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‘Good Grief’ – Personal and pastoral lessons of loss

Fr James Lyons.

Fr James Lyons.

December 2015

Reflection

Part three in a series for Fr James Lyon’s writings about grief.

Grief is not a fleeting emotion or one that can be easily dismissed, but clings like glad-wrap and, just like that product, keeps fresh the pain inside. Only when grief is opened up and aired does it become assimilated into the life cycle and then its potential to contribute to love and friendship can be realised.

That experience aside [as I related in part two of this series last month about Margaret and her family], have I dealt with my own grief? Yes, I believe so. How did I do it? There have been many factors and many people involved. Accepting I hadn’t dealt with the loss of my father was an important first step but it certainly wasn’t the last. Every tragedy, heartbreak, death and funeral that has touched my life as a priest has also helped my understanding of grief and, consequently, the acceptance of my own.

The Wahine ship disaster in Wellington harbour in 1968 with the loss of 51 lives, and the Air New Zealand crash on Mt Erubus, Antarctica, in 1979, with 257 deaths, affected all New Zealanders and were early reminders that my priesthood is intertwined with whatever concerns those entrusted to my care. Still, these experiences, though huge and unforgettable and certainly piercing my own emotional armour, did not free me entirely. It was later, in 1985, while in Ethiopia at the height of a severe famine and experiencing grief at an altogether different level, that I was able to shed much of what was holding me back. I have written on this in a separate essay and just record here that it was only after Ethiopia I realised how much I had been living on the surface of my life and had in fact avoided or not even seen the healing wisdom that others held for me.

In the 1970s, two couples I grew close to as a young priest lost children in the space of five years and I was not able to help them. The twins of John and Ann were still born. The first two children of Shaun and Lorraine died in infancy. We all knew each other and considered ourselves good friends. I worked alongside John and Ann in youth groups; I was at university with Lorraine and officiated at her marriage to Shaun – and also at the funerals of their children. But I was not equipped to counsel or guide and could never comfortably talk with them of their grief. It was years before I realised I had expected more of myself than they did. We stayed friends but something had changed. I think I was relieved when both couples shifted away and I let the friendships lapse. It was another instance of my own lack of self-awareness depriving me of the honesty to recognise they weren’t the only ones grieving. I was grieving too.

Margaret had seen this in me, even as she lay dying of cancer. I hadn’t accepted her insight and it would be several years before I did.

The deaths of those four children left me in a haze that I unknowingly welcomed; I was able to block out the experience. I let good friendships slip away and my involvement in further study and shaping a ministry in the communications media made dealing with grief anything but a priority.

While I attribute Ethiopia with a good measure of my ‘recovery’, it was only in the 1990s when I returned to full time pastoral ministry that I was finally able to integrate my own need to grieve with the care I could offer others. A parishioner called me to visit her mother who had recently come to live with the family. She was far from well. Over the next few weeks I made several visits, sitting with the elderly woman as she told me of her life and all the things she would miss – especially not seeing her grandchildren grow up. One day she said, ‘You must feel sad too, as people you’ve come to know shift away or die.’ I agreed and felt a tear forming in my eye. She noticed and said, ‘I’m glad you feel that way and can let me see it. I don’t know how you could be a priest if you didn’t.’

Her words were soft and gentle, but they struck deep, and they struck oil! They were to make such a difference to my life and how I thought about myself.

I was able to renew my friendship with John and Anne, Shaun and Lorraine, and had the privilege of being celebrant for the marriages of the eldest of each of their subsequent children. I felt I had come full circle and, within that circle, had found the natural blending of hurt and healing.