Wednesday, June 22
Several years ago a former ace student, Jane Bishop Halteman, responded to a blog. I have no idea what was in the blog — maybe something about grief and loss. Our cordial exchange of e-mails did indeed lead to the topic of grief and loss. At that time I became aware that Jane was serious about dealing with a loss that she had never been given opportunity to fully grieve.
Now I receive from Jane a copy of a speech she delivered in northern Indiana. Because of its insightfulness and thoroughness, I asked Jane’s permission to post it here. She kindly consented.
The summer I turned 16, Dave, the boy I had fallen in love with 10 months earlier near the start of my sophomore year, lay dead before me in a netted casket shrouding his beautiful, but now lifeless, disfigured face. The trauma sustained in a pig truck accident two states away from our homes in eastern PA ended our high school romance abruptly.
Except for the whirling, obsessive recycling in my mind of the events of our last summer together and the ever-mounting lists of if-onlys and what-ifs, no processing took place, no one offered help, and I churned and yearned on the inside for a way out of the agony. The unimaginable pain, too deep to speak of, stayed inside where it lay dormant for 12 years until my 18-year-old brother died in a single-car crash about a mile from home.
Still numb with the shock of the first loss of a young man dear to me, I survived the second loss by not letting myself get immersed in more pain. I dreamed frequently about the boyfriend…even as I married five years after the accident, finished a college degree in journalism, became a newspaper reporter, had two children, started my own writing/editing/meeting planning business, did marketing for a not-for-profit, became a spiritual director. The dreams continued, but he never knew me in the dreams, never noticed me across the classroom, never bothered to come my way. I was always desperate in my dreams to get his attention, but not once did he glance my direction.
Both of these huge losses had haunted me for years, in unhealthy ways, and became the foundation for layers of new pain every time other griefs came into my life. Church conflicts, the loss of beloved pastors, even close friends moving away…all were added to the refuse heap of untended inner pain.
Though I had been receiving spiritual direction for 15 years, I had never really begun to deal with the pain of grief and loss until the fall of 2009, when a most incredible thing happened. More than 47 years after the first grievous loss, I met my boyfriend’s younger brother when our paths crossed quite miraculously at a high school event honoring both his son and my sister-in-law. I discovered very quickly that he also continued to battle the ghosts of his brother’s death, which took place when he was 10. Over time the two of us began to piece together our individual stories of loss, which created a much more detailed patchwork picture than either of our separate experiences had offered.
Meeting him was like Margaret Silf’s words about spring water in her book Sacred Spaces: “Spring water is given to us gratuitously. It bubbles up from the depths of the earth without our doing and supplies energy and life without our asking. It trickles, uninvited from cracks in the hard rock of our experience. It takes us by surprise, appearing out of nowhere to refresh and encourage us.”
Another favorite spirituality writer of mine, Macrina Wiederkehr, says that “the soul thrives on remembering. Feed it memories and it comes alive.” And so the remembering began as my boyfriend’s younger brother Steve and I carefully navigated our way onto the turf of excavating painful memories from so long ago…though I had no recollection of the visit, I learned from him that I had brought a potted plant to his mother after his brother’s funeral.
Eventually we made a pilgrimage to the gravesite, which I had never visited and it seemed he had rarely visited though he lived quite close to the cemetery. One summer he surprised me with a letter I had written to his brother several weeks before his death. With the help of his son, Steve and I approached our Mennonite high school, which ultimately gave us permission to plan and execute a worship service honoring the 108 alums who died since graduation and particularly the 10 who died while still in school or very soon after, which was the case with both our brothers. As a result of that process, I learned to know friends of my deceased brother and more about him as a teenager whose growing up years took place while I was in college. I have discovered first-hand, in the loss of these two young men, that sometimes the green shoots of redemption take a very long time to show themselves.
One of my college mentors, whose blog I stumbled across close to the time I was ready to get serious about the unearthing process, suggested the creation of some sort of memorial by which to remember when he discovered I was at the front end of excavating these old griefs. “When grief can be channeled to a positive end, then grief becomes a creative, and not a debilitating, thing,” he said from his own personal experience. His gentle urging led to the establishment of the memorial garden at our high school, which we dedicated following the worship service designed to help us grieve our losses. A spot of quiet beauty carved out of a wooded area, the garden was envisioned as a place where folks might remember loved ones while communing with the Divine, a place to observe the process of life, from the greening of the shoot to the dying off of the flower.
I recruited my brother’s best friend, who became an English teacher at our high school, to help with the business of locating parents and siblings of other students who died while they were still in school, in addition to my boyfriend Dave and my brother Greg. Not only did Greg’s best friend collaborate with Steve and me and high school administrators to plan the event, but he generously shared with me things he had saved over the years in connection with Greg’s death: his journal entries surrounding the dark days after learning that Greg had died, notes written for a tribute at Greg’s funeral, recordings of the band in which they had played together.
In the process of managing my own grief over the years, I have learned, as a long-bereaved survivor, that our lives take on new trajectories when pain and heartache intervene. In the words of Ashley Davis Bush, we “are forever changed after a major loss. (We) cannot expect to be the same persons any longer. If people ask when we’ll be our ‘old selves’ again, we need to let them know that a new self is emerging. We may not begin to know, for a very long time, who that new self is, but we will gradually live into the answer. Even as we are changed by loss, we also have been changed by a profound love that lives within us still.”
During the worship service preceding the garden dedication, we placed an empty chair on the platform so that each participant might visualize himself/herself in that seat as the 10-year-old who lost a beloved brother or the 16-year-old who lost a boyfriend or the 50-something parents who said goodbye to their youngest child or the empty-nester who lost a spouse prematurely. Mourners were invited to take a moment of quiet reflection to recall the person they were at the departure of their loved ones.
As I unpacked my own losses, I learned that it is better to grieve with a village than all by one’s self, which is what I had done until that fortuitous meeting became the catalyst for beginning the inner work I had left undone those many years. With my recollections and Steve’s, we began to search the closets of our collective memories by taking a new look at what was just too painful to examine closely for a very long time. I learned only recently about the wisdom of folks like Elizabeth Lesser who writes about Good Grief in her book Broken Open.
She says: “There is an art to grieving. To grieve well the loss of anyone or anything—a parent, a love, a child, an era, a home, a job, (one’s health)—is a creative act. It takes attention and patience and courage. But many of us do not know how to grieve. We were never taught, and we don’t see examples of full-bodied grieving around us. Our culture favors the fast-food model of mourning—get over it quickly and get back to work; affix the bandage of ‘closure’ and move on.
“Grief is a tonic,” Lesser goes on to say, “a healing elixir, made of tears that lubricate the heart…When a friend or family member dies—or when the world loses one of its beloved citizens—we should not hold back our tears. Our tears, and the calm hands of grief that follow are not signs of some tragic and evil reality…Grief is the proof of our love, a demonstration of how deeply we have allowed another to touch us.
“Grief is often confused with depression or self-pity,” Lesser continues. “While one can certainly go into a woeful tailspin during the grieving process, in the long term, grief is not the same as depression. If we gloss over our grief, we might become depressed. Unfelt feelings and unexpressed grief have a way of dulling life. It is as if with every grief we do not feel, we stuff another handful of our vitality underground, until we are numb or sick or embittered.”
“We know that the power of life is wrapped in small gestures of compassion, and in the gifts that spill from the heart,” a friend said once in his sermon. His thought crystalized a hope for the worship service and memorial garden dedication…that people would find connections to each other via the event and launch new interactions to process difficult life experiences.
I trust the garden will remind people that the Divine loves them and calls them perhaps to a new way of noticing God at work in their lives. I see creation of the garden as a positive way to share our grief stories and tend to our own grief work, so that we might maintain right relationship with ourselves, with the person we were when our loss took place, and with the person we become in the process of suffering grief and loss.
We offered this prayer at the garden dedication: “As we celebrate the lives of those we have loved and lost in the creation of this garden space, may we offer ourselves anew to worship and serve the one who redeems grief and loss, who brings green shoots of hope into our lives. We seek to remember these loved ones well by sharing their stories and ours, by leaving this garden legacy in their memory, by seeking to live out the inspiration they have been to us. Teach us, as pilgrims on the journey with each other, to find their presence beside us in memory, whether their loss is recent or ancient, we pray.”
On the anniversary of the 50th year since my boyfriend’s death, a friend and I made a pilgrimage to the site of the accident, which I had mis-remembered as having occurred in Bluffton, OH. Soon after moving to South Bend almost five years ago, I discovered that the accident actually took place in Bluffton, IN, just a few hours from our new home. I realized almost immediately that I wanted to see the spot. I did a bit of on-line research and discovered that the local library housed an excellent microfilm center with access to many years of newspapers.
On the way to the library and accident site, we stopped at a nearby labyrinth where I hoped to center myself for what I imagined might be difficult reading at the library. I had a tremendous sense of Dave’s terror and pain on the walk into the center. The intuition of his pain was good preparation for what we discovered in the two newspaper accounts we found on microfilm…he was pinned under the truck for one half hour. I read in amazement the list of injuries and that he had been subjected to a three and one half hour surgery immediately following the accident. And then I began tapping into his parents’ pain, as the newspaper included mention of their flying (on separate planes at different times) from Pennsylvania to Indiana to be with their son. Neither had flown before, Steve told me.
The first newspaper account described the location of the accident. With that information in hand, my friend and I drove to the site, a country road near a railroad track, cornfields, and a few scattered homes. I had mistakenly believed that Dave’s uncle, who owned the pig truck they were riding in on a delivery from Chicago back to eastern PA, had been at the wheel, but learned that a young man in training was the driver. He fell asleep.
In addition to revealing the name of the driver, the article mentioned investigating police officers, whose names I googled eagerly in the hopes of interviewing them about their memories of the incident. Unfortunately, I found obituaries for both of them. I discovered evidence that the driver still lived in the town, which the old newspapers listed as his home. Steve approached him with a letter of invitation to meet, but we never heard back from him.
A year after the site visit, I decided once again to ritualize remembrance of that dreadful day by walking a labyrinth. Here’s what I wrote about that experience: Today dawned a beautiful one to walk the Saint Mary’s labyrinth remembering Dave 51 years after his death. I have been slow, very slow, to ritualize ways to deal with the pain of this loss, which came into my life so unexpectedly and took up permanent residence. As I learn more about introverts and high-reactive personality types like myself, I am not surprised that losing Dave at a formative time of life has left a forever-mark.
Stepping onto the first circular stone of this seven-circuit labyrinth, I attempt to release all that’s on my mind on the walk toward the center. I’m particularly aware this visit of blemished stones, the long shadows at this early hour in the morning, the cracks and crevices of the smooth rocks between stones, the chaff and debris of approaching fall cluttering this beautiful, quiet space, the grime and dirt left behind by vigorous summer rains.
At the center, I wait to receive…the light is spectacular at this time of day and not yet clearing the trees on the eastern horizon. How can I not be grateful for all the ways the light has been evident even under the darkest of circumstances? I have a wonderful family and caring friends, a congregation which continues to nourish my ever-growing contemplative faith journey, jobs I’ve been fortunate to enjoy, directees I have had the gift of companioning, travels and other experiences I remember fondly.
In spite of all this, much of my adult life, or so it seems, has been wrapped in the shroud of Dave’s death. The long shadows of grief and pain that accompanied his departure from my life leaked 12 years later into a new pain created by brother Greg’s death.
Leaving the center of the labyrinth, then, to walk out the same way I came in brings with it a sense of empowerment, in this case realizations of the many ways the bright light continues to unpack the darkness of despair still lurking under the carpet.
First there was Steve and the joy of coming to know Dave’s younger brother so many years after the fact…the perfect companion to begin the process of unpacking ancient wounds that had hounded both of us for so many years and a Divine gift for which I shall always be grateful!
The ever-growing list of unearthings the light has allowed, by now, is long, but walking out from the center enables me to skim through some of the numerous surprises this journey has brought: finding an amazing spiritual director who gave me courage to carry on and listened to each new chapter of this story with reverent attention, encouragement from the powers that be at our high school to do a memorial event for Dave and Greg and all students who died before or after graduation, the opportunity to hear the stories of some of those students’ families, the engagement of planning and executing a memorial worship service (including the privilege to work with my former pastor John, who became my high school’s chaplain at a most fortuitous time), the delight of singing with former students and alums at the service, lighting candles for those lost to us, the thrill of seeing a memorial garden spring to life, the unlocking of dreams and memories, the discovery of old letters, unearthing newspaper articles which reveal new details, a visit to the accident site, learning how to keep these departed loved ones alive to ourselves and others, prepping a grief retreat for other long bereaved survivors, interacting with a homeless woman about her losses, leading a spiritual directors’ workshop on grief, sharing with you here today on the theme “Restore Our Joy”.
Eighteen months ago, my high school class celebrated 50 years since graduation. I introduced them to the memorial garden, and after sharing its history, spoke openly for the first time of the pain of having lost Dave with no processing by the school or class members. They were generous in their listening and then disclosed their own pain, both related to losing our classmate, as well as in a variety of other difficult circumstances…deaths close to them, deaths too soon, miscarriages and still births they had failed to grieve, loss of eyesight.
Another classmate shared his single memory of Dave’s funeral: he recalled the congregation singing to the tune Finlandia the song Be Still My Soul. He said he remembered seeing me through the crowd, noting the terrible anguish evident on my face. He wondered to himself how on earth I would carry on after that and then he heard the words, “Be still my soul, the Lord is on your side” and knew the second phrase was the key to the fact that I would be ok. And so it was that this classmate offered me a tiny gift-wrapped package that had been stored away on a shelf all these years and pulled out to present to me 52 years later. Even at that late date, his gift of words offered validation of the pain and sorrow I felt way back then, which, at the time, it seemed to me, no one recognized!
I felt the same balm a few years earlier as I reconnected with a high school classmate who confessed that, though he had not spoken to me about the tragedy all those years ago, he recollected thinking back then: “You were a Tragic Figure. In another era, you would have worn black, but you soldiered on.”
And along the way there have been so many affirmations, confirmations, signs of renewal and restoration…the blue heron seen in flight near the spot where we dedicated the garden, an out-of-season dragonfly showing up at the garden some time after its dedication, a butterfly spreading its wings for me and lingering on the brick side of our house as I waited for a video of Dave to upload on YouTube, cardinals too numerous too mention circling our yard time and again, feeling a new connection to these young men so many years after their deaths, helping others find their way to keeping memories of their loved ones alive, the fiery memorial stone still awaiting its inscription. And encouraging words in sermons I just happened to hear while in the midst of this still-unfolding story… like the admonition “to fully enter the water of Life—to be in God’s streams of mercy, to be formed and reformed by those streams, to wade in the water.”
And just the other day, there were these words from Kayla McClurg: “To come alongside our loss is to open the gates of the walled city, to leave the familiar and, together with others, walk out into the unknown. It is to resist the temptation to hide out, to protect and defend against further harm. It is not to retell the story in more glorious tones or to deny it entirely. It is to receive whatever is being given, and to give whatever is being received. It is to listen to the echo of the void, the quiet hum of fallow ground becoming hallowed ground. It is to wait and watch for the next and the new…”
I remain vigilant for what will continue to reveal itself. And, yes, if you are curious about whether Dave has come to me in dreams more recently, I can tell you that he has…he has recognized me, we have spoken briefly in those dreams, where he has aged as I have. He and my brother have occasionally shown up together when I needed them, once on a lonely, stressful car ride during which I thought our daughter-in-law was miscarrying. Dave’s mother appeared once during a reiki session, and Dave and Greg came together another time while a friend was doing energy work with me.
Having my 91-year-old mother still beside me to witness the unfolding of this journey has been a joy. It was she who recalled that Dave had a younger brother, Steve, and she who pointed out I might meet him that night our relatives received high school honors back in 2009. I would not have known the family connection. It has been a good thing to begin to remember my brother on his birthday and death day; I was in PA this past May 22, when Greg would have turned 60. I close this story with a photo of my mom and a beautiful white rose commemorating his birthday, the arrival date of her fourth and last child. You see a piece of his high school artwork in the background.
This is Dan again. If you wish to make contact with Jane, give me your contact information and I will forward it to her. Thanks.