Today, the first Sunday in November, we join many other UU congregations to celebrate All Souls. In this service, we'll honour the loves and losses of our lives, and especially people we love who have died in the last year.
The complete sermon can be read below:
My first exposure to death was the summer when I was 11. Our family dog, Buddy, became ill quite suddenly. Though at 15, this wasn’t entirely unexpected.
My siblings were 2, 5, and 9, and my mom wanted us to have a good first experience with death. Not good as in easy or sheltered. Good as in understanding death as a part of life, making intentional goodbyes, and learning that love and loss are interwoven. She knew her own mother might soon die as well, and wanted to prepare us for the human deaths that would follow.
And so the vet gave Buddy a day’s worth of painkillers and steroids, and all 6 of us spent 24 hours making our goodbyes. I remember lying with Buddy for hours, my hand on her side, whispering thanks and love in her ear.
The next day, we all went in our van to the vet’s office, and the vet came out to the car. As Buddy breathed her final breaths, she had all of our hands on her, surrounded by the love of her human family.
Five weeks ago, this human family, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Durham family, surrounded Mary Langlois in her final days, pouring out love and care and thanks through words and touch and presence at her bedside.
My grandmother, my Meme and my mother’s mom, died six months after Buddy, and my other three grandparents followed over the next six years. I’m grateful for my early lessons in love and loss, for the time I had to know them, and for the opportunity to say goodbye to each of them in meaningful ways. My last visit with my grandfather, the last of my grandparents to pass away, was a discussion about life after death where we shared how much we would love to find ourselves in a beautiful afterlife united with our loved ones, but how we doubted the traditional conception of heaven. My grandfather, an Anglican and doctor, was at his core a humanist.
I still don’t know what comes after death, and live more comfortably now in the mystery, knowing that one day, all of us make that transition, whatever it may be.
We learn about death and dying, loving and grieving in many ways, most strongly from our culture, our religion, and our family of origin. And then from our experience, as not one of us lives without some experience of grief, large or small.
A colleague recently posted a simple question on Facebook: “What has grief taught you?”
The almost 50 responses were varied, including:
• It takes a long time.
• It comes in waves and shows up when least expected.
• Surrender to it is essential and, potentially, transformational in ways I might never anticipate...
• To be gentle with other people
• It's slippery and unexpected
• Grief has taught me that love never dies and that all of us carry an unfathomable number of stories inside our hearts.
• It’s an unkind dancer
• The harder you fight it, the harder it bites you in the ass.
• That I have a greater capacity to feel than I knew and a greater capacity to endure & enter pain than I knew.
• Grief is the sea. Its tides ebb and flow. It comes in waves. Sometimes you can see it coming, and sometimes there's a tidal wave that blindsides you. But accept its crests and troughs, and it can be ridden.
• The vastness of human vulnerability.
• How to hold my heart wide open.
I asked myself: what has grief taught me?
One of my most significant life losses isn’t a death.
On December 12th, 2000, my parents were on their way to a funeral when another driver missed a stop sign, and crashed into the side of their car.
My mother was in hospital for a week with significant bruising and a broken arm.
My father was in hospital for a month with internal injuries and a permanent brain injury.
As the oldest of four kids, and almost ready to leave home, I stepped into more of a caregiving role, driving, cooking, cleaning, and supporting my mom and sisters and brother.
My relationship with my mom changed from one of mother-daughter to one which was much more mutual.
My relationship with my dad in many ways reversed as flow of care shifted from primarily him to me, to me to him. My siblings, though younger, experienced a similar shift.
Over time, my dad tried to return to work, only to find that his higher reasoning and critical thinking skills were just not the same. He would fatigue easily, and took several times his previous hours to complete the same tasks. After feedback from his colleagues, he slowly came to accept that he could no longer work as an environmental health and safety engineer. In accepting that reality, he lost a significant part of his identity.
My mom, who had returned to school that year, finally fulfilling a dream to become a teacher at 49, was unable, with the changes at home, to finish her degree. She hoped to return to it, but gradually accepted that wouldn’t happen.
And their relationship changed from best friends and partners to one that involved much more caregiving.
The loss for them, for us all, was abundant.
And it has taught me that there can be beauty and healing and resilience in the midst of loss.
Over the last 17 years, life has continued to evolve.
My parents moved to Dundas, Ontario, to be closer to a Unitarian church and to brain injury services. My dad took up curling and later golf, and his club several days a week year round.
And he volunteers with the Hamilton Brain Injury Association, and at the General Hospital on the brain injury ward, with people who have much more severe brain injuries than his own. He attends his brain injury group each week, a place where he is comparatively well and takes a leadership role. He serves on the Brain Injury Association board of directors as a person with lived experience.
Over the last few years, my mom has found work that is both challenging and meaningful for her, managing a methadone clinic. She builds connection and relationship with the people who come to overcome drug dependence.
My parents have built meaningful, albeit very different lives from the ones they had and dreamed of before their accident. And from them I continue to learn what resilience looks like, day in and day out.
The beauty and love and loss and grief and resilience and healing are interwoven, coexisting in all of us. Leonard Cohen said: There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. And I agree. And at the same time, sometimes the cracks are too wide. Sometimes the loss is too extensive. Sometimes we give up essential parts of ourselves. And sometimes our very resilience causes us to lash out for our survival, causing others pain and suffering in turn. Sometimes our brokenness leads us to be stronger; and sometimes we are most vulnerable in our wounded places.
Our culture has a tenuous relationship with grief and loss. We get messages that grief is allowable for short periods, and we’re comfortable with heartfelt words and a few demure tears at a funeral or memorial service. But while we all know that grief doesn’t end there, I’ve heard from many people who lose support from friends and family if they don’t move on quickly from a loss. Many of us simply don’t know what to do in the face of intense grief.
I was at a funeral recently where the partner of the woman who had died was crying out to her, shouting and sobbing, for much of the service. His grief was palpable, but uncomfortable for many people in the room, and someone was constantly at his side comfort and calm him.
I wonder, though, if he might not have it right.
In the Victorian era, a man named George Vasey “declared war on laughter;” he argued that only “the depraved, the dissipated, and the criminal” were “addicted to uproarious mirth.” and attempted to show scientifically that laughing is a vulgar and foolish habit, that “distorts the face,” “often ending in fatality” and that “sensible people never laugh under any possible circumstances.”
This sounds ridiculous to us, of course. And I don’t envy anyone who tried to live by his principles!
But I think of grief, and our fear of tears and puffy, red eyes and all of the contortions that distort the face in anger and sadness, and I think our culture may have much of the same inhibitions.
I am privileged to have witnessed a moment that broke free of the grief and propriety sanctions. I was walking with my dog and my good friend along the beach, a friend who had endured months of grieving, coming in waves not unlike those crashing on the shore beside us. I was skipping stones when I noticed that Katie the dog was looking behind me and walking toward my friend, who had started sobbing.
I went back to him and sat with him while he laid out, prone on the beach, sobbing, yelling, and kicking the ground. It was frightening in its intensity. And I could also see it was both necessary and healing. Wave after wave of grief gripped him, and the physical waves crashed and splashed around us.
A woman came by who was alarmed, insisting repeatedly on calling the police.
Someone else was there to calm her, and I’m glad she didn’t have a cell phone. It would have been disastrous to interrupt my friend’s expression of grief and anger that, while intense, was a pure moment of embodying and then releasing feelings that had been contained far too long. Especially with police officers, enforcing propriety and containment yet again.
It was powerful to witness the cathartic release and bodily integration of his grief. So rare and frightening and fiercely beautiful. And then his calm after the storm.
I’m not going to ask anyone to stand up today and wail or pound the ground or kick and scream. It’s difficult to imagine us doing it here, together, mired as we are in our understandings of appropriate grieving. Especially in our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, which sometimes finds more comfort in the intellectual than in the emotional or physical arenas of life. And today might not be that day for any of us.
But I do wonder... the next time an intense wave of grief washes over you, what would it be like to express that grief physically? To really sink it, let it carry you for a while, and find out where along the shore it may bring you next.
For when we cut ourselves off from grief, we can’t help but cut into our capacity of love and live well. For they are inseparable; the greater our love of life and of others, the deeper our potential for - and capacity for - soul-aching pain.
We are called to be weavers of love and loss
Of wholeness and brokenness
Of Vulnerability and strength
Not moving to change or fix the hurt, but offering simple presence and witness.
We are called to be present with ourselves and our experiences, and with others and theirs. For whether we believe in God incarnate or in human community, we know grace and gentleness and healing when love shows up in our lives, in the form of a friend at our side, for our moments when we’re falling apart, and our moments of exquisite joy, and that moment when we breathe our last breath.
So may it be.
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