Archive for the ‘Grief Support’ Category

Book Review: “Why Religion?” Is About Much More Than Religion

January 28, 2019

book cover, Why Religion?Dr. Pagels has written an honest and insightful book that’s a welcome addition to the field of grief. While she does write about religion, because that is her specialty and her professional life, she writes surprisingly personally as well. It does not take long to realize that the losses in her life inform her understanding of the nature and purpose of religion as much as the other way around.

Pagels writes chronologically, both about her unfolding research regarding early Christian manuscripts and events and also about her unfolding life as a woman, a wife, and a mother. She marries a distinguished physicist, Heinz Pagels, and they become parents to their first child, Mark. Early on they learn that Mark has a rare incurable lung disease and his life will not be long. He lives to be as old as six, with numerous, anxiety-laden medical interventions. Then wife and husband undertake the journey that no parent ever wants to take—the painful, soulful journey through grief. Pagels writes poignantly about her tumultuous experience, giving expression to and validating the feelings that many bereaved people will understand and appreciate.

Thinking that the worst has by then happened, she learns that is not the case. A year later her 41-year-old husband slips while hiking with friends and falls down a cliff to his death. Widowed, with a baby and toddler to care for, Elaine Pagels confronts her terror, rage, and despair as grief strikes all over again.

Among this book’s pages, grief specialists will find frank and genuine expressions of what bereaved people often go through, what life is like for them. Grievers themselves will find confirmation of the normalcy of what they feel and think, though I would advise against their reading this book too early in their time of bereavement. But they need not wait too long, since the author offers a sure sense of authentic hope by the end of her writing.

One of the gifts of Pagels’ book is the way in which she weaves together the subjects of religion and loss. She writes from the perspective of her less-than-conventional faith system, with a ready openness to religions other than Christianity. If you’re a spiritual explorer, you’ll likely find her approach freeing and encouraging. If you’re accustomed to a traditional pattern of Christian theology, you may be introduced to occasional references, quotations, and perspectives that are new to you.

A central understanding of Pagel’s response to grief grew out of someone’s telling her that the death of her young son would teach her a spiritual lesson, so she could find meaning denied to those who had not been exposed to such a raw life experience. Pagels writes, with some feeling, “…[M]eaning may not be something we find. We found no meaning in our son’s death, or in the deaths of countless others. The most we could hope for was that we might be able to create meaning.”

That’s what Pagels’ book revolves around: how do you create meaning in the face of tremendous, unnerving loss? How do you go forward in life when you feel you’ve been knocked backward so soundly? What roles might religion and spirituality play in all this?

Early on she refers to the words of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz about how “the work of culture is to make suffering sufferable.” As she lays out her own thoughts, she seems to adopt a related idea about one of the purposes of religion—to make suffering sufferable. Hence the title of her book.

Yet she takes a step beyond this when she writes near the end of her book that, after contending with Jewish and Christian attitudes about suffering, she believes that “seen through the eyes of wisdom, suffering can show how we’re connected with each other, and with God.”

There’s a lovely story at the end of her book, as she participates in an outdoor commencement ceremony at Harvard University where she is being awarded an honorary doctorate. Her two children, now grown and married, are with her for the noisy, joyful ceremony, as are her closest friends. Reflecting upon that event, and upon her long life, and aware of those who could not be physically present with her, she quotes an ancient Jewish prayer: “Blessed are Thou, Lord God of the Universe, that you have brought us alive to see this day.” Then she offers this concluding thought: “However it happens, sometimes hearts do heal, through what I can only call grace.”

Hers is a testament to all bereaved, whatever their faith experience: “Yes, hearts can heal; they do heal. And aren’t we grateful for this reality?”

Remembrance Rituals You’re Free to Use

November 13, 2017

 

The origin of these litanies goes back some twenty-five years when a few professionals decided to offer a community-wide event for bereaved individuals and families. Much more went into that four-hour event and the ritual of remembrance we created. Offered here are two different responsive litanies that I wrote for that day.

These have always been intended to be shared with others. Use them however you wish, including adapting the wording to your specific purpose if that seems right.

Here’s one litany:

Leader: Let us make today’s remembering more than just a remembering. Let us make it a hope and a pledge, carried on these words:

In the summer sun and fields of brightness, we will remember.

People: In the autumn haze and blazes of colors, we will remember.

Leader: In the winter chill and blankets of whiteness, we will remember.

People: And in the warmth of spring and bursts of new life, we will remember.

Leader: With everything that is permanent, and with all that is passing,

People: With everything that is majestic, and with all that is common,

Leader: With everything that carries us in concern, and with all that lifts us in joy,

People: We will remember again and again and again.

Leader: As long as we have life, we will remember.

People: And in the remembering, we can discover new life, new hope, and new courage, and if not today, then tomorrow.

Another ritual is built around a time of candle lighting. It can be used in addition to, or instead of, the litany above.

Leader: A century and a half ago Henry Ward Beecher spoke for all of us when he said, “What the heart has once owned and had, it shall never lose.” Today we pay homage to those whom our hearts have owned and had, and whom we know we shall never lose.

People: We recall those who have been the very life of life to us, those whom we shall never forget.

Leader: We come together today to remember those who have touched our lives in such a way that we will never be the same. We are changed by having known them.

People: We shall always be indebted for what they have given us, and thankful for what they have shown us, for how they have blessed our lives.

Leader: Let us remember those who have been as light of light to us, memorializing our relationships in this ceremony of candlelight and love.

First Candlelighter: We light a candle in memory of those who have handed us the gift of life itself. We honor those who gave us birth and nurtured us, those who endowed us with heritage and raised us, those who offered us love and cherished us.

People: We remember mothers and fathers, grandparents and great-grandparents, and our ancestors through the ages. We remember also those who were as mother or father to us, loving us by choice rather than by chance.

Second Candlelighter: We light a candle in memory of those who have been linked with us in the ongoing chain of family life. We honor those who have shared our heredity and who have experienced our common bonds.

People: We remember sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, relatives near and distant throughout time.

Third Candlelighter: We light a candle in memory of those to whom we ourselves have passed on the precious gift of life. We hold dear to our hearts those we have held dear in our arms and in our dreams.

People: We remember children who have gone before us, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. We remember both those who lived within the womb and those who danced upon the earth.

Fourth Candlelighter: We light a candle in memory of those whom we discovered through the eyes of love in our journey through life. We hold sacred the remembrances of those who brightened our days with affection and who lit up our lives with devotion.

People: We remember wives and husbands, dearest lovers and closest friends, those who opened us to ourselves and to life, even as we opened ourselves to them and now to eternity.

Fifth Candlelighter: We light a candle in memory of those who have walked beside us in so many ways. We remember ones who have worked with us and played with us, ones who have made our time on earth more enjoyable and our experiences in this world more memorable.

People: We remember friends and associates, those who neighbored us and lifted us and expanded our horizons.

Leader: We leave the final candle unlit, aware of the fact that others will join our ranks in days to come, that they are doing so even now. They will stand where we now stand, and feel what we now feel. Our hearts reach to them.

People: We remember also that the time will come when we ourselves will pass through the barrier separating one form of life from another. We know that as we remember today, we will be remembered tomorrow.

If you choose to use or to adapt either of these litanies, you might keep the following ideas in mind:

If attendees light candles in remembrance of their own loved one, be sure to allow plenty of time for those candles to burn. It can be difficult for the bereaved to snuff out those lights when the ceremony is over.

Allow people to participate, and not participate, however they wish. Don’t force them to do anything or say anything that doesn’t feel comfortable to them.

If your ceremony calls for any time of silence, consider having quiet music playing in the background, such as a soft piano, a gentle guitar, or a harp. Complete silence can be uncomfortable to some.

Consider providing a tangible remembrance for attendees to take with them as they leave. A candle? An ornament? A stone? A card?

Just create a loving space that allows the bereaved in your midst to grieve and to remember during this special time of the year. They will be grateful for your thoughtfulness.

When Our Responses Disenfranchise Others

November 13, 2017

It was a tiny incident, really. My wife Bernie and I were walking on the curving sidewalk behind the homes in our addition. A neighbor, let’s call him Matt, noticed us from his porch and asked, “Is this an anniversary? I saw a florist deliver flowers to your house earlier today.”

I looked at Bernie, who paused and then said, “No, not an anniversary. The bouquet was from our three grown children. I had emailed them this morning to give them the news: my retinologist just told me that my eyesight has become so compromised by my macular degeneration that I must now give up driving.”

Matt nodded, solemnly. “Oh,” he said, “but at least it’s not anything life-threatening.”

I know that Matt is a kind man. He would not intentionally do anything hurtful. And yet that’s what happened that afternoon. Bernie spoke her sad, fresh truth to him and he responded in a way that did not address the depth of what she was experiencing. She was in pain and he acted as if the pain wasn’t all that serious.

He made what I call a disenfranchising response.

The Old French word enfranchir means “to make free.” Put the negative prefix dis in front of it and it means “to make unfree.” When we disenfranchise someone, we deprive them, often unintentionally, of something that is rightfully and naturally theirs—in this case, a strong feeling.

Matt probably felt awkward that he was so mistaken about the reason for the flower delivery. He probably didn’t want to compound Bernie’s sadness by talking about it. He may have felt a certain helplessness, not knowing what to say that would make much difference. So he said, in effect, “Actually, this isn’t such a big deal; it isn’t life-threatening.”

We have all made disenfranchising responses through the years, probably more than we realize. Out of our awkwardness or ignorance or unintended insensitivity, we have downplayed another’s legitimate feelings. It happens all the time. When it does, people are not reinforced in their freedom to feel their natural feelings, whether those feelings are understood or not.

Knowing how easily this happens, I have put together a series of questions we can ask to help us determine if our responses are disenfranchising to a person who’s in a fragile or sad or painful situation.

Does my response invite comparison? In the freshness of the moment, one’s feelings are one’s feelings and no one else’s. To suggest quickly a comparison to a more dire situation, or a more unfortunate one, suggests that what the other feels is less important somehow, less valid.

Does my response refer only to the facts? Learning the particulars of a person’s situation can give that person the opportunity to tell their story, which can be helpful. Yet if the emphasis is only on the matters of who, what, when, where, and how, as a newspaper might report, then the significant issue of what’s going on inside, what this experience really means, is left unaddressed.

Does my response minimize feelings? The other person deserves to have their innermost self acknowledged and supported. Whatever they’re feeling, they deserve validation. They may have conflicting or unusual or inexplicable feelings—that’s okay. Feelings should be given their full due, not downplayed.

Does my response turn the attention back to me?   If the interchange concentrates on my story, my experiences, my advice, it leaves the other person feeling unattended. We may even subtly be encouraging the other person to give care to us.

Does my response change the subject? If the interchange is led in an entirely different direction, away from the person before us, they’re likely to feel left out in the cold. This may feel like a slap in the face.

Does my response rule out shared silence? Sometimes there are no words to say, at least not immediately. Sometimes our expression can say it all, or our tears, or our touch, or our embrace. When we are heart to heart or soul to soul, silence speaks eloquently.

Does my response try to delve too deeply? It’s best when we respond honestly and give the other person the opportunity to say whatever they wish in return. They may reveal a lot, or very little, or nothing. Yet to expect them to share personal details just for our own satisfaction or our own need to know is being less than sensitive to whatever is happening within them.

So how do I make an enfranchising response, a response that affirms this other person? I first listen carefully, using my eyes and heart and soul as well as my ears. I give the other person their time, not pushing them or rushing them. I do my best to understand what is going on within them, asking myself, “What’s it like to be inside their body, their mind, their heart right now?” Then I respond in a way that is most natural, sharing an honest feeling, validating their honest thoughts and/or feelings, and giving them the opportunity to say more, if they wish, while also being ready to take their cue if they have said all they wish. Then I remember them after this time together, carrying them inside.

In a sense being with others is simple to do, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to do. But it is doable. And it can make a great deal of difference in people’s lives.