This reflection was written for a Service of Remembrance at St Joseph Hospital Chapel, in Hamilton, Ontario in July 2017. Greta DeLonghi is a resident in spiritual care (chaplaincy) at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. She has an MA in Ministry and Spirituality and a diploma in spiritual direction from Regis College, University of Toronto. She lives in Guelph with her husband, two sons and their beloved dog.
The poet Mary Oliver writes that death, when it comes, is “like an iceberg between the shoulder blades.” Imagine that for a moment. An iceberg between the shoulder blades. Death is a huge, sharp, cold mystery. It has such an immense impact. Even when we see it coming, it comes as a shock. And it hurts.
Our personal experience of such a loss is called grief, and the natural process that occurs afterward is called mourning. Such a beautiful poem by Denise Levertov that was read earlier. The poet compares grief to a homeless dog that comes to the back door. How might we treat that dog? With a crust or meatless bone? Or should we trust it? Coax it in, give it its own corner and a worn mat. Make it feel at home. Give it some space. Tonight we come together to give grief some space.
Grief has been compared to physical illness. The prophet Isaiah of Hebrew Scriptures enjoins us to help, to “bind up the broken-hearted”, as if they were hobbled or bleeding. One writer on grief says that we must see the process of mourning as similar to the process of healing. And it is a process, not a state. The tasks of mourning take effort. It’s no wonder they’re called “grief work.” Our hope is that this service will help to bind up your broken hearts.
Grief expert J. William Worden has identified four tasks of grieving. The first task is to accept the reality of the death. Even if it was expected, there’s always a sense that it hasn’t happened. We have to come to fully face the reality that reunion with our deceased loved one is not possible, at least not in this life. Rituals like funerals and this service tonight, we hope, can help.
The second task is to work through the pain of grief. Not everyone experiences that pain with the same intensity, but it’s impossible to lose someone you’ve been deeply attached to without experiencing pain. And our society gives us subtle messages like, “You don’t need to grieve” or “Aren’t you over it yet?” Some people try to not to feel that pain. They might avoid reminders of their dead loved one. They might idealize them. They might use drugs or alcohol. But sooner or later most of them will break down.
So find a way to talk about death and the full range of your feelings that come with it: sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, shock, emancipation, relief, numbness, yearning. Give voice to your feelings. William Shakespeare said, though his character Macbeth: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’erwrought heart and bids it break.”
The third task is to adjust to an environment in which your loved one is missing. It’s normal to feel lost for a while after a death because it takes a while to realize all the roles your loved one played in your life. A widow may have to come to terms with living alone; raising the children alone; facing an empty house or managing finances. Grief work involves learning new skills and that may take a while.
Finally, the fourth task is to find a new place emotionally for a loved one who has died and go on living. It’s a long-term process, for some it may just takes months, but usually it takes at least a year, and for others a few years or more, and there may well be bad days along the way. When the intensity of your yearning diminishes, when your sadness lacks that wrenching quality, when it becomes a different kind of sadness, it may be a sign that your mourning has come to an end. Be gentle with yourselves along the way.
Sigmund Freud wrote in a letter to a friend who had lost his son:
“We find a place for what we lose … No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else.”
So we’ll never really replace those people in our lives, but tonight let us take some time to remember them.