Posted: Mon, 02 Nov 2020 07:00
On the Feast of All Souls, as we begin the month of remembrance, Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB shares some of his own experiences of grief—something which is unavoidable, but different for each one of us—and offers guidance in experiencing 'good grief', that helps us to heal and to treasure memories of our loved ones who have been called to the Father. (Image: Karim Manjra on Unsplash)
I remember the day as if it were yesterday: it was bright Saturday morning in June, and I was attending a Council meeting at our Provincial House. The order of business was over and I was steeling myself for the drive back to London; my friend David came into the room, looking very serious and sombre—we had forgotten an order of business, I thought, I'm going to be late getting back home! "There is no easy way to say this, Gerry," he told me, "but your mother passed away this morning—your family are on the phone for you!"
In those few seconds, my world fell apart: I knew my mum was ill as she had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer the week before, but to be taken so suddenly! I spent the rest of the day trying to arrange travel to the west coast of Ireland so that I could be with my family. I eventually got into the hospital mortuary in Castlebar just before midnight and a kindly night porter arranged for me to see my mum and say my goodbyes. What amazed me when I got to my dad's cottage, well after midnight, were the cars parked in the drive and along the road: family and friends were there offering support and sharing stories. On my arrival more tea was made, glasses of whiskey were raised in another toast, sandwiches were prepared and yet another apple pie cut, as we welcomed the first dawn without the woman who had been a constant in our lives.
Just a few short years later, I was coming back to our school in Bootle from a trip to the cinema; I taught Media Studies to a sixth form cohort. "The Head needs to see you," shouted Tom, our wonderful Salesian youth leader; 'what have I done now?' I thought to myself—why do we always think the worst when the Head Teacher calls us to the office! Frank, our kindly and sensitive Head, had to inform me that my father had a massive heart attack and died earlier in the day. Again, I had to repeat that pilgrimage of sorrow as I made my way to the beautiful West of Ireland and began the funeral rites for my dad. In both situations I was confused, hurt, angry, dispirited—until my best friend arrived on the scene. Many of you will know the legend that is Fr Pat Kenna SDB and he was my 'saviour' on those dark days. I remember saying to a family member, "once Pat is here, I can start to organise my tears!" Pat had shared my school days, college days, religious and community life and we were ordained at the same time; we shared ministry and a friendship that I can only describe as REAL. Pat was my rock in the time of crisis; Pat was my 'go to' advisor on any topic under the sun. He was brash, brave and bold and my family loved him because he was one of us. In the good times of weddings and baptisms, Pat was there as the life and soul of the party—usually the last one to leave the dance floor, However, he was there when we buried mum and dad; he was that support that we just assumed would always be there.
It was a Friday night in July when I took the call from Michael, our Provincial at the time, "Pat has died!" I could not comprehend it—what was Michael saying? Only five days before we were gathered in Toomore parish church for the baptism of Catherine—we were a family united in joy and Pat was very much part of that joy because we saw him as family. On that bleak Friday night, I was in Savio Salesian College in Bootle; by now I was school chaplain and was taking part in the school play, 'Charlie and Chocolate Factory'—a child with agoraphobia would only take part if I supported him! That is the real joy of being a Salesian chaplain! In the school office as I took in the news, the raucous laughter of the audience strangely did not seem out of place, as Pat could always see the funny side of things and had the most raucous laugh himself! The poet W S Merwin reminds us:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its colour.
WS Merwin, 'Separation'
Pat's funeral mass was a triumph—we had to move it to a biggest church in the neighbouring town. His wonderfully strong mother led a congregation of family, friends, colleagues and students—each know to Pat, each with their own personal story to remember and share. As one of my own family remarked, "when Fr Pat talked to you it was if nobody else mattered—he only had time for you!" What an amazing tribute to a true pastor. My homily on the day was based on Pat's own observation of our time in the northern seminary at Ushaw. Like many of us, he wasn't a total fan of this priestly training college, set in the bleak moors above Durham city, so far apart from the people we were called to serve. However, Pat was able to identify three positives about a place that some of us found difficult-to see any positives in. (Finding the good in hard times is a true Salesian trait that we could do well to remember in this difficult days of Covid-19). I reminded the congregation of those good qualities of Ushaw that he was able to flag up:
- Food: the basis of essential table fellowship.
- Community: a family spirit that is the basis of Salesian life.
- The Road Out: travel broadens the mind and enables us to engage with others and with different cultures.
Gathered in that packed Church were those who represented each of those three aspects of Pat's full life, including a group of Liverpool teenagers who hitchhiked overnight to be there! I remember thinking, as a seemingly endless procession came forward for communion … Pat is really gone! I remember, at my mum's funeral, how he and Kieran acted as true Salesians and took the younger members of my family to the chip shop for some real food—kids can only take so many ham sandwiches! I remembered the holidays we shared as he patiently supported me down the Ardeche. I remembered so much of our wonderful time together as Salesians of Don Bosco—we shared a life-giving ministry. As we carried the casket out to the place of burial, it just became too much and I broke down sobbing. As tears flowed down my face, an older Salesian cane towards me shaking his head, "pull yourself together!" he admonished me. I like to think it was Pat, supported by my mum and dad, who gave me the courage to retort, "Father, will anyone cry for you when you die?"
Grief is not just about crying, but if it helps, why not? Every year, the Church gives us an opportunity during the month of November to remember once again those who 'have gone before us marked with the sign of faith' (Eucharistic Prayer). Each of us will grieve for our loved ones in OUR way; we can subscribe to the theory of the stages of grief, we can speak to a counsellor or consult a spiritual director, but grief is unique as you are. I am grateful to John O'Donohue who offers help from the Celtic tradition:
When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you gets fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence.
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone
John O'Donohue, 'For Grief'
It is this tradition that has been my new rock as I try to navigate the waters of grief since that loss in 2005. The Irish Wake is not an excuse to drink alcohol; it is a structured ritual to remember the dead, especially those we have loved. This is why November is so special, important and needed.
At the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and wine, said the words of blessing and asked those assembled to "do this in memory of me." (Lk 22: 19). Thus 'memory' becomes sacred and essential: the wake gives you an opportunity to share those memories and remember both the good and bad times. With a good memory, a good grief, our loved ones can never die as we carry a deep memory of them deep within us. Some days are fine, and we can function so well—we have to for the sake of those who need us and depend on our strength. Then there are those other days that are not so good, when we have a 'wobble', an essential reminder that we are not in control and that we are all too human. I look again to the same poem by John O'Donohue for support:
There are days when you wake up happy;
Again, inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss
Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.
We are now living through an experience in this global pandemic that none of us have been prepared for. There are new experiences of loss and grief that we need to experience: we have 'lost' loved ones in our lives because they are shielding and we cannot visit them in their nursing home or they may living in a restricted area that we cannot visit. Zoom, Facebook and email are helpful, but they cannot replace that needed and essential human touch or hug that can cure so many of our worries and anxiety. 2020 will go down in history as the year so many of us discovered our inner strength.
As we light our candles, share our memories, look at those pictures and say our prayers for our loved ones during the month of November, let us pray that we experience 'good grief.' Take your time because this is YOUR grief and there is no right or wrong way to be. Whatever you feel now is right for you. I wish you well as you cope with grief—remember your loved ones gone to the Lord, and remember those taken abruptly from your lives, especially in this time of crisis, even though they might be very much alive.
My former parishes in Battersea organised an amazing service of light where we gathered for mass and then were able to light an individual candle for each of our loved ones. By the end of the night the whole church was ablaze with those flickering lights, each one remembering someone who was loved and respected. Along with so much more, I doubt if parishes can conduct such services this year. Perhaps we might have to resort to yet another zoom service.
But feel free to have your own remembrance at home: light a candle in front of photo and say a prayer—it is that simple. As you go through the various stages of grief, I pray that you can achieve that place where you never forget—remember the happy days today, remember the challenging days, remember those loved ones, dead or living, no longer with you but very much alive in your heart:
Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And, when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time
John O'Donohue, 'For Grief'