By JIM NICHOLS
If you have not been in this emotional place recently (or ever), this will not make much sense to you. Otherwise, it might.
Recently the hospice organization for which I work part-time had its annual memorial service. Over the past twelve months, 140 enrolled patients had died, and this evening event was an opportunity for family and friends of each to gather to consider life together. It was a relatively small gathering of people who either were related to the patients or on the hospice staff who cared for the patients.
Although not labeled as such, it was what many might refer to as a “lament service.” With many of the trappings of a small church service, it involved scripture readings, music, poems, liturgy, and encouraging comments. It was designed to be a time of memory, consolation, and growth. Family and friends entering were each given a carnation that they held during the service; at the end they were encouraged to introduce themselves to another person and exchange flowers. Although they did not know one another before the evening, they shared fresh sorrow.
Of particular and surprising interest to me was a period during which several of the family members stood and spoke about their loved one. Pre-arranged somewhat by the evening organizer, several brought photos and memorabilia. Although speaking extemporaneously, there were certain themes.
There was nothing truly unexpected from the speakers. Tears were shed, words of love and admiration abounded, and appreciation for the hospice staff was expressed. Particularly striking, however, was the consistent mention of specific dates, and even times.
“Mom had shown gradual memory problems for a couple of years, but one morning in early September she said, ’There is something wrong with my brain.’ We took her to the doctor on October 4 and her dementia was diagnosed. She lived just three more months.”
“Dad seemed completely healthy and normal until April 10 when he had his stroke. Diagnosed at the hospital as ‘quite serious,’ he was hospitalized that night. Once released, our family was overwhelmed trying to take care of him at home, so we reluctantly moved him to a care center in mid-June. He died on July 15, and we held his funeral on July 20, a Wednesday morning at 10 a.m.”
Suddenly, the evening event stopped being about these other people and became personal for me. Sitting in my chair at the back of the meeting room, I visualized our current kitchen bar at home with the family calendar on it. Exactly a year ago at this time, a loved and pivotal family member had passed away following an abrupt and, at the time, mysterious illness. At our home we have a written timeline of his illness, its progression and treatments, and finally his death and funeral. On the current calendar we have transposed those pivotal dates into this year in his memory. The group lament for others had become my own. I was surprised how hard it hit me.
The literature speaks about two categories of grief: acute and anticipatory. Acute grief follows a sudden event that changes the patterns, experiences, and lives of individuals within a short period of time. Anticipatory grief is more cumulative; an event or illness alters the trajectory of our lives and we have been given, for better or worse, a time to grieve before an endpoint.
The distinction may not be all that clear. In each case, a change occurs that modifies the future for all involved. Whether or not we write it down, it is now imposed on the calendars of our brain and memories.
Particularly troubling for us all, I believe, is the unpredictability of all this. Author Kathleen Dowling Singh notes that “the ‘moment that changed everything’ usually arrives unannounced.”
Our abilities to deal with these inevitable painful challenges depends at least partly on what person we will be when the challenge comes. The time to dwell in God’s promise of care for us is now. The time to improve our level of trust is now. The time to have authentic, supportive, and faithfully insightful friends is now. These are items that cannot wait to be put on a future calendar.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain