Last year, at just about this point in late October, my mom found herself first, in the hospital, and then in rehab, recovering from pneumonia. She was there for quite some time and, as any of you who have spent much time in medical facilities know, it can be hard to sleep in such places.
One night on the phone she recounted for me a dream that she had been having; that is, she’d had it more than once. She described herself has having been half asleep, or rather that she couldn’t tell if she was awake or asleep. But she said there was a light down the hall by the nurses’ station, which she could see from her bed, and which she felt was keeping her awake.
She described seeing a small group of people walking down the hall toward her, arm in arm. They were loud, laughing, and she was feeling annoyed because, of course, she was trying to sleep. As they came closer, she thought she recognized one gentleman – perhaps he was the only man in a small group of mostly women – she wasn’t certain. But she said she recognized him as my grandfather. Not her father, but her father-in-law, who died in 1977. She didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the presence of her father-in-law when he was alive, and she quite resented him being there those nights in her recurring dream.
“What do you make of all that?” she asked me that evening during our phone call.
“Well,” I said, “you have been in the hospital, recovering from pneumonia. You’ve been sick and you’re taking medication and, like everyone else who’s spent any time at all in a hospital, you’re sleep deprived. Maybe you were hallucinating.”
And she agreed. She thought that might be true. She’d spent most of her career as a clinical social worker working in a hospital, so she knew all about sleep deprivation in patients.
“On the other hand,” I said, “in some cultures, people believe that at this time of year – right around Halloween – the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is the thinnest, so that the dead can more easily cross over into the land of the living. Maybe what you were seeing was real.”
And somewhat to my surprise, she agreed with that possibility, too. “Yes,” she said. “It could be.”
Soon it will be Halloween – All Hallows’ Eve – the evening before All Hallows’ Day – or as it’s more commonly known, All Saints Day, on November 1st followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. Both are Christian festivals, celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and many other Protestant traditions, as well. This is a time for honoring those who have died through liturgy in worship and by visiting cemeteries and leaving flowers and candles at the graves of loved ones.
November 1st is also an important day in pagan, druidic and wiccan traditions, a day known as Samhain, a fire festival which marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. This is liminal time, a time when the boundary between the worlds is most porous, when it is believed that we can communicate with the dead most easily, and when people honor and welcome their ancestors by creating altars and offering food and other gifts and
Similarly, in Mexico, many celebrate El Dia de Muerto, The Day of the Dead, by building ofrendas, private altars, filled with pictures of ancestors along with favorite foods and special objects, and by leaving gifts and food on their graves. Candles and bright orange marigolds are set out to light the way, so that the dead will not get lost.
In South and North Korea, Chuseok, which means “autumn eve,” is a harvest festival, during which celebrants honor their ancestors in many similar ways.
In Nepal, it is Gai Jatra, the festival of the cows, in which cows, which are considered a sacred animal, are led in a procession to guide the recently deceased to the afterlife.
In China, in the 7th lunar month, which this year was in August, there is the Hungry Ghost Festival. In Japan, there is Obon, the Japanese Day of the Dead. In Cambodia, there is Pchum Ben, when the line that separates the living and the dead is also considered to be thin.
There may be no religious tradition more ubiquitous, more universal, than the honoring and feeding of the dead, the ancestors, at harvest time. And so it seemed almost unthinkable to let this month of October, during which we’ve been reflecting on the theme of Letting Go, pass by without taking time to honor our dead…without taking time to think about loss, grief and healing…without pausing to reflect on what it means both to let go of and to hold on to those beloved who have died.
This past March, my mother, who had recovered from pneumonia and gone home in late fall, found herself back in the hospital and rehab once again, diagnosed this time with heart failure. And very soon thereafter, her heart gave out, and she died.
And I once again became part of what Helen Keller once called “the largest company in all the world.”
We bereaved are not alone [she said]. We belong to the largest company in all the world – the company of those who have known suffering. When it seems that our sorrow is too great to be borne, let us think of the great family of the heavy-hearted into which our grief has given us entrance, and inevitably, we will feel about us their arms, their sympathy, their understanding.
You and I and all of us are part – or one day will become part – of the “great family of the heavy-hearted.” We all have – or one day will – know grief.
What is grief? It is said to be “the internal part of loss, how we feel.”
It has been described as “a multifaceted response to loss…. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, cultural, spiritual, and philosophic dimensions.”
We can experience grief no matter what the nature of the loss, not only when a loved one dies, but also…
• When a beloved pet dies
• When we lose a job
• When a relationship ends, through divorce or a break-up
• When, as children, our siblings leave home
• When, as adults, our grown children leave home
• When close friends move away
• When a loved one develops dementia or another life-changing illness
• When a beloved minister either retires or leaves to serve a new congregation
We can experience deep grief, too, over…
• A loss of faith
• The loss of an election
• The loss of our democracy
• The loss of entire species and glaciers, and a heretofore stable climate
What, if anything, I wonder, do you find yourself grieving most at this point in your life?
In his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Francis Weller writes, “Grief comes from the Latin word gravis, meaning “heavy,” from which we also get grave, gravity, and gravid. We use the word gravitas to speak of a quality in some people who are able to carry the weight of the world with a dignified bearing. And so it is, when we learn to carry our grief with dignity.”
But grief is “a process, a journey,” and the journey can be a long one, the learning curve quite steep.
Some of the most well-known theories of grief and how that journey can unfold describe stages – sometimes 5 and sometimes 7. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described the stages as
• Denial, which includes that state of numbness, shock when we first learn of a significant loss
• Bargaining, during which we wonder what might have been done to prevent the loss
• Depression, when we can experience symptoms such as fatigue, poor appetite, trouble sleeping, lack of energy, crying spells, feelings of loneliness or isolation, emptiness or anxiety
• The next stage she describes is Anger
• And then finally, Acceptance
I’d like to invite you to take a moment to consider…
When you call to mind that person or thing that you are most deeply grieving at this point in your life…at what stage of grief do you find yourself now? Where do you seem to spend most of your time? Is there a place where you feel stuck? A stage you cannot seem to get past?
It’s important to remember that the stages are not linear. We move in and out of them, sometimes reentering one that we’d thought we’d long ago left behind. But the goal is to move toward some form of acceptance.
There are things that can get in the way of our healing process. It is difficult, if not impossible, to move through the grief journey toward acceptance if we…
• Avoid our emotions
• Engage in compulsive behaviors
• Minimize our feelings
• Overwork or over-function, at home or at work or even at church
• Rely overly much on drugs or alcohol to numb our pain
Are there particular ways that you tend to try to avoid facing and experiencing your own grief? Are there patterns that keep you from moving along the journey toward acceptance and healing? Are they really serving you well?
Just as there are things that can get in the way of our healing process, there are also things that can help move us forward. These include being able to…
• Acknowledge and express our feelings in healthy ways
• Confide in others
• Be patient, trusting that time itself can heal
Unfortunately, our dominant culture doesn’t always afford us many opportunities to talk about death or loss or to share our grief and pain. More often then not, I suspect, we tend to grieve alone, if we allow ourselves to grieve at all.
And so, I wonder if you think it would be helpful to gather with others and talk about that grief that you carry? I wonder how this community might be able to help support you in letting go, in moving toward acceptance?
If you think it would be helpful to you to be a part of a group – even short-term – to talk about your own experience of loss and grief, or to connect with others in some way, or even simply to have a conversation with me, I’d be very willing to try to help make that happen. If it would be helpful to gather with others to talk about your grief about the political situation or about climate change, we can also make that happen.
When I talk about grief and loss and letting go, I am not talking about letting of the person or thing that we loved. I suppose I’m talking about letting go of those things that hold us back, those things that keep us stuck, that keep us from healing and acceptance. Sometimes we may find that we need extra support to let go.
But at the same time, as Jean sang so beautifully last week, we also want to hold on. It has been said that “death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.” How can we maintain our relationship with, our connection to, those whom we’ve lost even after they’ve died? How can we remind ourselves of the ever-presence of that invisible string that Lauren spoke of in the story this morning?
There are little things we may already find ourselves doing to hold on. We may wear jewelry – a ring or a watch or a necklace – that belonged to someone we’ve lost. We may place their pictures on our mantles. Some of us may create home altars to honor our dead. We may visit their graves or important places to remember them or eat foods that they once loved. We may light candles or sing songs. Some of us talk with those whom we’ve lost, we chat, we give updates, we ask advice. All of these are ways to make palpable that invisible string that connects us even after death.
What are some of the ways that you find yourself maintaining those connections? Or wishing that you were? Are there new ways you might want to try? Particularly this week, when the veil between the worlds is said to be the thinnest? Perhaps taking a walk in a cemetery… Perhaps setting an extra place at your table and inviting your loved one in to dine. Perhaps playing their favorite music and asking them to dance.
I’d like to leave you with this poem, an old favorite of mine that came to mind this week. It is a poem about invitation…a poem by Denise Levertov, called “Talking to Grief:”
Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.
I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.
You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider my house your own
and me your person
my own dog.
Amen. And Blessed be.