October 30, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman 

Lighting candles for those we have loved and lost...

Last year’s blog post for All Saints’  Day began like this: “How do you keep alive the memory of those lost to you, sometimes much too soon, sometimes after long, meaningful connections?  When do you take time to recall those who have gone before you…perhaps on their birthdays or the days of their deaths?  All Saints’ Day, observed on November 1 on the liturgical calendar of the church year, offers another occasion to reminisce about family and friends we have loved and lost.”

Twelve more months have passed; new input from my favorite spirituality writers and my own experiences add robust material to a burgeoning file on All Saints’ Day and coming to terms with new ways of interacting with those we have loved and lost. I am intrigued by the questions Jan Richardson raised in her keynote address at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in Orlando this past August.  “When absence erupts in our lives, how do we call upon the presence of love that goes deeper than our loss? How do we open ourselves anew to the presence that endures far, far beyond death?”

Speaking of the recent loss of her husband of several years, Richardson explained to her listeners, “I will tell you there have been nights when the only prayer I could muster has been to simply listen to the beating of the heart inside me and to trust that Gary’s heart was in mine and mine was still in his, and that both our hearts are held in the heart of God, who encompasses us, and holds us, and is present to us in a love beyond imagining.”

Richardson went on to make this fascinating observation: “The mystery in all this is that when our hearts break, they can become bigger.  If we can stay with the sorrow and, more important, if we can stay with the love that goes deeper even than the sorrow, that is more fierce than our fiercest grief, our hearts become more open than we ever imagined they could.”

Claiming in no way to understand her meaning completely, I remain awash in memories of a few weeks back, memories of two young men long gone from this physical world who resurfaced unexpectedly in new ways this month. Just days before observing the 43rd anniversary of the death of my 18-year-old brother on October 15, his best friend from high school sent me a series of journal entries made during their senior year. Shedding light on my brother's jams with his band in my parents' basement followed by my mom's lasagne for supper, summer double dates, Dairy Queen runs, college farewells, and finally the pain of my brother's death and memorial service, the notes gave me a window into the life of the brother I did not get to know during his growing up years from eight to 18 while I was off to college, getting married, and occupied as a young reporter and eventually with our first child.

On the heels of reading those intriguing journal entries, I discovered more good news from another friend, the younger brother of my boyfriend who died just after I turned 16 the summer following our sophomore year of high school; my friend had just learned from their sister that their long-deceased brother planted a tiny weeping willow not long before his death. Seeing that flourishing tree these 55 years later was both astounding and grounding.  Who might have imagined that more about this one, who left us so long ago, could be unearthed even yet?

It is my hope that all who suffer losses would find ways to be in touch with those they have loved and lost. My spiritual director’s comment when I shared these stories gives me continued hope: It’s almost like these two souls are aware of your openness to continue to experience them in a variety of ways.” Another pastor friend commented: these stories remind me of the need to honor the dead and be open to what they bring to life.” I understand that these experiences are not something everyone seeks; neither will science validate or verify such occurrences. And events like these do not become available at our beck and call; we do well to notice them when they cross our paths. I find them sustaining.

Richardson’s sharing with leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States further noted that grief is not something that we can figure out; it’s not a problem to be solved with intellect and reasoning, or with platitudes. When we are sorrowing, when our losses have pushed us to that painful wall, the invitation is to be present, to let ourselves lean, just lean against that wall and press our ears against that wall until we can sense and hear and know something of those presences that abide, that continue, that linger on the other side—those presences that live. To lean against that wall until we can hear their beating hearts—those hearts that continue to beat on the other side of that wall—that, as it turns out, might not be a wall at all; might not even be a veil. It might be something more like a threshold that we will never fully cross in this life, but across which something can still happen: a conversation, a communion.

Here’s another good word from Joan Chittister about All Saints Day: This feast was introduced to show us the kind of people we ought to be imitating if we ourselves wanted to live life well. Death did not silence them. Who are your saints now? Who are the people you look back on with respect and awe? Live in a way that the memory of you lives on in the people left behind.

May you find thresholds of conversation and communion with lost loved ones during this season of All Saints’ Day observance and beyond as you seek what those now gone continue to bring to life and as you live in a way that others will remember well when you are gone.