Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Time to Mourn

Last Sunday afternoon I went to the memorial service for the husband of a long-time colleague and friend. He and she were and are self-professed atheists, having abandoned any faith practices of their youth, Jewish and Christian, respectively. They had been married for 40 years and had a wonderful loving relationship. I know her as a social worker with great compassion and integrity, and I saw him joyful and just beaming any time he came to work to pick her up—they were so close. He was an English teacher, who cared about his students—obvious from the number of them at this service, and a political junkie who cared about what was going on in the world. Because they have no religious affiliations and a small family, at this memorial service, she led the service, rather than a minister or rabbi. It had only been a week and a half since he died, and frankly it was very painful to see her, I don't mean her grief and tears, but to watch her try to hold it together in this public setting, leading the service.

One of their friends got up to talk, and the friend started by saying, "You know, we atheists have a harder time transmitting our values to our children than people who are religious." I thought then that another thing that atheists are missing is someone to lead community rituals. My friend's role should be only to mourn, not to lead a public service.

But it is not only atheists who are getting short shrift. I think perhaps as a society we are forgetting the communal nature of mourning, and the community's responsibility to those who mourn, while trying to speed up and expedite the period of grief. My agency gives five days for bereavement, but many workplaces allow two or three days or have no formal policy—you have to take vacation. And even those who are religious are beginning to blend the roles of the funeral and the memorial service and the roles of the mourners and the ritual leaders. Last fall I went to a graveside service for a colleague who had become ill and died within a month. Her son is an Orthodox rabbi, so the funeral was held the next day, and he led the service, while he was in shock and a mess. They were a small family and he had just moved back here in the last few years, so it wasn't clear to me that he had any other support system. But I came away thinking that he had done himself and us a disservice. As pastoral caregivers we need to know when to give and when to receive, when to hold on and when to let go, when to speak and when to be silent. It was his time to receive care, his time to let go and grieve, and he couldn't quite do it, and he couldn't really do the work of leading the community through the rituals of mourning either when he was the chief mourner.

This winter I went to a funeral that turned into an open mike memorial service. I would guess that those who were mourning would have loved to hear what people had to say, but I doubt if they could listen and take it in at that point in their numbness. But any kind of service is better than none, I believe, having listened to a friend whose controlling father died specifying no funeral service. She's wiser than that and created in the house a memorial space with the urn of ashes (he wanted his ashes spread at sea) and pictures, and they had a time together as a family, talking, and individually grieving in this space.

People need time to mourn, time to wail and cry if they need to, time to be held close by someone who cares. But, for most people, within the first week or two after death is not the time to be articulate in public about your own loss and grief. I think that the old Jewish rabbis were great students of human psychology (and sanitation) when they called for a funeral within a day or two. A funeral is a time to cry, to tear your clothing, and to have closure and know the finality of death. The mourners' job is to mourn. A community needs a ritual leader to guide the family and friends through a community time of mourning. Then those who grieve go home and in the ancient Jewish tradition, they sit shiva for seven days, while people come to the house and pay their respects, to bring comfort, and to bring them food and remind them to eat. After that, people are encouraged to begin everyday life again, and but to stand as a mourner with others who are mourning loved ones and say the Kaddish prayer each week at synagogue for the next year. Thereafter on each yahrzeit or anniversary the mourner stands to say Kaddish and the names of the dead are read aloud. What a sane rhythm this is for the community to maintain to honor both the dead and the grieving.

During my field education year, I wrote a series of lessons, and led an adult Sunday school class on the dark side of love, peace, joy and hope for those who needed to acknowledge their fear, anger, grief, and despair, during that season when all is not merry and light, and we also held a "blue Christmas" service to give space to those were mourning particular losses. As communities and pastoral caregivers we need to remember with those who grieve and mark those anniversaries—the week, the months, and the years, as well as celebrate what those lives have brought to our communities. At my workplace and home church I also wrote and led a series on spiritual exercises, including grieving, that I documented in this blog: Exercises for Spiritual, Mental, and Emotional Health.

As a chaplain in a continuing care retirement community this past year, I had occasion to participate in a number of memorial services as a leader and eulogist. The wise thing about these memorial services is that they were usually a month to six weeks after the person's death. This allowed people to be able to speak, to be able to listen, and for those in the community to hear about people's lives, and to mourn not only those whom we were remembering, but other grief and losses. As chaplains we made note of losses and made a point to check in with the surviving spouse—regularly at first, then at three months when they were coming out of numbness usually, and at six months when they were ready to become involved again with their regular activities. Grieving is not over with a service and neither is the community's responsibility.

As a friend, I can reach out to my colleague in her grieving. It was clear that she and her husband had loving friends and family. What remains to be seen is how that community takes up its responsibility for supporting her and her daughter in their grieving. Will people, including me, just get too busy? When time comes for dinner parties will they want to keep the numbers even? I think as ministers and friends we may need to use those reminder features on our calendars to better purpose, and to remember that grieving is not a one time event.

May those who mourn be comforted, and may our grief be acknowledged--or perhaps, as Emily Dickinson puts it, may our grief be measured.
I measure every Grief I meet
by Emily Dickinson

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –

I wonder if it hurts to live –
And if They have to try –
And whether – could They choose between –
It would not be – to die –

I note that Some – gone patient long –
At length, renew their smile –
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil –

I wonder if when Years have piled –
Some Thousands – on the Harm –
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –

The Grieved – are many – I am told –
There is the various Cause –
Death – is but one – and comes but once –
And only nails the eyes –

There's Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –
A sort they call "Despair" –
There's Banishment from native Eyes –
In Sight of Native Air –

And though I may not guess the kind –
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –

To note the fashions – of the Cross –
And how they're mostly worn –
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like My Own –

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