UNITY OF VANCOUVER
“Haunted by Grace”
Reverend Bernadette Voorhees
May 24, 2009
All Rights Reserved
Many people seem to think that ministers are somehow immune to death; that it doesn’t affect us. Some people think that we can sit in hospitals rooms, listening to the rhythm of monitors falter until they go flat line & not feel a thing no matter how long we’ve known & loved the person lying there on the bed. Some people even seem to think that we enjoy hanging out at hospitals, funeral homes & cemeteries. & That if they could somehow bottle the smell of the intensive care ward & put it into an air freshener minister’s would buy it up & spray all their closets with it. These are just some of the funny things that people have told me over the years that they think make ministers a little weird & uncomfortable to be around. Have you ever noticed the way a minister likes to walk up to someone at a memorial service, shake their hand, stare intensely into their eyes & ask, ‘How are you… really?’
I feel the same discomfort that you feel when you walk into a home where someone has just died. I notice the same haunted feeling that most people notice around death. I notice the same disquieting feeling that lingers in a room for hours – sometimes even for months or years – after someone dies in it. & I am sure you can feel it too because you aren’t immune to death either. And you aren’t crazy or pathologically depressed if you feel ‘haunted.’ When you are close to someone who has just died can you feel an unnatural silence in the hallways where they used to call out your name? I do. I can’t explain why to the rationally minded, but the air is a little denser there. Have you ever looked in a room & seen nothing there, then switched off the light & as you turned your back to go, felt a hand reaching out from the darkness to touch your shoulder? I know this feeling too & it can last a long time.
A man recently told me that even though his wife of 50 years had died 5 years ago, he still reaches over in the middle of the night to put his hand on her to make sure she’s okay. He said that he still feels her presence, still instinctively checks on her, and still says ‘good night’ & ‘good morning,’ even though he moved out of the home they shared into a new place of his own 2 years ago. He said he just hasn’t been able to get past that feeling of reaching out for something that he could no longer see; & feeling that something reaching out back to him. The feeling that there’s a connection between us & those we’ve loved who have died is a feeling most of us have known. It can be so strong that we think it must be supernatural. It might even feel ‘haunting’. We don’t stop to think that maybe it is real. Maybe it’s a perfectly reasonable, perfectly human need to love beyond the boundaries of death. Grief is an expression of our need to hold on & prolong the giving & receiving of love – or at least the hope that love can be given & received someday, someway.
A movie that came out about 12 years ago by M. Night Shyamalan called ‘The Sixth Sense.’ It’s a story about a psychiatrist who in the opening scene of the movie gets shot. Then, it fades to black & the panel comes on that says, ‘two years later’ & we see that the psychiatrist has apparently recovered & has gone back to working with disturbed children. Occasionally, we’re given glimpses of how the shooting has changed his life. For example, his once happy marriage, now struggles. Then he gets a new client -a young boy, who claims that he, can talk to dead people. The psychiatrist does everything in his power to cure the boy because – after all, you know it’s crazy to think we can communicate with dead people, right?
The psychiatrist believes, (like most of the audience watching the movie probably believe) that talking to dead people is akin to being haunted. That no one – at least no one in their right mind – would ever want to do that. No one would choose to be haunted. He notices that as he gets closer to figuring out what’s going on with the boy, his relationship with his wife becomes more & more distant. Despite what seems like countless efforts on her part to communicate with him – to keep a closeness – an estrangement creeps in & begins to seal a barrier between them. Until there is such a distance in their marriage, it almost feels like a haunting. And we don’t realize until the last scene in the movie – that the psychiatrist had actually died in the opening scene.
The only one who was actually able to talk to him was the boy. His relationship with his wife was growing more distant because she was learning to let go after he died. She was beginning to stop thinking about him every single second – beginning to stop talking to him out loud in their home & beginning to very, very slowly, move on with her life. But she spent years in that in between place. Trying to reach beyond the boundary of mortality into the realm of the dead to share the love within her that refused to die. Experiencing a love strong enough to transcend dimensions is a theme explored in a number movies, like ‘Ghost,’ and ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply,’ & in plays, like ‘A Christmas Carol.’
Our culture shows that we are drawn to death. We share a fascination, an ongoing connection with the dead that needs some outlet. The reason that observances like Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, Halloween & All Souls day exist is because we need them. These kinds of festivals aren’t exclusively a part of Western Culture, they are held in some way all over the world. & they all share a common theme. One closely related to the Celtic celebration of Samhien, the ancient pagan festival that celebrates the connection between the living & the dead.
Samhien suggests there are separate worlds that exist for the living & the dead. & like planets in orbit, there is a time in the cycle when these worlds pass in close proximity to one another. During that time of proximity, a window is forged & a veil is lifted between the two worlds creating an opportunity for something to be exchanged or passed from one world to the other: some communication or understanding, maybe some respect or gratitude or love. On Memorial Day weekend many people will go to cemeteries to tidy up the graves of their ancestors. Some will even bring them their favorite foods, have a picnic & spend the day visiting & talking to them. Celebrations like Halloween or ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ emerged in culture, to help us make joyful associations with the dead rather than just tearful & fearful ones.
We all want to hold on to those we love. When someone dies, it feels as if they are taken from us because what is physical about them stops existing. But what we must remember is that we are not physical beings. We are eternal spiritual beings. What is timeless about our loved ones, their spiritual essence, & the memories we carry in our hearts, in our thoughts, even in our souls, continue to live on. So we need to find a healthy, practical way of holding on to & expressing these connections lest they truly are lost to us; or we become lost in them. We need a way to hold on to what is eternal – to what continues to add meaning to our lives. We need a way to let go of what can no longer be – this is the emptiness we carry that drains meaning from our lives. I have known a number of people who have ‘never gotten over’ something. They never got over Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Guadalcanal; Iwo Jima; Battle of the Bulge; Korea, Vietnam &/or the death of a relative or friend. They never got over it. They got stuck back there & were unable to fully live their lives, which would be the best tribute to someone who gave their life to save ours or who gave our life meaning.
When you have just lost someone, there’s a lot of sorting & sifting through memories that has to take place. In the beginning of this process, you’re not sure of what you can hold on to or let go off without being haunted. I believe that our loved ones are angels all around us. I believe that they will help us with this task of sorting if we turn to them & ask for their help.
Spanish poet, Birago Diop, in a piece called ‘Invocation for the Dead,’ reminds us:
Writer Garrison Keillor talks about how his dead ancestors constantly try to communicate with him & hassle him. He says, “They invade my thoughts in idle moments. They haunt me with commentary about my reasoning or the choices I’m making. They show up out of the blue, uninvited, like at dinner in a fine restaurant - & then say things completely in character with who they were in life. Being Minnesota Lutherans my relatives pop in & say things like, “I can’t believe the prices in this place. You can’t really pay that much a meal.’ And, of course my dear mother saying, ‘Don’t talk with your mouth full’ & ‘Clean your plate children are starving in China!’
I’m going to ask you a very personal question now. I don’t expect you to answer out loud. Just nod yes or no. Do you have a box stuffed full of memories in your house? It could be in your garage, your closet or a drawer. But if it’s the kind of box I mean, it hasn’t been opened in a while.
It’s the kind of box that calls to you when you walk by it, or reaches out to you. If it’s the kind of box I mean, there is heaviness to it; the air around it feels like it weights more. This is ironic since the box is filled with stuff that you’ve lost. Pictures of people you’ve lost & thoughts, feelings & memories that haven’t been sorted out yet. . . that haven’t found their place .. their meaning in the context or larger picture of your life & your mission for this life. If you have such a box, chances are others around you do as well. Knowing this can make you a more compassionate & understanding friend. When you visit a lose friend or family member after a loss, ask to see & hear about it.
When I work with someone who is experiencing prolonged grief reaction, the result of a loss that happened a long time ago, I zero in on the box because I know that losses that happened long ago that haven’t been sorted through can keep you from experiencing the loss you’ve recently been handed & keep you from experiencing the joys recently given. We must be very comfortable with feelings in order to prompt someone through these kinds of boxes. For example: A friend recently received an invitation to his 30th class reunion. He said, “All the people with whom I found much of what was important to me in life will be there & amongst whom I lost some important things as well. I saw the list of people who would attend & realized I love many of those people. But I also realized they would recall for me the people I wouldn’t see there; the people who couldn’t be there; people who I had lost. One in particular, is a girl by the name of Molly Brian. She was the first girl I ever kissed. A girl who, even when we were 11, had the grace to know how simultaneous attraction & absolute terror could co-mingle when we stood next to one another. A girl who, when I reached out to hold her hand, had the good grace not to scream out, “Great mother of God, what are you doing?” but instead, just quietly held my hand for a few minutes & then endured one very awkward, but wonderful kiss.”
“In the years that followed, as our lives grew apart I knew she struggled. She reached out to me a couple of times & although I liked her, I didn’t know what to do & I was busy with my own stuff. It hurt me a great deal when I learned, at the age of 17; she had taken her own life. Though our relationship was more like any innocent childhood romance, there were still a lot of good & a lot of very difficult & painful memories that I have to sift through. Images that I, for 25 years, had stuffed in a box and stored in the closet. So when the calls started coming in asking me if I was going, I made a lot of excuses. The kind of excuses people know are excuses. But many of my dearest friends encouraged me to sort through my hesitation; to sort through what haunted me; to sort through my boxes. I ended up going but not before I sorted through my box.”
I gave him part of what Garrsion Kiellor’s ancestors had said to him written out on a piece of paper to place on his refrigerator: “I can’t believe the price you are paying for this. No one should have to pay this much. When we deny ourselves access to what really happened to us, we run the risk of ending up like psychiatrist in the movie ‘The Sixth Sense’. We end up dead to the world & we don’t even know it so all of our relationships end up becoming estranged.
I believe the dead have a pact with the living. It may even feel like they haunt us. But that’s usually because we’ve packed them away in box, that’s gathering dust in a closet without getting the Gift of Grace they have for us.
Take some time this Memorial Day Weekend to dust off, unseal & sort through your box. It holds the memories - the stories - you need to hear – & to tell in order to heal. Everyone who knows love, everyone who dares to love, experiences loss. Learning to love again is the only way to reclaim joy and meaning & rediscover the wholeness of your life.
Let us pray: This Memorial Day as you meet with family and friends, also remember those you have been privileged to have spent time with in your life who have gone on to the other side of life. Spend some time remembering those that you may not have personally known by name but know by their deeds; those who have given their lives so valiantly in service to our great nation so that we might be free.
On this Memorial Day we have an awareness of the One, the Good, the True. On this Memorial Day, we have an awareness of God every moment, and we give thanks. Amen.
© Unity of Vancouver, 2004 All Rights Reserved.