Ordinary Loss - By Richard Olson
Audio Recording Of Service
I’m not sure if I should be saying Good Morning, Good Afternoon or Good Evening since, I suppose, you could be listening to this at any time of the day. But if it happens to be three in the morning, I hope this service is not your only hope of getting lulled into blissful sleep. And if it is, just don’t tell me. So welcome to this service titled Ordinary Loss. My name is Richard Olson. As I light the chalice sitting next to me, please join me as I recited the words you commonly use.
We light this chalice for the light of truth.
We light this chalice for the warmth of love.
We light this chalice for the energy of action.
And….we hold all these in our hearts until we are together again.
I have two readings today, one ancient, the other modern.
Ancient Reading: 6th Century BCE Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, Chapter 76
Modern Reading: We don't "move on" from grief. We move forward with it by Nora McInerny
In 2014, Minneapolis native Nora McInerny suffered the loss of a miscarriage, the death of her father, and the death of her husband, all within the span of several weeks. Two years later, she published a memoir titled It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too). She has authored two other books, No Happy Endings and Hot Young Widows Club. She is also the host of a podcast called "Terrible, Thanks for Asking". The following is an excerpt from a speech she gave last year.
“Once it's your grief and your front row at the funeral you understand what you're experiencing is not a moment in time, it's not a bone that will reset, but that you've been touched by something chronic. Something incurable. It's not fatal, but sometimes grief feels like it could be. And if we can't prevent it in one another, what can we do?
What can we do other than try to remind one another that some things can't be fixed, and not all wounds are meant to heal? We need each other to remember, to help each other remember, that grief is this multitasking emotion. That you can and will be sad, and happy; you'll be grieving, and able to love in the same year or week, the same breath. We need to remember that a grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again. If they're lucky, they'll even find love again. But yes, absolutely, they're going to move forward. But that doesn't mean that they've moved on.”
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States. Millions of men and women readied themselves for work. Some made their way to the Twin Towers, the signature structures of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Others went to Arlington, Virginia, to the Pentagon. Across the Potomac River, the United States Congress was back in session. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, people began to line up for a White House tour. In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run. For those heading to an airport, weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey. Among the travelers were Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari, who arrived at the airport in Portland, Maine.
In the field of Journalism this is called a situation lead. It is the kind of lead that sets the stage, easing the reader, listener, and viewer into the real story. It is often foreboding though; we know there will be an interruption, an incident, an instant that denies the ordinary of being so. Why the 9/11 Commission chose such a lead for their report I am not sure since by the time the report was published three years later, the foreboding element was lost.
But we do that you know; we tell stories that way quite often. They start out as a day like any other, a routine trip to the store, an ordinary afternoon at the park, another quiet evening at home. Maybe we do this because it softens the blow. Maybe we do this because it intensifies the blow. Maybe we do this because it helps us deal with the dreadful event, as if to say we had no idea it was coming. And maybe we do this because it is the extraordinary that identifies the ordinary. Or the other way around. But mostly it is because it is through our stories that we that we heal, that we help others heal, that we move forward, that we live.
It dawned a bright and sunny day that Sunday morning in Honolulu, some on their way to church, others sleeping in late. It was balmy and clear that Sunday evening in Las Vegas as country music fans came together under the stars. It was a festive scene at the Boston nightclub that night as many servicemen were glad to be home for the holidays. But then, an ordinary day, an ordinary event, changed in an instant; fiery ships sinking to the bottom of Pearl Harbor, gunshots from a nearby hotel room, a raging fire in a crowded night club.
And a crowded nightclub it was that night of November 28 of 1942. It was called the Cocoanut Grove and stood in central Boston. It was massive, with several lounges, many stairs, and highly flammable decorations.
Shortly after 10pm someone noticed that a light bulb had gone out. A bus boy was sent to deal with it, but it was too dark for him to see. So, he lit a match. The fire spread quickly, faster than the waiters could dump pitchers of water on the flames. The false ceiling ignited and showered the crowd with sparks and flaming pieces of fabric. Within five minutes the entire club was engulfed in flames.
Many tried to escape out the revolving door through which they had entered. But it became jammed as people tried to crush their way through. Side doors had been locked to prevent people from entering without paying. The doors that were not locked opened inward and were essentially useless.
Four hundred ninety-two people lost their lives that night and hundreds more were injured. Yet on the brighter side, it was only the second most deadly fire of a single building in US history.
As for the busboy, he was not blamed for the fire; the cause was ultimately attributed to faulty wiring. But it was not the cause of the fire that alarmed many people; it was the lack of fire safety measures.
Following the fire, hospitals in the area filled quickly. Professors from Harvard Medical School were quick to assist. But the wounds that many suffered were of a different nature than medical doctors knew how to treat. Many patients were angry, lashing out at doctors, kicking nurses, toppling equipment.
Dr. Eric Lindemann, who was chief of a psychiatric outpatient department at Massachusetts General Hospital, was asked to help treat the trauma of loss and grief following that fire. Lindemann found that some of the angriest patients were those who had lost loved ones in the fire. But he observed that what manifested itself as anger was instead grief. He would come to call this “acute grief”, a grief that has a physical toll on the body, a tightening of the throat, muscle aches, choking, constant sighing, all symptoms that that would come in waves and could last for hours. He also heard common phrases from his patients, “it’s impossible for me to climb the stairs”, “everything I lift seems so heavy”, “I can’t taste my food but stuff it down anyway”.
Before his work with those fire victims, Lindemann had been researching what he called ‘partial death’. This is when patients lose part of themselves, amputated limbs, surgically removed organs and even the loss of eyesight.
In November of 2018, the Harvard Crimson published an extensive article about the many contributions that Lindemann made to the study and treatment of loss and grieve. I quote now from that article, in reference to partial death. “The body part’s literal function was defunct. The person was now a different person, one without the part. The new person had to rethink how they could relate to a constellation of altered social ties. And they had to figure out what to do with their sorrow. This was the cause of the patients’ distress, ……being forced into figuring out this new life without the missing thing.”
Griefologists tell us that grieving is a process marked by stages. Some models have five stages, others seven. They mostly go from the first stage of shock and denial, move through anger, bargaining, and depression, and end with acceptance.
Yet Dr. Pauline Boss has a different theory. Boss, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, is well regarded in the study of the stress of loss and grief. Following 9/11 she worked with many of those who suffered loss.
She urges us to stop accepting the notion that we pass through linear stages of grief and then emerge repaired. Instead, she believes we circle through the process, a process that overlaps and at times repeats itself.
But no matter what theory you prefer, griefologist will say what we already know; we all grieve loss in different ways. These types of theories for the most part offer little for me, but may be valuable to you. Having experienced loss, including partial loss, I have discovered that talking about it with a sympathetic listener has more therapeutic value: a therapist, a friend, clergy, family, or even the practice of journaling. Being a sympathetic listener is shared ministry; it benefits both parties.
But the language of loss and grief is one of rare fluency. Beyond the clinical terminology, we often find ourselves tongue tied. We say the usual: “sorry for your loss”, “it’s for the best”, “she’s in a better place”. And we say these words with the best of intentions as we pass along a receiving line that wants to keep moving.
Last August CNN aired a conversation between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert. Following their discussion of the state of the world, and how the absurdity of our president grows exponentially, the topic turned to loss and grief.
As a segue, Cooper recalled the death his own mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, who had died a year earlier. Following her death, Colbert had sent Cooper a letter in which he wrote “I hope you find peace in your grief”. Cooper went on to say that he had been thinking a lot about how we don’t talk about grief and loss because people are not comfortable talking about it. As my mother was a heavy cigarette smoker, it came as no surprise when at the age of 59 she told us that she was seeing a doctor about some lung issues. We all avoided the “C’ word, but we knew that was the case. I was set to travel to Germany for three weeks that summer. I called her doctor, wondering if I should cancel the trip. He was gentle with me as he said I needed to continue with my life and that other events will unfold as they do.
Later that summer I went with my mother to the doctor. When she came out of the office, she said everything was looking good. I looked her in the eye, knowing that wasn’t true. She looked me in the eye, knowing that I knew that wasn’t true. We left it at that and spent the rest of the day together. We had lunch, I came out to her, we went to the Court House to find the date of her estranged mother’s death and then to the library to read the obituary. We both had some closure that day.
She held on until Labor Day Weekend and then slipped away fast. We watched as she went from lucid and upright on Friday to curled up in the fetal position with belabored breathing on Sunday.
Anticipatory grief can sometimes ease the pain of loss and I believe I had begun that process before her actual death. But I still believe to this day that watching that final scene at the hospital was the most powerful experience of closure I could have had.
Even before the death of his mother, Anderson Cooper was no stranger to the grieving process. During that same discussion on CNN he spoke about the death of his father in 1978 and the subsequent suicide of his brother ten years later. In retrospect, Cooper realizes that during his grieving process he took on a protector role over his mother while developing a guarded persona for himself.
Colbert spoke about his own tragic losses, especially when his father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash in 1974. While drawing on his strong Catholic faith for guidance, Colbert made this observation: “suffering allows people to relate to one another. What do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it’s like to be a human being if it’s true that all humans suffer.”
Loss is inherent in life. Which means suffering is too. And sometimes loss and suffering do reach to the level of what Dr. Lindemann called “acute grief”. If we ourselves have never experience that level of acute grief, we probably know someone who has.
But we all experience ordinary losses. Losses that teach us from a young age how to rebound. With each loss we become more experienced with the vicissitudes of life. They start small but feel big at the time: the loss of our first pet, the detachment we feel when we individuate from our mother, our best friend moves away, the end of that on-again off-again middle school romance, the loss of a role we once played, the loss of our parents and grandparents, the loss of hearing, sight, hair, physique, energy, appetite….. these ordinary or partial losses that force us into figuring out our new life without that missing something. We may not get over that missing something, but we can get through it if we keep moving forward, open to finding something else; it’s not only what we let go of as we grieve, it’s also what we let in.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny in Wausau that day. Some spent the morning on the patio with a coffee and the Sunday paper. Others assembled for an early tee time at the golf course. At 9:29am cars could be seen pulling into a parking lot on Grant Street for a 9:30 service.
After that service I went home. I was in my office when I heard a loud banging on the door. I finished the entry in my checkbook, went upstairs and out through the garage to find our neighbor Susan and our other neighbors Mike and Lois, running toward Susan’s house. Mike waved me to follow along. I could see Susan’s car was parked halfway into her garage, still running, the driver door left open. But as I rounded the corner and entered the garage, I saw the body, her husband’s body, hanging from a rafter, a ladder nearby.
Our adrenalin kicked in as we did our best to cut him down, give CPR, check for a pulse, and call 911. As he lay on the concrete floor, I took notice of the redness of his extremities, speculating, to only myself, of course, that we were too late.
I had touched a dead body. A heavy, dangling dead body. I had not only touched a dead body, but I had held one, as we tried to lift him up to relieve the tension on the chord, as we gently brought him down. Susan was in shock, and I touched her too, I held her too, trying to dispel her notions that she could have prevented it, how she had only been gone for a while. Within minutes squad cars, fire engines, and an ambulance filled our otherwise quiet street.
We were all subject to questioning. The officer apologized, I said I understood. Sometime later I realized I was still holding my deceased neighbor’s glasses in my hand. After the police concluded their business with us, Mike, Lois, and I debriefed in our driveway. Still catching our breath, we told each other, while really telling ourselves, that we had all done our best but were too late. Later in the day we talked again, remembering details that we had either forgotten or pushed aside.
There are more details to this story then we have time for today. Of course, the names I used are false. The following two nights images from that scene invaded my sleep, including the shears we used to cut him down.
Our neighbor’s husband had been in declining health for several years. While of sound body, his mind was in another place and he was of little companionship. I suspect that Susan had already grieved the loss of that missing something and on that day was dealing with shock and panic more than anything.
The day after, I was sitting by myself on our back porch, probably doing a crossword puzzle. Susan saw me and walked over. She was concerned that I was home alone and was dealing with this on my own. She was relieved to hear I wasn’t, and I was relieved to hear the strength and compassion in her concern for me.
And maybe that’s it, maybe that’s when it happens, an important part of the moving forward, when we no longer believe our own happiness is a worthless cause, when we accept loss and suffering as a part of life, and when, as was in this case, we muster the strength to show concern for others rather than pity for ourselves.
When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice. – Cherokee
We extinguish this chalice but not the light of truth, the warmth of love, or the energy of action.
These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.