Monday, February 28, 2011

On Grief

I reread the book of Job this past summer. You remember Job. He’s the one who loses absolutely everything, and continues to hold fast to faith in God, despite his suffering. I was preparing a piece for a US based Christian magazine, and my reflection focused on my own encounter with mortality, and the ways in which my friends and family walked with me through the hard times.

In the last few weeks, my family has again encountered the pain of death, but today I find myself in the role of Job’s friends. In her seventh month of pregnancy my youngest sister delivered a still-born baby via c-section.

My sister Laura’s apparently perfectly formed baby Emma simply stopped living. No cause, no reason can be found. And my sister and her husband are left devastated.

Babies delivered after the sixth month require burial. I mention this for those who might remember the old days when a woman would often not even see her still-born baby. But today, parents are encouraged to hold their babies after delivery for as long as they feel comfortable. I stood in the recovery room with Laura and Bernie and baby Emma and stroked her tiny perfect face, and held her miniature fingers. In this act of acknowledgement, the dignity of her short life was affirmed. The truth that Laura and her husband Bernie were parents to this child was celebrated sorrowfully but importantly.

A funeral was held for Emma, and she is buried in a cemetery in Toronto near her parents’ home. But my sister’s grief weighs her down, assaults her, and drags her into darkness. My brothers, my sisters, my parents and I try to reach her, try to comfort her, but like Job’s friends we are at a loss. Her friends come, bearing food and kind words, but none of us can find the cure to her pain.

Laura wonders if Emma is alone. She wonders if she, Laura, could have done something to save her child. She wonders where God is in this. And she wonders whether the pain will ever stop, and even whether she wants it to, because happiness might be a betrayal of her baby.

Grief is complex, individual, and often hidden. Words don’t cure it, nor does time on its own. But fellowship can help, and prayer, and the acknowledgement that the one who has died does not suffer, does not yearn, and does not cry. But while the dead are at peace in the arms of God, those who are left behind face the light-sucking pain of loss.

I considered the book of Job again this week. I’ve worked in grief support, but I never find it easy. People grieve individually, in a way particular to their own situation. This may be because, despite our incredible education system, we don’t teach people how to die, and we don’t teach people how to grieve. We learn that on our own, in that unexpected moment when death attacks us. We hide from our mortality until it hits us in the face, unmistakable, and often, gone.

I find that Job’s friends have little to offer me in the way of advice, except for one thing:

They are there. They stay. They tear their clothes, and sit in the dust with their friend. They say useless things, but they do not leave.

And when Job’s friends stay, they manifest the truth about God. Death comes, but God stays. Carrying that presence of God with them, Job’s friends sit with him. Like Jesus on the cross, they do not hide from the suffering, from the truth that the human body must encounter death. The only way to the light of resurrection is through that dark night of sorrow. Love transcends it all, even through pain.

And so my family will continue to sit with Laura and Bernie. We will simply be there, our words useless perhaps, but our hearts certainly full. And we will wait, and wait, until the light comes again.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


EGYPT: A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Nelson Mandela and the power of conscience to triumph over fear and change the world. Now the world stands in awe of the change wrought in Egypt by that very same courage. Difficult days remain for the people of Egypt, but for a few hours we celebrate their willingness to put an end to tyranny and oppression. While violence and war continue to ravage many areas of the world, the steadfastness of the Egyptian people illuminate the planet with hope. In Libya and elsewhere, a taste for freedom is growing…

KAIROS: About a year ago I wrote about the Canadian government’s decision to cut funding to Kairos, the ecumenical social justice organization of the mainstream Canadian churches, stating that it was no longer in line with CIDA priorities. No one who knows Kairos could believe that was the truth. Last week, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, Kairos was able to obtain documents showing that their funding had in fact originally been granted and then, incredibly, the form had been doctored by International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda’s office. It took my breath away to see the word ‘NOT’ penciled in above the clearly signed line granting funding to Kairos. Are we still in Canada?

MISCELLANEOUS CONNECTIONS: As the people of the Middle East stand up at great risk for democracy, and as members of Kairos demonstrate the worth of persistence, I can’t help but hope that we as Catholics will also advocate for greater freedom of speech within our Church. Let us hear the voices of women. Let us feel the movement of the laity. Let us seek the love of God.

No more apathy. No more waiting for another pope, or another generation. Let us be the Church of inclusiveness, of hope and of God that Jesus called us to be.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Celebrating Love in all its Forms

Valentine’s Day comes toward us, showering us with flowers, chocolates, and paper hearts. Humans celebrate love, desire it, cling to it, thrive on it.

“Love, and do what you want,” Augustine wrote in the early 400s. But what does it mean to love truly?

We are captivated by stories of love, whether they tell of romance or friendship, whether they are truth or fiction. Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah, Anthony and Cleopatra, Ruth and Naomi, and Jonathan and David are just some of the tales that fill us with wonder at the power of friendship and love to move and shape us. We search for deeper meaning when we take time for love. We have always done so. We talk about it, dream about it, pray over it, and always, always look for it.

Saint Paul wrote that “love is patient and love is kind” (1 Cor 13:4). Today that might mean waiting for your partner before having supper. It might involve calling a friend. It’s driving your children to hockey practice. It’s spending time with family. It’s feeding the hungry, and offering shelter to the homeless. It’s biting your tongue, and filling your heart.

True love hovers mist-like, hard to describe, just out of reach of any final words. But we know it when we feel it. It proclaims itself in the ‘I do’ of newlyweds, in the faces of new parents, in the touch of lovers, in the sacrifice of visionaries.

True love possesses other forms as well, more difficult to recognize, more often ignored. True love exists in the parent who demands complete homework, and the spouse who challenges their beloved over addiction. It lives in those who stand for justice, and those who walk for peace. True love is unafraid of caring confrontation, of demanding more, of expecting better. It holds dreams close and only lets go with a struggle, with a cry. It grieves the loss of love, the separation of death, the end of a vision.

True love gives itself for others, makes sacrifices, welcomes love in return. It reaches for the love of God, the ultimate love that would sacrifice and empty itself for humanity, holding nothing back, taking on any suffering, because its bearer knows that love is eternal and nothing good can be destroyed. The love on the cross mirrors the love of the resurrection, bound together, one in sacrifice, the other in celebration, unity, and peace.
True love holds tight to hopes of the future, faith in each other, and forgiveness of failings. It warms and builds, explodes within us, takes us higher, transforms us into our best self, the one God calls us to be. Found as much in friends as in lovers, in the presence of true love you know only one thing. You have come home.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Three Women - Three Books

Different cultures, different times. I’ve recently read three books that reveal the vast breadth of women’s experience. If you’re interested…

Dr. Joan Sherwood’s Infection of the Innocents (McGill –Queens University Press, 2010) offers captivating insights into the stories of healthy wet nurses in late 18th century France who were exploited to treat syphilitic babies. The nurses were fed mercury, the standard medicine for syphilis at the time, in the hopes that the diluted medicine would cure the babies. The legal and medical breakthroughs that arose at this tumultuous time in French history have ramifications down to this day.

Andrea Cameron’s Cameron’s Corner (Butternut Publishing, 2010) provides an often quirky, frequently moving, sometimes witty and always fascinating look at life as a twenty-first century woman. As a mother, teacher, and world traveler, Cameron gives the reader one thought-provoking episode after another. Reflections range broadly from parenting an exceptional child to caring for Nepalese orphans to saving the Arctic ice to dealing with breast cancer. Each short vignette takes the reader on a ride straight to the heart. Cameron’s book is available at Leeds County Books, Brockville and from the publisher.

Lastly, Crystle Mazurek’s recently released Mommy, When are We Going Home? (GSPH, 2011) chronicles Mazurek’s own journey back to India, where she had lived as a child with her missionary parents. Mazurek returns to the village of her youth, and eventually establishes the India Village Fund. This one woman organization now arranges educational funding for hundreds of Indian children and youth, providing them not only with necessary school fees but with trade tools upon graduation. This is a story of determination and hope, comparable to Three Cups of Tea.