Grief doesn't go away in this generally joyous season. In fact those who have reason to grieve must feel the pain with increased sharpness when others are so cheerful. So it must be with the four peacekeepers, two of them Canadian, who have recently been taken hostage in Iraq: Tom, Harmeet, James, Norman, their families, and the rest of us to some degree. So, when I received Heathe's letter with a copy of the speech that she just gave, I was moved, for my little sister has overcome her own mountain of grief, to once again, claim her share of the sunlight.
Heather has given me permission to share this letter with you, but please allow me to supply you with the pertinent background. (edited to add - Grab a tissue or two, you might need them)
In 1992 my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly at Heather's house on Christmas day. She had not been sick and had no history of heart disease, but the cause of her death was attributed to a massive heart attack. Mom had spent a wonderful Christmas day with my sister and her family, and when I spoke to her around 6pm that night to wish her a Merry Christmas and tell her that I would see her the next day, she talked excitedly about the wonderful time she had that day. However, as was related to me later, mom started to feel ill around 9pm, and by 11pm the paramedics were at my sister's house, but it was too late, mom was gone.
Three months later on mom's birthday in March, my sister was getting ready to take flowers to put on her grave. Heather's young daughter Elisabeth, just five at the time, was not being very co-operative that morning and was giving my sister a hard time about getting ready to go out. She threw a temper tantrum, but Heather, who was in no mood for her shenanigans that day, sent Elisabeth to her room until she could stop crying and behave.
Elisabeth stomped off up to her room while my sister continued to clean up the kitchen, fighting all the while with all the roiling emotions inside her: loss and grief over my mother's death. After a few minutes, she too headed upstairs to get dressed and face a difficult visit to the cemetery. When she got to the landing, she saw that Elisabeth had cried herself out and fallen asleep on the floor in the hall. Heather went over to wake her up but to her horror found that Elisabeth was not sleeping -- her precious daughter lay lifeless on the floor.
Once again the paramedics were at the door in short order, but nothing could be done to help little Elisabeth. Her spirit was gone. Later we learned that a mysterious virus had attacked and stopped Elisabeth's heart. She hadn't been sick and had no history of heart disease; it was just a strange virus that struck out of the blue.
The whole family reeled at the news of Elisabeth's death on mom's birthday, and we all just about went under as waves of sorrow, grief and loss swept over us. We managed, just barely, to keep our heads above water, but my dear sister spiraled down into a deep dark depression and has struggled valiantly over the years to climb out of this almost bottomless pit of despair.
You never "get over" the death of your child, and the pain never goes away, but my sister is beginning to find the soul-strength to raise her head to the sun these days, and we all marvel at her strength. For years, she fought to put one foot in front of the other and take care of her family when all she wanted to do was curl up in a corner and die. But now, she is striving to live.
I've taken a lot of time and space, to provide you with the background that may help you to appreciate the text of a recent speech that she just gave to other bereaved parents.
After Elisabeth died my sister went to a support group called BFO (Bereaved Families Organization) and they were a lifeline to her when she really needed one. This year she was invited to be the guest speaker at their Lighting of the Tree ceremony to honour loved ones lost.
This is a copy of the talk she gave that night. If you are dealing with the pain of grief and loss during this season I hope this speaks to your heart and helps to ease your pain even if just a little.
Thanks for letting me share this sister dear. I am so proud of you. Love and hugs from your big sister.
Tree Dedication – Bereaved Families Organization - Nov. 29, 2005
This time of year is often called the season of light, but for many it can feel more like the season of night. For most of us here it’s a bittersweet mix of both. I’ve come to see that light and darkness can co-exist quite beautifully together; in fact the darkness makes the light more brilliant. I saw this the other day when I was hanging an evergreen garland in my window. After I put it up and plugged it in, I found that the lights didn’t work. I was too tired to struggle with them, so I left it up. Later that night, I found beautiful twinkling lights in my window. They had been there all along; I just hadn’t been able to see them in the bright light of day. It reminded me of the quote, “When it’s darkest, men see the stars.”
Have we known any greater night than this separation from the ones we love so dearly and so deeply? We know about utter darkness, don’t we? It’s taken a long time for my eyes to adjust to the absence of my daughter’s light, but in the pitch blackness I have found many unexpected gifts.
Tonight I am standing in a room full of compassionate people; some of you I know well and you are the kindest, most caring people I have known. This compassion is born out of our deep loss and I believe it mirrors the precious ones we love.
I am here too with perhaps the strongest, most courageous people I have ever met. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends who have not only continued to live in the face of unbearable pain, but who have also found the strength to reach out and help others despite their own grief. This is a powerful reflection of our love, and what beautiful, much needed light you bring to this world.
Tonight we are remembering cherished family and friends who have brought so much light and so many gifts to our lives. The strength and compassion alive in us is their shining legacy. I know in a heartbeat we would give it all back just to have them here with us, but for now we must live in the shadow and that is where their spirits burn bright.
My son is an artist. A while ago he was working on a portrait and while I watched him work, I felt a need to apologize for everything he had lost as a result of his sister's death. Without hesitation he said that he regretted nothing, that he embraced it all, the dark and the light. He said, “I’m blessed, because those who only experience the light of day miss the wonder of the night.” He went on to say that the loss made him love deeper, the despair caused him to embrace hope, and the sorrow gave him greater appreciation for every moment of joy.
He asked me what his painting would look like without any shadows. I looked at it and saw that without them it would be flat and lifeless, it was the shadows that gave it depth and made the light more luminous. It’s ironic isn’t it, that in the darkness light becomes more beautiful, but it’s true, because of our shadows we are deeper, stronger, wiser, and more compassionate.
I love the BFO logo, the shadow that is always beside us, these precious shadows are our “Oh Holy Night,” and their stars are still brightly shining.
As I look around this evening I see light in each person here, it‘s the reflection of the beautiful spirits that have touched our lives and continue to live in each one of us. As we darken the room and light the tree, I hope each of you will see the shimmering light and feel the warm glow of your loved one’s presence.
And in your moments of darkness, when you see the stars, I hope the words of this Inuit legend will comfort you:
Perhaps they are not the stars, but rather openings in Heaven where the love of our lost ones shines through and pours down upon us to let us know they are happy.