymore. They brought a few of her things to the new room at the new facility, but in the process of making the transfer no one thought about how Emily never had a chance to say goodbye to the people she was close to, the community that had offered her support, and the homey apartment where she had lived for years. The loss of her rooms, her things, and her garden haunt her as she resides in a new environment. She sees her children, but there is little of the life she knew for so many years, and while she may get over the loss of all that was, it takes time and strength and support. It reminds us to believe people when they say something is wrong, and to listen to each person as we cope with the losses in our lives.
My parents would have been 100 years old this year, and I have especially thought of them as their annual birthdays have passed. My mother died thirty years ago at the age of seventy of pancreatic cancer. The anticipation of the loss of a loved one then and now is persistent with cancer, even though we may live with hope that our loved one will have months or years. In the death of a loved one there is the loss of relationship, and the loss of love and support. There is no answer as to why diseases may come at particular times or places. We can often feel as though bad luck or random accident can quickly bring a loss into our lives. There is no answer, it just happens. But the result is the same; nothing is as it was. Sometimes people will tell us that a loss makes us stronger, but that can ring hollow. Sometimes a loss is devastating, and certainly on some level we will never get over it. Nothing in our lives is ever going to be the same again. How do we rebuild?
Our heart is broken open by every loss we suffer whether it is the end of a time in our life, or the death of someone close to us. The opportunity though is not to drown in the sorrow of that loss, but to find some way to buoy yourself on the wave of turbulence. This means that in the loss of life as we know it, we try to fashion beautiful memories of the great times we had together at dinners or craft fairs or the accomplishments of memorial gardens or renovated sanctuaries. With the death of a loved one, we keep their memory alive by the way we live our lives. Rather than focus on the sadness, we can remember their life with gratefulness. We can also focus on the time we had together rather than regret the time we missed. Somehow if we are able to celebrate all that was good about our time together, then the despair doesn’t seem quite so over whelming, and we come through despite the pain. We never fill the void caused by the loss, but we can celebrate what was, and learn to live on. As Anne Lamott once said, “It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
With parents and other loved ones who have died, or even in times of significant milestones of life, we remember the anniversary date, and feel its impact each year. Their memory floats across our consciousness, or something occurs that reminds us of them, and we feel their presence around us. In his poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” W.S. Merwin would have us contemplate our own death, which has not yet occurred and cannot be marked. I find as I age, my own death becomes a contemplated loss to me, even as I endure incremental losses of bodily health. What will happen to me? Merwin reminds us that the fires of this world, our world, will go out, and we will become tireless travelers, who do not know their destination. He takes us to a transcendent place that gives us an appreciation that we might carry a larger essence in our bodies, and we are bound somewhere “like the beam of a lightless star.” This world helps us understand, he says, that we are part of something larger, just like the bird singing expresses a truth about the eternal essence of earth. There is something he says, that is ineffable about this existence.
Some years ago I met with a young mother who had a young son, who had died when the family lived in Europe. She came to see me filled with immense grief and loss. The question she kept asking was “Where is he?” I am sure the loss of his presence in her life was still close, and even in death, we want to keep our loved one close by. Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted to keep seeing his deceased wife, and went time and again into her tomb to touch her. We keep the ashes of our loved ones nearby, and may not know what to do with them, except to keep them close. Researchers say there is a common reaction to the loss of a loved one called searching. We may think if we go out looking we will find our loved one who died, or is now lost to us. We see things that remind us of them, or even people that resemble them.
The word loss comes from an old English word which means to perish, and is related to the lorn in forlorn. We may think of lost as being a disruption of the normal order of things. We say we can’t continue until we find our glasses or that car which is in that garage somewhere. Yet loss is something that is usual in the order of things. It is what happens to all of us. As I said in the beginning to love is to know that eventually we will lose that which we love – that favorite shirt, and all those things we lose, that loved one, and all the people we care for, our own love of life and its mountains, streams and woodlands that frame it in beauty. Losing is normal, but finding is what is astonishing about life. You have a thought and the words come to you. You have a family crisis, and you find the courage to act. You construct a new life from your losses, and you find love – a new passion, a new friend, a new hope for more days or years. Mary Oliver says she goes close to grief, and does not die. It is something about this loss that isn’t weight, she says, but how we carry the weight of loss. She says embrace it and balance it. Sometimes we don’t talk about all our losses, and it might be healthy for us, if we did. It is losses that live near us nearly all the time, and it can seem overwhelming, but in the things of this world we find a pathway to the ineffable – the roses in the wind, the sea geese on the steep waves, this is the love to which there is no reply. This is the love we remember, the love that gives substance to our memories, the love we don’t want to let go of, but do, believing it continues to live in the universe , as we bow in reverence to that strength, that comfort, which we cannot, but somehow do know.
Closing Words – from May Sarton, Sonnet 2 from “The Autumn Sonnets”
If I can let you go as trees let go
Their leaves, so casually, one by one;
If I can come to know what they do know,
That fall is the release, the consummation,
Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit
Would not distemper the great lucid skies
This strangest autumn, mellow and acute.
If I can take the dark with open eyes
And call it seasonal, not harsh or strange
(For love itself may need a time of sleep),
And, treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep,
The strong root still alive under the snow,
Love will endure – if I can let you go.