Loss and Love

A homily by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

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I spoke yesterday with a woman in mourning; she had a lunch date tomorrow with a friend who died yesterday, from cancer.  ‘And it came to me then, that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time….’  Yes.  Yes, we live and we make plans and we expect – or sometimes we just hope – we will be there, we will be together, to realize them.  But we know, we all know, that it may not be so.  And in times like this, when there is so much that hurts, so much we struggle with, All Souls reminds us of a whole ‘nother scope to times like this, to time itself, time that is not about tweets or reports or even elections, time that is defined and bounded by nothing less than life and death, love and loss.  We have each other for howsoever long we have each other.  We inhabit this space this morning sharing air and breath and life and awareness, present to each other, and so breathtakingly aware that it has not always been so, and it will not always be so, and already, in the past year, things are different and we are missing people we love and there are holes in our lives and our hearts and in who we are ourselves and in who we are together because of these people we love that we have lost from this church, from our families and or our friends, from our hearts.

Here on All Souls as the sun draws away, and the world becomes colder, and darker, and the leaves are falling from the trees, and life withdraws from all we see around us, we remember how mortal we all are, and what it really means to love each other though we know death will part us.  We remember that love requires extraordinary courage, because what we all fear most is to lose what we love, to have love leave us – and in the end, if love stays, then life will leave it, and one day our love will receive no reply.

And because we acknowledge this reality, part of living and loving includes the many ways we hold a vigil even before, let alone after we lose someone.  All the times we look at one we love and we watch them breathe, and move, and think, and play, and we are filled with the poignancy and miracle of their living, and how much we dread losing them, or being lost to them.  All the moments we engage almost as a eulogy, a memorial, even though they’re happening right then, while we’re all here and together – because we know the day is coming when it will not be so.

And then – those days come upon us.  And  we all learn the deep truth of the song, that one of the last, hardest, greatest ways we can ever show our love is that we are present at the end, present to soothe, to comfort, to companion as far as we can but always in the end, to watch, the end of life of one we love.  There is no greater gift than to be there.  And while, in my experience, it can be very stressful, even fearful, to anticipate what that will be like, to hold that final watch, in the end, many times, I have experienced myself and also with congregants that it is often not what we dread.  Within the grimness of an ICU or a sickroom, and the long hours or days or weeks or months, the final opportunity to offer and act with love for another involves so many small moments of care, of connection even in the midst of loss and sadness, that there can also often be an easing, a communion, sometimes even laughter comes out of our startled mouths, amidst all the rest of what we are feeling and going through – they offer a kind of solace – a real solace – surprising as it seems.

And then they are gone, and the vigils become truly memorial as we seek to come to terms with what has happened to the one we loved and lost, and to ourselves, and we will not be done soon with this labor of love.  Here is how Dr. Angelo Bolea, a neuro-psychologist, understands the geography of loss:

First, for a year or so, the brain is just trying to figure out how to just be with the loss – this is the time of endless ‘if only’s, and what ifs.  And this is why anniversaries, even anniversaries we were unconscious of, can strike us with such impact in this time.

Year 2 or so: our brains are now trying to figure out how to construct a life in the presence of the hole, the loss we have suffered.  Finally, around Year 3: our brain has come to the point where it is looking for something new.

There’s a lot of wisdom in what he sees for our progression through love and loss.  We can add to it the author and theologian C. S. Lewis’ observation that grief is like a train ride through the Alps, as the path winds around and around and we see view that slowly, slowly, slowly winds through the peaks and deep valleys  and then sometimes seems to come right round again to a place we thought we’d come far from in all that time.   Or the famous Kubler-Ross stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Myself, I see loss and grief as a series of close spirals – sort of like that train ride – but more like a slinky, taking us round and round again in a quickly familiar set of thoughts and agonies – but one, because it is a spiral rather than a circle, one that eventually takes us somewhere – somewhere different, a new rebalancing of self that allows us to live, and to still love, and to hold the loss, and other losses, as we move through life.  And remember our loves.  And love them still, including in moments like this, or every Sunday when we are invited to stand or raise our hand in silent witness of a loss in the past year.  The truth is, every Sunday, I stand before your and I think of many I have lost, none of them in the past year.  I see them, looking back at me, or gathered together in an unexpected group since many of them did not know each other in life.  Some of them I remember and see in my mind’s eye – or really more my heart’s eye – every week.  Others come rarely.  Some are there every week and have been since the day I lost them.  Some of them have left messages on my voicemail I can never erase.  Some of them have Facebook pages I go and write on now and then.  Some of them are enshrined only in memory – I haven’t even a photograph to hold on to.  And still, ‘now the dead move through all of us, still glowing, wound and bound together and enflowing.  Who have been braided together cannot be unbraided.  Dark into light, light into darkness spin.  Our complex love, our mourning without end, it becomes not the weight we carry but how we carry it,’ and we see the beauty even in what is troubled in this windy season, the blown roses, the glowing leaves whirling and scattering, radiant in every gust.

Ultimately, when we are all lucky enough to carry the blessing of love, then we all carry the burden of loss;  the choices we have are only about how to do it.  How to love, how to care, how to watch, how to grieve, how to mourn, how to live…  and remember.  Our memories are love’s legacy, our best inheritance from the souls we have cherished.

Oh all of you we have loved and lost, how we love you.  How we miss you.  Words can never compass it all.  We will never get over you, we will never be done with you.  And still, we live, and love, and we make plans, even when the plans are really prayers, because all of this, all of it, is a tribute to the living and loving we learned, we learned, from you.  Amen.