Linda Lawrence Hunt, Ph.D.
Nothing could have prepared my husband, Jim, and me for the sorrow that rocked our lives when Krista, our twenty-five-year old married daughter, died in Bolivia. Just six months earlier, friends and family gathered at our home for a celebration send-off before Aaron and Krista’s three-year volunteer assignment with Mennonite Central Committee. This included a time of prayer for safety during their service in Bañada de la Cruz, a remote indigenous river community.
On May 20, 1998, two couples came to our door at 6 a.m. sharing the shattering news that a speeding bus plunged over a mountain cliff, killing Krista. This began what I now call a pilgrimage through loss. These were during the same years that our mourning-avoidant culture heralded “closure” and “moving on” as the hallmarks of healthy grief. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s “stages of grief” adapted from her death and dying work became a dominant narrative.
This focus on closure seemed deeply flawed. Plus, it didn’t fit, and, instinctively, it didn’t seem wise or realistic. What parent ever wants to forget a child? Or beloved parents or a spouse? As Patrick O’Malley said in the January 11 New York Times article “Getting Grief Right,” “To do so would be to lose a piece of a sacred bond.”
Most books I read addressed immediate grief with insight, but few considered the long-term impact of forever loss. Two eloquent exceptions that spoke of on-going love were Nicholas Wolterstorff’s grief classic Lament for a Son and Isabel Allende’s, Paula. As I told my husband one night, “She gets it!”
But, of course, I knew while living in such profound pain, healing matters. So, during the next years, I began interviewing other parents who lost a child, seeking to understand where they found strength and resilience. Persons such as Jerry Sittser, my faculty colleague at Whitworth University and author of A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief who lost his wife, daughter and mother all to a drunk driver. An unimaginable tragedy. Rev. John Perkins, the prominent civil rights leader and pastor, shared his creative ways of remembering his son Spencer who died from a heart attack. But mostly, these were ordinary men and women who lost children to illness, suicide, accidents, murder, all devastated by their unexpected seismic loss.
Yet, they lived with some spirit of resilience and hope, never seeking closure. Instead, I saw them somehow integrating their sorrow into the ongoing story of their lives. Remembrance, though painful at times, gave them a continuing bond.
One weekend I invited a group of mothers to our Hearth, a guest retreat house that we built after beginning the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship. I wanted to learn what healing gestures helped them. What kindnesses had others done for them that gave solace? What they had done for themselves that helped them live with hope and healing? They all differed in age, how their child died, and their world views. But they united in expressing certain experiences that gave strength for their life-long journey.
Rather than expecting and emphasizing closure, they deeply appreciated friends and families who gave on-going remembrances. Some they mentioned:
- “We long to hear our child’s name.” Too often, they said, people are afraid to mention our child for fear we will be distressed. For example, at family reunions a son is never mentioned. “It’s like he’s been erased from the family.” They hungered for on-going recognition of their loved child.
- They felt grateful to any friends and family who gave support for any remembrances, whether early events such as memorials, but especially for on-going efforts. Some families create a special event, such as on the birthday, or invite support for causes related to the child (such as a cancer walk), or the emergence of a non-profit. These offered everyone who loved their child an active way to share grief.
- Remembrance during difficult passages, like the anniversary of their child’s death, holidays, birthdays. Every May, for over 15 years, a colleague of my husband sends a card that says simply, “We remember.” One anniversary, a bouquet of daisies (Krista’s favorite flower) arrived on our doorstep anonymously. It lifted our day. Some cultures build such remembrance rituals into their year, such as the Mexican Day of the Dead. Jewish families tell me the practice of their Yizkor Memorial Service, where loved ones are remembered four times a year in synagogues and homes, brings comfort.
I’d like to believe that our language around stages of grief, closure, and moving on has changed in recent years, but instead it appears even more embedded in our culture. Nancy Berns, a sociologist who lost a still-born son, writes in the excellent resource Closure: the Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us how it is so common it appears in television shows like Friends, Law and Order and others. “Closure rhetoric echoes finality. Closing a door. Bringing something to an end. Finishing a process. Yet parents don’t want a death to be the end of their story.”
After reading her book, I heard Charlie Rose use this just two months after the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary. “I can’t believe it,” I said to my husband. “Some of these six-year old children were shot ten times. They must never be forgotten!!” My hope is that faith communities, who often are called on to give comfort during the first days of family and national tragedies, begin to change our cultural narrative and language.
During weekly communion at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Washington, where we are worshipping, I am reminded of the importance Jesus placed on deeply felt love. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
In closure, we are left bereft. In remembrance, love continues.
Linda Lawrence Hunt, Ph.D.
Author, Pilgrimage through Loss: Pathways to Strength and Renewal after the Death of a Child: Westminster John Knox Press (2014); www.pilgrimagethroughloss.com
Co-founder, the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship www.kristafoundation.org
image: Love and Grief by John Hoyland