First Thanksgiving after Hurricane Katrina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Setting the family table for Thanksgiving gives a painful reminder of losing ones we love. Empty places… once exuberant with life. Especially during the early years after a death, holiday celebrations take intentional planning because our hearts pulse with grief.
But Thanksgiving is unique because it’s very nature calls us to be thankful during loss. After the harsh 65-day ocean crossing in the Mayflower and the brutal winter of their early settlement in Plymouth, the Pilgrims had lost nearly half of their 102 members to disease and death. Yet, even grieving the 49 losses in their beloved community, they still celebrated in 1621 when their harvest came in and added abundant venison, cod, bass, and turkey. The remnant looked to the future with hope.
So did the New Orleans families celebrating after Katrina in the picture above where their decorations related to life after the disaster, including an MRE package, cans of water, battery and cel-phone. Even the Phillipine parishioners gave thanks in recent Sunday church gatherings after their devastating losses. Each have discovered that digging deep for gratitude becomes a tool for resilience. But it’s not easy.
A friend told me of one defiant and truthful mother who told a counselor, “I don’t want to find blessings in a broken heart.” She may have been responding to friends trying to comfort her with the panacea of”counting one’s blessings” too early after a death, before she engaged in grief work.
But ultimately, the pilgrims clearly were on to something. Parents tell me they only entered peace and acceptance when they could eventually remember with thankfulness all the child meant in their life.
There’s a small book of poetry by Dom Helder Camara called A Thousand Reasons for Living that has been a companion during the years following our daughter’s death. An archbishop in Brazil, he was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the poor. He’d often rise at 2 a.m. to write brief meditation/poems that his friends collected into small books. His poetry, alive with awe at the wonders received if we stay open to each day, reminds me to stay both present and hopeful during difficult seasons.
A Thousand Reasons for Living Poetry
Don’t let yourself be torn
Live always and only
God’s today. 14 February 1964
I’ve written earlier about the healing power of nature and Helder Camara speaks to this too.
What a curious charm
Why do I feel so happy
as the leaves
when I know
they will soon be falling,
leaving the tree
stripped and bare?
My joy lies in the certainty
that life will prevail over death:
new buds will burst,
29 February 1976
Last night, as we celebrated an early Thanksgiving feast with our son’s near-by family before leaving for New England to visit our daughter’s family, I looked across the table. Though Krista is with us only in spirit, we cherish the wonder of Erin, our six-year-old surprise granddaughter who enlivens our life immensely. She reminds me of the joy in staying open to “new buds that will burst.”
Have you found it’s possible to have gratitude amidst grief?
We gained our first inkling of the healing power in stories when Moses Pulei, from Kenya, flew up from Southern California to our daughter’s memorial service in Spokane. “In the Masai tradition, when someone dies, our gift is to go to their home and share a story,” he explained during the reception. “May I come over?”
When a loved one dies, researchers found that the most common early reactions is an intense yearning, a sense that part of you is missing, and a hunger to have them back. This surprised grief researchers at Yale University who expected depression to be the dominant emotion after a death. In sharing stories, such reminiscences often provide solace and help ease the heartbreak.
But to the dismay of many bereaved parents, after a brief time many people rarely want to talk about the child who died.
It’s the most common lament I’ve heard from so many mothers and fathers who have come to my Pilgrimage through Loss book presentations. These silences add another layer of pain. “We go to a family reunion and our son’s never mentioned,” laments a mother. “It’s like he’s been obliterated from our family story. We know it’s because they are afraid to upset us, but we just long to hear our child’s name.”
“Ours was a family bound by an unacknowledged credo,” says Solveig Torvik who wrote a family memoir Nikolai’s Fortune to unearth four generations of Norwegian silences. “They tend to believe that if a thing remains unspoken, it does not exist; if pain is given no voice, it lacks power to harm.”
Many war veterans in my writing classes told a similar story. They carry their pain in silence in vain hopes it might go away. Unfortunately, buried grief seldom dies.
But the Masai know better. Moses visited the next day and told us about a disturbing encounter with overt racism when he first arrived in our city to attend college. While walking downtown with another African student, a group of men in a pickup threatened them, hurling racial slurs and yelling at them to go back to Africa, a scary moment. Grandson of a respected village elder known as one of the “holy people,” he’d never encountered such abuse in his life. He seriously considered returning home. His college sponsor knew Krista, and for some reason said, “You have to meet her first.”
“What she said changed my life,” he recalled. After he told her what happened, she encouraged him not to make a hasty decision. “Moses, when this happens again, you have to remember that the problem is not in you, but in the persons treating you this way.” Then she added, “If you let these men deter you from your goals, you’ll never achieve what you came to America to do. You want to be in control of your life decisions, not let them determine your future.”
He took her words to heart. Rather than shut down in fear, he chose to stay in America and be his warm sociable Kenyan self. He became so beloved among students they elected him as their first international student-body president. His brilliance and commitment as a scholar led to doctoral scholarships. He now speaks several languages, connects Americans and Kenyans in common projects such as drought relief and education for girls, and presently leads a program for World Vision in Tanzania. “Without her encouragement, I often wonder how different my life would be now.” Although we knew he’d met Krista once at our home during an Easter brunch, we’d never heard this story. Truly a gift.
Ways of sharing stories:
Parents tell of a variety of kind gestures that others do to give them more lasting memories of their child. Friends, family, or work colleagues of older children share emails, letters, or music tapes they’d received, or drop by to visit and reminisce . Sometimes teachers, baby sitters, or neighbors of younger children give another glimpse into a parent’s child. “When I came to know some of the children in my son’s grade school class, you sensed how they almost all felt like he “was their best friend,” said one grateful mother.
As well as hearing stories, parents often long to share stories of the son or daughter they miss so profoundly. Compassionate Friends recognizes this need and offers over 660 meeting locations throughout America. A pastor founded this bereavement organization in England in 1969 after observing that parents found their greatest comfort when talking with other grieving mothers and fathers. Their credo “We need not walk alone” finds expression through the parents, siblings, and grandparents who gather and share support, insight, and stories. Several I interviewed for my upcoming book found this network a lifeline in their early years of grief. I’ll write much more about them in a future blog, but you can find their on-line presence at www.compassionatefriends.org.
When have you found the sharing of stories offered solace? Have you experienced painful avoidances or silences? Do you know of traditions or rituals during bereavement from other cultures that seem meaningful?
Novelist often give words to our deep longings, especially in loss and grief, and our hunger for hope. The day I launched this blog, Nils Ringo wrote me about his recent reading of Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter. In his twenties, Nils volunteered in Honduras for two years at Farm of the Child, and is part of our program in the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship which encourages young adults engaged in service. His mom works with parents who lose newborns in our local hospital, so he has exceptional awareness of loss. He wrote, “I highlighted these sections pertaining to grief” and then sent them my way. Berry writes of the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, where love and memory, grief and strength abound as the deaths in World War II so greatly impact lives and communities.
Berry writes, via the fictional character Hannah,
I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.
I don’t think grief is something they get over or get away from. In a little community like this it is around us and in us all the time, and we know it. We know that every night, war or no war, there are people lying awake grieving, and every morning there are people waking up to absences that never will be filled.
And yet the comfort somehow gets passed around: a few words that are never forgotten, a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end. Once in a while we hear it sung out in a hymn, when every throat seems suddenly widened with love and a common longing:
Along our own pilgrimage, many friends gave us comfort by sharing poetry and music that especially proved healing. During the first couple of years after Krista died, my husband Jim often stayed up late just listening to Eric Clapton’s Pilgrim album. He gives voice to grief, heightened by the death of his four-year old son Conor.
What writers, poets, or songwriters have spoken to you on your own journey? I’d love to hear and share these. One day a week, I will be including insights drawn from literature, music, or art.
Thanks, Nils, for sharing your reading!