(This is a spiritual reflection from Spring 2013 at The Time of Remembrance for the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital for the families of children who have died.)
Every year as a person living life as it is, with its great joys and deep suffering, I learn from life. As a chaplain, being with families like you, I learn from journeying with you for a while. From my life and your lives, I learn about grief. So, here are some consoling things I have learned.
Memories are powerful. Sifting through the good memories of our children, telling them over and over, brings healing. Perhaps the meaning of their lives becomes clearer: their gifts to us, their message to us, their special nature, who they really were. Let me illustrate with something written by a mother saying goodbye to her young, dying daughter. The mother’s name was Joan Siegel:
To My Daughter
When it comes time
let all the words be spoken
that must be
so that I may take your voice with me
for the next billion centuries
mine will be with you
like a packet of letters
handwritten over the years
to unfold anytime
hear me speak
in the voice that used to put you to bed
telling the story of all our days
fingered in the retelling
like pages of your books
the best parts dog-eared
pressed smooth by thumbprints
and the refrain of all our nights
as you slipped away:
I loved you before dinosaurs
even before the stars.
It is the memories, which are comforting, like this mother reading to her child at bedtime. We can keep those memories with us always. We carry them with us in our hearts. This mother Joan says, “I loved you before dinosaurs, even before the stars.” That kind of love never dies. It lives on. Joan will always be her daughter’s mom, although a part of her is gone and Joan cannot be the same ever again.
One of the world’s great faith traditions proclaims, “Love never ends.” Another sacred text reads, “Love is stronger than death, more powerful than the grave.” You grieve; you remember; you carry these memories in your heart. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “She whom we love and lose is no longer where she was before, she is now wherever we are. He whom we love and lose is no longer where he was before, he is now wherever we are.” These memories of our children speak so strongly of our love for our children and they are consoling and healing. Let’s continue to speak of them often and by name.
This year, I am speaking from experience because my husband and I lost his daughter, my stepdaughter Lisa. I have learned that each parent’s experience is unique and it is to be honored and respected. There is no need to compare my suffering or my husband’s suffering with yours, because I am a stepmother or because Lisa was sick for a long time. What’s worse? A long slow illness or an acute quick one? Do we really need to compare? I think not. Your suffering is unique. No one can tell you how to grieve – how long, when to cry, when to take a day off, when to take it easy, when to feel sad or angry or when you need time alone. It is your child and your grief. It takes time.
Grief is a difficult companion. Sometimes, it sneaks up and knocks me off my feet like a rogue wave when I least expect it. It is much stronger than I am and I am still surprised by its power. Mostly, I feel sad about the promise of her life unfulfilled. She died too soon. My husband Jim wished, at one point, he had died instead, but he doesn’t want to die. It is just not natural to lose a child, as a parent. It doesn’t feel right in the order of life. I’m saying what’s so obvious to you all.
Grief is enormously tiring. I do not have the energy, since Lisa died, that I used to have. And grief is cumulative, bringing back the sadness of other loved one’s deaths in my close family. I have found that what is most personal is also what is most common to us all. So, I hope you can relate to my feelings, although I am not sharing now the details of Lisa’s illness and death.
I have also learned that comfort and support is found in community, like this. It is found among people who know what this journey is like. We cannot save one another or protect one another from physical pain or heartbreak. We cannot give one another what we need to make it through this life. However, we do have one another. We can bind up one another in love. So, that is what we are doing today – coming together to support one another, to offer each other our love. We don’t know each other’s children. Maybe we know a few from our experience here at UCSF. The individual caregivers at UCSF know some of the children. They are here to be supportive. All are here as community. And as a group, we embody Love. Here, we find comfort and support.
I have also found consolation in my spiritual beliefs. I hope that you have some beliefs to help you through this time. There are many faith communities, which can be a source of strength in crises like this. Rituals have also helped many people face life transitions, such as death. Feeling the support of our many friends and small family at Lisa’s memorial service meant the world to my husband and me. I am so grateful to those who came. And as a minister, I got to share my belief there that all children are held in Love. They no longer suffer, but are at peace. They are embraced by Love. And in this life, I want to say to you today, your children were blessed by your love and they continue to be loved. Love wins. Yes, Love is stronger than death. Amen.