Tag Archives: mourning

A mother’s son

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I work as a hospital chaplain and yesterday we were involved in the tragic death of a young African American man in police custody, just a block away.  The young man was brought to us, and large numbers of police and family and friends followed him to our ED. The death was a Coroner’s case so there was a certain protocol in operation whereby the family could not be in the room with the deceased.  Outside the hospital tempers flared and emotions were raw. Those gathered distrusted the police and anyone in uniform, including police chaplains and our own security guards. They screamed, “They killed him.” It was bad.

The mother had apparently come to the ED and been turned away and told she couldn’t see her son. So she left. I spoke to a family member and had her call the mother to come back: we would make sure she got to see her son. Somehow.  I knew how important this was. My son’s death had been a coroner’s case. My desire to see him was so intense it felt like I couldn’t possibly survive it.  I didn’t want that for her. At least she could see him even if she couldn’t touch him.

The mother arrived back on the scene. She was, of course, devastated; she begged to see her son one last time.  She felt that the authorities were trying to cover up the details of the death. We (the other staff chaplain and myself) assured her that we were there for her, and we took her and her son’s Godmother inside the ED to a waiting room.  Outside the crowd was given water and apparently calmed down some once they saw the mother was being shown respect and care.

The other staff chaplain and myself advocated with the coroner’s representative on the mother’s behalf, and eventually they agreed to let her see her son through the glass door of the ED room.  She was in a wheelchair, as she had difficulty walking for physical and emotional reasons, so I wheeled her to his room. She just needed a minute or so, then motioned them to close the curtain.  I wheeled her out of the hospital to join her family. It was then that her emotions overwhelmed her and crying and keening ensued from her and all those around her.

In white America we have learnt in good Anglo-Protestant fashion, to suppress and control our outward expressions of grief. We weep silently into tissues, and later take our grief to a doctor to be medicated, or to a counselor to be talked through.  We track our progress according to rationally identified and researched “stages.” It is considered inappropriate, even distasteful, to noisily cry and moan at deaths, wakes or funerals. Instead we medicate our unpleasant emotions. Anger, sadness, grief…take a pill. Take two.

“Stiff upper lip.”  “Be a man!”  “Don’t embarrass me in public.”  “Hold it in.”

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But African Americans often grieve differently. In my experience in ICUs they are often very vocal and physical in their grief. They sometimes physically “fall out,”   in ways that Anglo-American nurses find disturbing, even disrespectful, and label as a form of exhibitionism. But this is not the case. The people are grieving. Explaining this to our hospital superiors outside the ED was important: we should not be trying to restrain and contain their expressions of grief, we should not be considering arresting them for disturbing the peace outside the hospital, we should be tending to them, giving them space, offering them water and chairs. And so that is what the staff did.

The deceased’s mother and her family members were expressing their grief in culturally acceptable and, from a psychological perspective, probably healthier ways. But the hospital onlookers were uncomfortable and, sensing that, the family shepherded the mother into a waiting car. The gathering then quickly dispersed to return to their neighborhood, continue their grieving, and tend to the family.

I used the word “keening” above. Keening is a form of very vocal crying and moaning that was part of many cultures’ response to grief in the past. In my Irish background culture it was normal to have keeners at wakes and in the funeral procession to the grave.  In a sense, they had the job of giving voice to the pain and grief being held inside by the stoic family.

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To the mother and her family and community gathered at the hospital, keening was not a conscious choice but a visceral reaction. This was how they showed each other and the world their pain. To do any less would probably have been emotionally and physically impossible and, within their community, to do any less might have seemed disrespectful and unfeeling.

In our ever more melting pot of a society we need to learn about the ways of expressing grief that our neighbors are likely to have. And as an adopted Anglo American myself I need to overcome my Catholic and cultural discomfort with showing physical emotion and making noise to accompany my grief.  So far I have managed to scream and cry while alone in the car – not while driving.  I have yet to do it in front of anybody else.

 

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Hope in Seasons of Loss

traces of hope

How do I process my grief?
Does suffering have any meaning?
Do we live in a random chaotic universe?
Is it time to re-evaluate my understanding of “God”?

This book is for anyone who has suffered a loss – of safety, of one’s home, of health, of a loved one or a relationship, or of one’s faith … and found themselves asking, “Why?” And then wondering, “Who am I asking?” and hoping they were not alone.

http://www.amazon.com/Traces-Hope-Surviving-Grief-Loss/dp/1937943275

The Play

When will I stop listening for the gunshot on March 19? When will I be able to leave the house without asking myself, if I’d stayed home that day would he still be alive? If I’d just told him I love you that morning would it have been enough to tip the balance? Why did I hesitate that day when I so often added those words? When will I relinquish the magical thought that doing it differently this year would bring about a different outcome, and he’d re-emerge from his other dimension and join ours again? When will I be able to drive away from the house on March 19 without thinking I was causing his death over again, abandoning him again, complying with the script of history instead of fighting it, re-writing it, recreating it?

Like a late night re-run the morning passes and everything is old and familiar and predictable; I know the words and the actions, the schedule. And now he is heading to class. And now he is handing in his last paper. He’ll get an A. And now he’s returning home unexpectedly, instead of going to his on-campus job. And now he is gently taking down the family portrait from the kitchen wall and placing it in his back pack. He will be adding his gun to that bag soon. A gun we didn’t know he had, didn’t want to know. A gun he kept hidden from us but legal, documented, following all the rules of safety. And now he is driving to the lakefront and choosing his location. He will lie down on the levee in view of the water, out of site of the houses. He will listen to the water and the birds one last time. He will breathe in the smell of spring grass and dust, oyster shells and fish. He will turn his face to the sun and feel the warmth, closing his eyes to savor the last moments of life. Then he will turn his right shoulder towards the ground and with his right hand pressing his gun against his heart he will squeeze the trigger and muffle the shot with his body, not wanting anyone to see his wound if they walked by.

A neighbor will hear the shot and call her friend who lives across the street from us. I think someone just shot himself on the levee near my house. I’ve called the police. I wonder who it is. And soon afterwards our neighbor will see a car pull up in front of our house and two plain clothes policemen will walk up the path to our door. Mal will be doing the dishes. I will answer the door. Does Malcolm villarrubia live here? My husband or my son? Your son. When was the last time you saw your son? Do you have id? Mal it’s the police asking about Malcolm.

They’ll come in then and we’ll sit down at the kitchen table. Is Malcolm in trouble? Ma’am your son is dead…we found his body…

And the air will be sucked out of the room and someone will be screaming I don’t understand over and over but in a soft voice – the screaming going on inside her head. Then the script will take over and we will be actors in a drama we would never audition for, and cannot remember the words to. But somehow we will move from one scene to the next, lip syncing while someone speaks our lines for us and someone else rearranges the set. Now the funeral parlor, now the house again, and then the chapel at Jesuit and someone is lowered into the ground.

I wish the play were over and we could go back to normal but someone is asking me to move closer. I don’t want to move closer I don’t like burials. Is this someone we know well, everybody here looks familiar. And then there is a party at our house. Where’s Malcolm, he should be here if we’re having a party? Why is James in town shouldn’t he be at school? Then everyone leaves and the play seems to be over but no one has told us how to exit. We are left on stage with the empty theatre and echoes of the last scene. What do we do now? I don’t know. Do we sleep? How can we sleep? It’s not our life any more it’s a play. Do we exist between the scenes – an R and G question? Will someone enter soon and give us our cues? And the floorboards in the darkened theatre creak in sympathetic tones as the lights slowly dim.