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Friday, February 20, 2015

Hospice Lesson #7: Legacy


Note: These are basic remarks of a homily I gave recently for a Hospice patient of mine who died. I'll call her "Ann". I met her once - only once - before she died. It's really difficult to preach a meaningful sermon for someone you don't know. Couple that with a family that hasn't been to church in years, and well . . . let's just say that it's a challenge. I have found that, in these situations, it's really important to ask 2 family members or friends to give a eulogy - it's more honest that way - and get others to read the lessons. It's also Really Important to keep the homily Very Brief. Hit the main theological points without being obviously theological and say 'Amen.'. Truth be told, I really only have four or five sermons for adult Hospice patients. This, in it's Very Basic form, is one of them. 

 25  . . . . But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27)


Grieving the loss of someone we love is some of the most difficult work we’ll ever do. That is true for a lot of reasons, none the least of which is that each one of us grieves differently for different people. 

Additionally, we all have romantic - often unrealistic - expectations of ourselves and others about how to grieve.

We grieve differently when the loss is sudden or unexpected than we do when death comes as a long, slow blessing.

We grieve the loss of a father differently than a son or brother. We grieve differently for the loss of a mother than a daughter or sister – or grandmother or aunt or cousin or mother-in -law or friend. 

Grieving the loss of someone like Ann is made more complex because the perception you have of her is so different for each one of you. Even though many of your memories will be of the same event – holiday meals, vacation trips, “that time when . . .”  she said something particularly funny or decidedly profound – you will remember the event - and her - differently. 

Adding to that grief is that now, with her gone, your place in the family constellation will change. A generation has passed. Everyone moves up a row. Everyone moves closer to the top of the family tree. Some family and friends may move to the outer branches of that family tree. Oddly enough, everyone will begin a silent, often unrecognized but nonetheless powerful grief for the place they've just loss on the family tree.

In that movement many of us begin to think of our own mortality. We begin to ask: What stories will people tell about me after I'm gone? What will people remember about me?  

What will be my legacy?

Over the years, I’ve learned that the things we’ve left behind really mean very little. The jewelry. The house. The car. The clothes. All "things". 

And, it's not necessarily our education or our employment or our accomplishments. Those, are important to note in our obituary, but they are not our legacy. 

No, “things” will never be our legacy. It's the things that can't be seen that become our greatest legacy. 

The truth is that it is the love we shared, the people we loved and loved us in return that combine to make our greatest legacy. 

Jesus knew that. That’s why he said to his mother from the cross. “Woman, behold your son.” And then he said to his disciple, “Behold your mother.” 

He could have said those words in that Upper Room when everyone was gathered for what would be The Last Supper. Maybe he did. 

But it is significant that Jesus said those words from the cross. With those words he was telling us something about what it means to be human – what it means to love – what it means to be family. 

It’s the love we share, the family we are and the family we become when people who are not related to us love us and we love them back and we can't imagine our lives without them. 

That is our greatest legacy.  

That’s the great legacy of Ann. 

That’s the gift you all share, the lasting gift Ann gave everyone in this room who are family. 

Some of you are related by blood. Others are related by marriage. Everyone of you are family because she loved you and you loved her and, because of that love, you love one another.

Use that legacy of love as a balm to soothe the pain of your grief. 

It would be even better if you also use that legacy of love to guide your own life. Use it to inspire your own legacy. 

So, here's a nickle's worth of unsolicited advice: Don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve. 

It will be different for each one of you. Take your time. Do it your way, based on your relationship with Ann and whoever she was for you. 

You may cry, you may be unable to cry. You may laugh, you maybe unable to laugh. You may feel sad. You may not feel sad but rather feel an overwhelmingly relief that her suffering is over and she is at peace. 

You may even feel guilty and astonished that you feel relief and not sadness, which leaves you confused. The truth is that your relief IS a form of sadness. It's the way your spirit is honoring the spirit of her life which is now ended and at peace.

All of that is perfectly normal. Feel the feelings. But, feel the love even more. 

Share the stories about her you carry in your heart. Call each other on the phone and take five minutes to share a memory. 

Raise a glass to her on a holiday or birthday.

Jesus also said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

If you love one another, that will be your greatest tribute to Ann's legacy. 

Amen.

13 comments:

Gwen Fry said...

Thank you for this gift.

Clark Hendley said...

Well said! Thanks for sharing your wise words.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Of course, Gwen. You are most welcome.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You know, Clark, if you make enough mistakes and learn from them, eventually, you actually get to know stuff.

Kay & Sarah said...

This is a profound truth. So many think it is material things left that is important but I have never missed material things. I always miss and long for those things that made that person unique and a part of my life.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It's true, Kay&Sarah. I don't miss "things". I miss people.

Lynn said...

I think it begins and ends with God. Along the way we're blessed with human relationships, and the transitional objects which remind us of those relationships. Hopefully we can let all the" stuff", the transitional objects, serve the purpose for which they were intended, to continue to love and be loved. The common thread connecting it all is God.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lynn - Absolutely right.

Jim Von Dreele said...

Well said. Over my many years (43+) as a priest, my clergy friends and I would often and still do say: we would really do 10 funerals to 1 wedding. While the death of people we have loved for years is difficult personally, the fact we stand there with their families is an incredible privilege and source of strength for grieving families.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Jim, Couldn't agree with you more. It does sound weird but I'd much rather do 10 funerals than 1 wedding. So, deeply meaningful for everyone. Such a privilege to be invited to share the journey with the family. I can't tell you how many times I've run into a family member in the market or diner and inevitably, that family member will say to the other person in her company, "SHE'S the one who did my ____'s funeral. You know, SHE's the one I told you about." That RARELY happens after a wedding. LOL.

Jim Von Dreele said...

As presiding as a priest over a number family weddings, including my children and my brothers and their children and these were joyous events, but not typical of the rest of my ministry. I also celebrated and preached at funerals of several of my own family members.
Elizabeth, I am thankful for your exploring these issues. I have had many powerful experiences in my ministry with people who are deeply vulnerable in their grief.

Jim Von Dreele said...

Whatever other profession has pretty much free access with people's lives, the good and the bad? It is a privilege to be invited -always moments of grace and awe.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You know, Jim, you have me thinking. Weddings are anxious times - lots of money invested in the ceremony, the music, the gowns, the flowers, the pictures, the reception, etc. In their anxiety, people can be demanding and forget the joy - and yes, even the love - that is central to the whole event.

In terms of funerals, its the vulnerability isn't it, that makes it so special. And the expression of faith. And hope in the face of despair. And being invited in and trusted by people who are so vulnerable.

It's a blessing