Honouring our Grief, Embracing our MortalityBy Emma Pearson
December 6, 2023
Image by Mike Payne on Unsplash
Sermon delivered on 11th September 2022 at the Holy Trinity Church – Geneva
Context for this piece is here:
Good morning everyone. My name is Emma Pearson. It is an honour to talk with you about honouring our grief and embracing our mortality, particularly in light of our Queen’s death earlier this week.
I almost hesitate to introduce myself because I wear so many different labels… but let me share a few that I think are relevant here.
- I am the middle of a family of five kids, four of whom are alive today. My younger brother Edward died of a Glioblastoma brain tumour in early 2016, here in Geneva at La Maison de Tara.
- I am also the widow of Mike, with whom I was for 29 years and 6 months, before he died of Pancreatic cancer 5 years ago, also at La Maison de Tara.
- Together Mike and I had three children – Ben, Megan and Julia – all born close by, in neighbouring France. Today, Ben is 23, Megan is 21, and Julia is…dead. She took her life three years ago, aged 15, just two years after her dad died, unable to envisage life without him. She’d have been 18 today, just finishing school, perhaps heading off to university.
- Professionally, I am a business psychologist, and I work with leaders in organisations around change, transitions, and transformation – and the inevitable grief and loss that comes with that.
- I am also a volunteer at la Maison de Tara, the only end-of-life hospice in the region. And I co-facilitate the year-long training programme for new anglophone volunteers.
These labels and roles are heavy and lonely to wear – particularly the labels of “widow” and “widow who has lost a child”. Heavy, because I feel the losses, especially those of my husband and our youngest child every moment of every day. And lonely, because my experiences can make people steer clear of me. I can be challenging, and triggering, for people to engage with.
These deaths and losses have changed me – and not necessarily for the better. In fact, I abhor the commonly-held view that “we become a better person, wiser, kinder, more grateful, more altruistic (pick your adjective), when bad things happen to us”.
Death and its aftermath, organising funerals, writing obituaries, caring for two family members with terminal illnesses, mothering-and-fathering three grieving teenagers, supporting a highly depressed daughter, and more, have not “improved” me. I absolutely believe that I was a kinder, more patient, “better” version of myself when I was one of five siblings, married, and the mother of three living children.
I have been living with Grief – capital G Grief – for many years now. It really hurts. I want, more than anything, for Mike and Julia – and yes, my brother Edward – to be alive, not dead. To help my life be more intact, less in shreds.
It is enormously hard work to carry Grief. We don’t “get over” our losses. I don’t believe we get “through them” either. We just learn to live alongside the pain and horror, the gaping holes where loved ones used to breathe. We pick up the pieces and make something different from what we wanted. It might not be better. It might not be pretty, even if we might find some beauty in the remnants.
So where are the upsides? As a society we like stories of positive transformation, the phoenix rising from the ashes, don’t we? Isn’t there a silver lining to these dark clouds?
People often say that difficult and challenging experiences – such as having a serious illness or having a loved one die – teaches them things. They say they learn what “really” matters in life, and how to live “better”. But I think that is a “half-truth”, not a “whole truth”.
I would argue that it is not being in close contact with death and loss that teaches us what matters. We can learn all of this when our life is going well. It’s not the “challenge/difficulty/death” that teaches us. It’s the reflecting on what is important and what matters, that counts. Whether things are going well, or badly. And we can do that any time, all the time.
We will die. We are all mortal. No-one has survived life. Ever. And while I am not typically a gambler, I’ll bet that none of us here today will survive life either. We don’t know when our time will be up. We don’t know when the time of our closest and dearest loved ones will be up. And we don’t know when any of us, or our loved ones, will be confronted with a life-altering accident or illness.
From when my husband first felt a “tuggy ache” in his belly, to the day he died, was 4 ½ months. Of that time, he was fairly well – living at home, able to go on short walks, able to eat with us, awake for most of the day – for about 3 months. Then he was terribly ill for his final 6 weeks. While he was still living at home, before he went to La Maison de Tara (for what were his final 19 days), and when the dire consequences of his diagnosis were evident – that he was going to die, and sooner rather than later – I asked him, “Mike – is there anywhere you would like to go, anything you want to do, any people you would like to see, before you no longer can?” He thought for a moment, and said, “Emma – no. Everything I love, and everyone I most deeply care for and love, is right here, where we live”.
Actually, I learned a great deal from that conversation – in part because he was so peaceful, so accepting of his lot (he was 53), but also because what he said was in such contrast to how my brother had felt, just a year earlier. Edward was much loved, but he was not at peace with needing to step out of life.
Would I be? Would you be?
It is a lot to ask – to be okay with dying. Particularly when still relatively young. I want to be around for a good bit longer– not least to help get my surviving children into their 30s. And I don’t doubt that, should I achieve that, I will want to see them into their 40s. And so on.
But I do reflect on, “So, what if this were my last year? So, what if I didn’t get another Christmas?” and it can lead to different choices. This summer, I took off almost six weeks to walk the length of the Pyrenees. It was something I had wanted to do for a while, and I knew I could not “assume” that sometime out there in the future, I might find it easier to carve out the time. Too many people in my life have died long before coming close to retirement age. Edward and Mike to name just two. A dear friend, Don. And of course, Julia.
I think one of the secrets to living in a way where we might feel more at peace with dying – whenever it might come – is to acknowledge, indeed embrace, our mortality. To keep the Teacher that our mortality is, close by, in plain sight.
I would like to offer you some reflection questions, to ponder at your leisure.
- If you knew, if you truly knew and believed in the core of your being, that you too are going to die one day, how does it make you feel? What can you learn from this feeling, this knowing?
- If you knew you had only six months to live, what would you most want to do, who would you most want to see, and why?
- If you knew you had only six months to live, what would you stop doing? What would you start doing? And why?
- How do you want people to talk about you when you have died? What would you like them to say? How would you like to be remembered? Would they talk about you in that way if you died today?
- What does it mean for you to “die well”?
- And from all the above reflections, what does it mean for you to “live well”?
These are big questions. They are questions to come back to, time and time again. You might not find answers, or you might find that your answers change. All of that is fine.
In closing, I would like to acknowledge that most of us do not see death and dying close up. It is a pity, because it has resulted in our societal denial of our mortality. But Death and Dying – and the Grief that comes with it – are as natural as being born. We are all going to do it, and being around people who are dying, whether in rich old age or far too prematurely, can be enlightening and life-enriching.
La Maison de Tara is the end-of-life hospice in Geneva where my brother and my husband were lucky enough to spend their last days and weeks. It is simply a house with space for four residents who want to live fully until their final breath. La Maison de Tara has a small core of paid professionals, but most of the day-to-day accompanying of residents and their families is done by volunteers – people like Jackie, who you know, people like me, and potentially people like you. People with day jobs and family responsibilities, and people who are retired, who carve out time to serve and tend to the needs of people nearing the end of their life. And, in the process, learn much about what it means to live fully and meaningfully.
We offer a rich year-long programme for new volunteers – in both English and French – and have some remaining spaces for the new academic year. If you would like to know more about the house and how you might serve its residents through offering at least five hours of your time every two weeks, please come and talk to me later.
Thank you for listening to me today.