It’s forty-eight years today since my Mum died. It wasn’t until I wrote the date on something mid-morning that it connected. And – darn it! – the tears came again. Strange, isn’t it, that loss can have such a lasting and recurrent effect on us?
I was eleven; it was the last day of school before the Christmas holidays. This was in England; so I rode my bike home from school in the dark. Arriving home, I found policemen there, looking after my little brothers (9 and 7 years old). Dad came home after an hour or so, and somehow told us Mum was dead. She had been suffering severe mental illness for several years and had attempted to take her life a few times before; though I’m not sure I was entirely aware of that. This time – inevitably, it seems – she succeeded.
I do know that she often went wandering, and as the eldest, I would follow her and make sure she got home safely. I felt responsible for her. Now, it seemed to me, I had failed. I had spent the afternoon at an end-of-term concert, singing in the choir (I was briefly quite a good treble!) It had been fun; but when I realised that I had been having fun while Mum was dying, I felt seriously guilty.
Dad was, naturally enough, unable to offer much support or consolation to us boys, being deep in his own grief and loneliness. He, too, felt an immense sense of failure. He has often said to me, ” I had to go to work, and I thought I’d done everything to prevent her doing it.”
In my adult years since Mum’s death, I have done quite a bit of work with a couple of psychologists to address the many issues which arose because of Mum’s protracted mental illness and suicide. And I have been immensely helped through those sessions.
Sadly, my Dad has always steadfastly refused any professional help; and I think that from day one, he has rarely spoken with anyone at length about it other than with me. There are complex issues with Dad’s understanding of what happened. Suffice to say that much of his reaction during Mum’s illness and subsequent to her suicide was about it’s being a “spiritual” matter. Relatively little was known about mental illness fifty years ago, and medications for what probably began as post-natal depression were only really in their infancy.
In my own life, especially over the last twenty-five years or so, I have been grateful for, and much helped by, appropriate medication and professional counselling and therapy.
Talking with my Dad this morning, and acknowledging this anniversary, I could sense so much in him that is unresolved. He still, of course, hurts; but there is such a reluctance to address his own sense of failure and a lack of understanding of the process of grief.
I always wish I could help him; but he is a man of his generation, I guess. I love him, but can’t get close. And perhaps that will never be.
More importantly, I reflected again today on my own journey from that hurting eleven-year-old to my being almost sixty and still experiencing some grief.
My Dad used to tell me of his visiting his grandfather about six weeks after his grandmother died, and asking, “Are you over it now, Granddad?” To which Granddad replied, “You don’t get over it, son; you begin to get used to it.”
By and large, I have got used to Mum’s death. And I am grateful not to have got over it. Occasional moments of experiencing again the sense of loss help me to remember the good things of Mum’s life and a few really good memories I have of her.
And from all this I have learned that it is not why things happen to me that matters, but what I learn from these things and how I can help others through my experience.
Henri Nouwen has a book, The Wounded Healer, which I read at least once a year. Isaiah 53 has the line, “By his stripes we are healed”. And I – with Nouwen and many, many others – have found that it is out of my own woundedness that I can help others in pain and grief. That I have been through the loss of Mum in such circumstances – and have been helped to work through that grief – is a major reason why I am able to get alongside the people with whom I deal in pastoral situations.
The writer to the Hebrews (2:18) says of Jesus, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” I sure ain’t Jesus, but this is my experience too.
And this is what Christmas means for me. This is what incarnation is all about! God comes alongside us, God Immanuel takes on real human flesh and blood and experience and pain and emotions. God incarnate, having experienced weakness, helps us in our weakness; God incarnate, having experienced pain, helps us in our pain; God incarnate, crying out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, helps us when we want to cry out in similar tones. And God incarnate overcomes even death and the grave and rises to live above and beyond all of the pain. As, too, can we.
Thank you, God, for my Mum, who led me to you, and – through and despite her own pain – showed me your love!