It’s a long, long time since my parents died. 27 years. I’ve cried my tears, raged a bit, then picked myself up and got on with life in the only way I knew how,- by continuing to live with the enthusiasm and excitement they had bequeathed to me. Of course I missed them,- still do, and never more so than as my children pass particular milestones, or enjoy a particular achievement. Then I grieve for a relationship never lived out. But overall, if anyone asks, I can honestly say that the needful grieving has been accomplished.
So, when I took part in a training event organised by Winston’s Wish, the Gloucestershire charity offering support to bereaved children and their families, I didn’t expect to find myself directly emotionally engaged by the day. I was there to learn by observing, I thought. However, Winston’s Wish work is centred on helping children to engage with, express and share their feelings, and there are a wide range of creative ways to achieve this,.It soon became clear that this was a day to feel as much as to think, to reach for the kleenex more than the notepad.
We began by hearing a poem by Terry Kettering
The Elephant in the Room:
There's an elephant in the room.
It is large and squatting, so it is hard to get around it.
Yet we squeeze by with, "How are you?"
and "I'm fine," and a thousand other
forms of trivial chatter.
We talk about the weather.
We talk about work.
We talk about everything else,
except the elephant in the room.
There's an elephant in the room.
We all know it's there.
We are thinking about the elephant as we talk together.
It is constantly on our minds.
For, you see, it is a very large elephant.
It has hurt us all.
But we don't talk about the elephant in the room.
Oh, please say his name.
Oh, please say his name again.
Oh, please, let's talk about the elephant in the room.
For if we talk about his death,
perhaps we can talk about his life.
Can I say his name to you and not have you look away?
For if I cannot, then you are leaving me....
in a room....
with an elephant.
The rest of the day was taken up with stories and techniques to help us help others to confront the “elephant” that is the death of someone special. We were given an opportunity to explore the tools that Winston’s Wish staff use, and I can confirm at first hand how effective they are at enabling you to explore and then voice your feelings. One exercise was the memory jar.
We were each given 6 sheets of paper, a small lidded jar filled with salt and access to coloured chalks. We were asked to choose a person whom we wanted to remember, and invited to choose 5 memories…either attributes or specific events that represented them. We then chose one colour for each memory, divided our salt into piles on each of the sheets of paper, and coloured it by rubbing the chalk over the salt. This process can take a long time….specially if you are intent on a darker shade…and is oddly engaging and therapeutic in itself. As each pile of salt is coloured, it is poured into the jar, which can be angled to create the pattern and emphasis that reflects your thoughts…I chose to have more of some colours than of others, in recognition that some elements of my picture were stronger. When all was finished, the salt shaken down and secured in place with cotton wool beneath the lid, we were invited to share the memories each jar represented.
It was a delight to bring my father to life again, as I told the rest of the group what each memory meant to me. After a such a long time, it’s easy to lose track of your memories…to retell some familiar stories but bypass others. As I created my memory jar, I considered what made my father the man he was, rather then simply relating what he did at key points in my life. And I loved it.
But I was struck by the way that, even in the Church, we collude in denying the presence of the "elephant". It somehow feels intrusive to mention it, even when it is at the forefront of everyone’s minds…but what is intended as a loving deception is often far from helpful. And for us, surely, it is unnecessary. We are an Easter people. We believe that death is not the ultimate disaster but simply a change in our circumstances, a transition from one state to another, through which we remain securely held in God’s love. If this is our faith, then surely we can have the courage to explore alongside others who walk the holy ground that the psalmist called “the valley of the shadow”. We can have confidence that God is with us as we tenderly approach the grief of others, even as He is there to support us in our own experience of loss. And from those experiences, he can make something beautiful. If you don’t believe me, - ask me to show you my memory jar!