Unfortunately for me, I was not at home when I received this call, but all the way across the country from where we lived. Frantic plans ensued to get me on the first flight available back home. The almost six hour flight stretched on interminably and the news that greeted me upon my arrival was not welcome. While the medics were able to finally re-start my husband's heart, it came fifty minutes too late. A battery of neurological tests over the next three days presented conclusive and consistent evidence that my husband was now brain dead. Machines kept his heart beating and his lungs filled with air. Once the decision was made to remove him from those machines, he breathed his last, labored breath an hour and forty-five minutes later.
A lifetime was over in one hundred and five minutes. Not only had his life ended, but the life we shared together had ended as well. While the grief I felt immediately was over his unexpected death at such a young age, it was the grief that stalked me over several years as I suffered all the 'little deaths' that were yet to come. There were the obvious deaths; anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays marked the absence of my husband, not the fullness of celebrations. Then there were all the deaths that I couldn't anticipate; the loss of energy and incentive for things I once enjoyed, the loss of clarity and sharp thinking for which I was known was now lost in a fog of confusion and forgetfulness. Tasks like going to the grocery store – once shared with my husband and filled with the anticipation for new adventures in cooking –provoked tears and raised questions that mocked my new status as a widow. Just who was I shopping for?
If all of this wasn't enough, there followed the most painful 'deaths.' Ironically, these 'deaths' happened as I began to feel better. Like having the the wind knocked out of me, the pain from using the last of any number of things my husband had purchased, took my breath away. I felt I was losing touch with him. The thought of taking his clothes to the Goodwill store filled me with terror. Not only was he gone, but slowly and surely all of the things of our shared life would go away as well. In addition to all of this, I would face the death of the family I had known through my husband. I wondered how our relationship would continue without him, since it would never be the same again. And as I moved forward into each new day, I feared I was traveling farther and farther away from him—even my memory of him.
Of course, my experience was not new except to me. Anyone who has experienced a traumatic event would recognize many, if not all of the same features of disorientation and grief from loss. The work of ICTG is helping to change that, and I am grateful for this work as it is helping countless communities of faith travel with those traumatized by loss and disaster. I was fortunate to have a community of faith and individuals who walked with me through my own grief, and here are just a few practices that were helpful in this journey.
Many who belong to communities of faith recognize the term liturgy. Literally, liturgy means "the work of the people." Every traumatic event triggers a community response. These can be positive or negative responses. When we think of the work that has to be done after natural disasters, for example, an immediate response is required. But, there are also long-term needs and issues that will keep the trauma present for the individual or the community. What are the liturgies for communities of faith that can be performed in response to grief and loss?
First, we need to listen to the bereaved, and speak later. The most memorable times of care and comfort were those individuals who came and sat and listened to me. Like the comforters in the biblical story of Job who were silent with him for seven days, we can do much good for those in pain when we listen, and when we keep silence. I am grateful for my community of faith that kept intentional periods of silence in our worship services that made this a liturgy for me and for many who cared for me. What are the ways your community listens to those who have suffered loss?
Second, we live in a world full of pain and joy. But, we often find it so much more difficult to lean into the interdependence between these two life experiences. Joy is only fully experienced when one has known sorrow; and sorrow is felt more keenly when one has known great joy. But, both are an inevitable part of the human experience. From the grieving, we might learn how to grieve and to enter into the world's grief more fully. Grieving well with others holds the potential to enlarge compassion and empathy. And when the grieving experience joy, we might also learn new ways to rejoice, to feel gratitude, and to share that joy with others. What are the ways your community leans into joy and sorrow in your liturgy and in your life together? Is there room for lament as much as there is room for celebration?
Third, caring for those who are bereaved or suffering traumatic loss requires heavy lifting. Caring for grieving individuals is hard work, but good and necessary work. Sacrifices will have to be made on behalf of the one who needs additional assistance or care. Many in my community gave up hours of time to help clean my house, cut my grass, and any number of tasks that were now overwhelming to me. Without their work on my behalf, I may not have been able to do the necessary work of grieving that would ultimately nurture my healing. And yet, when communities accept their liturgy, many hands can make light work. What are the ways your community cares for those who are hurting, grieving, or working through traumatic events? What support systems are in place for the one who is bereaved and hurting? If there are none, what are the ways in which you can grow as a community of care and liturgy?
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In her free time, Margaret enjoys travel, gardening, hiking, cycling, running, and taking care of her menagerie of pets. She currently lives in Bellingham, WA, with her husband, David.