Loss, sharing and healing in a time of physical distance
Stories of grief have been multiplying the world over as humanity continues to grapple with death during this pandemic. What makes me any more qualified to speak of grief and mourning than the next person? Nothing, of course; I offer the following personal reflection in humility. My hope is that some of my experience will resonate with others who have faced a similar trial over the past year, or perhaps prompt further conversation concerning grief.
I suffered the death of a beloved spouse in November 2020, but—because of public health guidelines—was prevented from mourning as I was accustomed to (in the company of other people). What did this teach me about myself and the strange world I suddenly found myself in? What glimmer of hope might emerge from this dark chapter?
The Book of Alternative Services features a prayer that may be used during the funeral liturgy (BAS, page 602). I’ve appreciated this prayer for its all-encompassing language, as well as the fact that it can easily be expanded upon to reflect the uniqueness of the deceased person and their loved ones. Near the end of the prayer, we hear the following:
“We pray for ourselves, who are severely tested by this death, that we do not try to minimize this loss, or seek refuge from it in words alone.…” (The italics are mine.)
Sound advice, it would seem. I’ve always taken the phrase “words alone” to signify written words. And so, the prayer suggested to me that there is a danger of retreating into a realm of written words alone, thereby distancing ourselves from the company of others, and perhaps, impeding our ability to speak aloud for ourselves the emotions that need to be expressed.
In a year of coronavirus pandemic, however, the “distancing from the company of others” had already occurred! Everything got turned on its head, and to me, the meaning of this prayer seemed to come unfastened from its moorings. It turned out that my particular journey of grief was aided precisely through the giving and receiving of the written word. The personal messages in cards, emails, text messages and more provided me with words that I turned to repeatedly in my time of isolation. It was in that ongoing process of engaging with the written word that I found refuge. And although the journey is far from complete, it is the written word that continues to speak forcefully and profoundly into my altered world.
But first, some history.
By the time my wife died, I was already well acquainted with disappointment and sorrow. The grief of restricted funerals. The grief of suspended church services. The grief of cancelled event after cancelled event. The grief of opportunities lost, of plans shattered. The grief of absorbing news reports of constantly rising case counts, mounting deaths.
On November 18, 2020, grief presented itself to me far more potently. My beloved Anya, with whom I had shared 35 years, slipped away in my arms. Anya had been diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica a few years previously. This had not been an easy time for either of us, and we were doing our best to get through days that were for the most part characterized by varying degrees of pain. Through it all though, chiropractic treatment offered a promise of relief. On November 18, that’s where our focus lay; there was still a hope of recovery, along with the continuation of life. Anya had a noon-hour appointment scheduled for that day. It was an appointment that would not be kept. In the last few minutes of getting ourselves ready, I heard her call for me. “Help me,” she said. “I think I’m going to die.” And she did. Within minutes, the love of my life was gone. Just like that.
The hours and days that followed are now a hazy recollection. There were meal deliveries, telephone calls, emails, cards. All of these were extremely helpful and appreciated. Then came the day of visitation followed by a small funeral service. Again, outpourings of affection and sympathy were incredibly helpful. Yes, we were masked and physically distanced, but I felt a profound sense of being accompanied in my great sorrow. For the time being, I was not alone in my suffering.
Anyone who has endured the death of a loved one will tell you that the process of grieving continues long after the immediate crisis passes. In the next days I became aware of suddenly being alone in the house. The familiar domestic sounds had vanished. At the same time my thoughts and emotions churned within me. How could I express the deep anguish that I felt? And to whom?
It was around that time that a friend suggested that I write down some of my thoughts, which I began to do. Cherished memories of past laughter, shared joy, special celebrations—they all tumbled onto the page. It was there that my “Anya moments” were born, and over the next few months, I would go beyond simply writing them down; the social isolation that was imposed upon me prompted me to share my many written memories in the only way that made any sense to me: among Facebook friends.
One might consider this to be an example of retreating into “words alone.” But over time it became apparent that these public posts which emanated from my grief were in fact intersecting with the grief experiences of others. In 2020 many of us found that we were spending more and more time in online communication. And although an online conversation is not the same thing as a face-to-face encounter, I was sensing that the words that were being typed on the computer screen consisted of more than “words alone.” I was receiving expressions of solidarity, understanding, empathy and gratitude. And I felt deeply impacted whenever someone responded to an “Anya moment” with insights related to their own painful experiences of death. There was something wonderfully encouraging in the reciprocal exchanges. Weeks later, when I commented on a friend’s sorrowful Facebook post, she offered this in reply: “I learned this way of healing from you.” She had read my posts. She had engaged. And she had experienced for herself the healing that comes from grief that is publicly expressed.
Words. Words alone. There it is: The qualifying “alone” is where the danger lies! Yes, words are meant to be written, and sometimes they require being written in solitude. But if they are not shared in some fashion, the writer of the words also risks falling into aloneness—and being lonely. In contrast, it is through the exchange and sharing of words that healing begins, and where consolation can make itself known.
In these past several months, I have learned that some people can be uncomfortable with the spoken word, especially when it concerns grief and mourning. Who hasn’t had the experience of being tongue-tied when speaking to a bereaved person? The spoken word doesn’t always come easily in these personal encounters, and we fear that we might be causing more harm than good by what we say or how we say it.
For this reason I have come to believe that the written word is a great place to begin in reaching out to others. This applies to the bereaved as well as those who are witnesses to the bereaved. Write a word or two. A memory, a highlight, a thanksgiving. And be sure to take the all-important next step of sharing your written words with the person or people who might be receptive. The person who is grieving will brighten just by seeing their loved one’s name in print. You will have gifted them with something they can revisit at any time. And the mutuality of these exchanges will ensure that none of us will be relegated to the realm of “words alone.” In sharing, our words of grief are set free. And healing will come.
The Rev. Andreas Thiel has served as rector of St. Matthew’s, Windsor, Ont. since 2013.