The vast outpouring of love, sympathy and support I have received from you all, following the death of my father on 19th December, inspires me to share a little of what is going on in my mind just now. Most, if not all of you, will have been where I am and although every person reacts to bereavement in their own unique way, there are one or two things we tend to share in common.
The first is that sense of being in a vast emptiness. It is as though you, yourself, have been whisked out of life temporarily and you do not know where you are or even who you are. The door behind you - to where your life once was - is firmly and permanently closed. The door in front of you is not yet visible and, to be honest, you do not want to see it anyway.
This is not necessarily a sad or frightening place to be. It is just a “non-space;” an emptiness. It feels strange to problem-solving people of action (like ourselves) because there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Of course, we can bustle around, keeping busy, doing all that needs to be done following a death and this helps to keep us grounded. But that huge sense of emptiness remains and all there is to do is to wait. Wait until the time is right to move forward. And we do not seem to be able to make this happen.
I do not think it a co-incidence that so many people of different faiths have “found God” in places of emptiness and isolation. One of my favourite stories in the Bible is that of Jacob, who finds himself in the vast emptiness of the wilderness one night and who, having closed the door himself on his previous life and family relationships, cannot see his future with any degree of confidence or clarity. He is forced to lie down on the ground with his head on a stone. Yet in that dark emptiness he sees the stairway to heaven and hears the voice of God. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it,” he says. Perhaps it is only when we stop trying to make things happen that God has a chance to make His presence felt? I don’t know. All I can say is that at times, in the vast empty place, I am conscious of a hand holding mine and for that I am grateful. As for where that hand will lead me - who can tell? Maybe the hand is not there to lead but simply to hold….
A second sensation which I hope we all share is that overwhelming sense of being loved and supported by one another. Bereavement can draw a family more closely together; it can bring out all that is loving and sympathetic in our friends; it can call out surprising levels of understanding and compassion in people you hardly know; it can even convince you that perhaps you are not indispensable after all, as others willingly and competently take on the duties you would normally do. I remember reading once of “The Fellowship of the Bereaved.” Facing the loss of a loved one is something which just about every human person has to go through at some time or other and it can create a sense of comradeship - we are all in this together. There is no sense of privilege; nothing to be “achieved;” no spirit of competition—at least, not for long (why am I not getting over my loss as fast as my neighbour did, or seemed to….?). Despite the fact that each person does and should grieve in their own way, we have all spent time in what the Psalmist called “the valley of the shadow of death” and this goes a long way to helping us recognise fellow travellers, helping each other along the way.
I am more grateful than I can say for the loving kindness so many of you have shown to me. My father was always glad to know that I was part of a church family who would “look after me” and I hope this brought him some measure of the comfort it brings me.
With love and good wishes to you all,