by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, October 1, 2017
Do we ever become fully accustomed to absence? Or does our grief at the reality of missing someone precious to us, someone loved and lost, simply take on a different shape over time?
We may have an expectation that our parents will predecease us with the passage of time and its shuffling of the family hierarchy. Why is it, then, that we’re often surprised by how much more we seem to miss our loved ones as the years pass, more than or perhaps differently than the markings of that first year of poignant anniversaries—the first birthday, the first Christmas, the first empty place at the table.
In my own family, we anticipated and prepared for my mother’s death within a week after her diagnosis, and it was a gift to have time to say our last good-byes. With our Dad, we were stunned by his final breath. Even though he was showing the progressive diminishment of long-term dialysis, his strength of spirit duped us into thinking (hoping?) we had more time together. Or perhaps we simply refused to read the final chapter of that beautiful book.
What I’m finding over time as I’ve integrated the reality of my parents’ absence in my life is that I’m experiencing their love and care in new and somewhat mysterious ways. I hear my mother’s voice when I get out the mixing bowl to bake or when I tend to my African violets or when I read a good book and want to share it with her. I sense the echo of my father’s voice when I write reflections, tell stories in presentations, or savor words. I suspect I’m not alone in holding a wistful longing to talk with them, to have a two-sided conversation, to chat about everyday experiences, or to ask the questions that have gone unspoken in their absence. Might we also want to hear their response to “What do you think of my life now? Are you proud of the person I’ve become? Do you know how much I love you?”
Last year I listened to a podcast on This American Life, “One Last Thing Before I Go,” that touched on the changing ways we relate to those who have died. Miki Meek produced Act One, “Really Long Distance,” about an unusual and creative way to continue the conversation after a loved one dies, to say that one last thing. In the town of Otsuchi, Japan, Itaru Sasaki was mourning his recently deceased cousin and longing for a way to air his grief and communicate with him. In his garden, Sasaki set up a telephone booth with a rotary phone that was connected to nothing at all. Sasaki began a ritual of sorts, going into the booth, dialing the phone, and speaking to his cousin about the ordinary and the everyday. He told his cousin about the small and not so small events that had filled the hours of each day. He spoke of how much he missed his cousin’s company.
In 2011, a year after Sasaki installed the phone booth in his garden, a fierce tsunami and earthquake hit Japan, leaving thousands dead and 2,500 missing, 421 of them from Sasaki’s hometown of Otsuchi. As survivors searched for ways to express their grief over loved ones violently and abruptly wrenched from them, word of the “Wind Telephone” got out. People longing for ways to connect with the dead began showing up unannounced at Sasaki’s home and going into the garden to visit the phone booth so they could call their deceased loved ones.
Five years after the tsunami struck, a Japanese TV crew from NHK Sendai received permission to film people going into the phone booth and record their messages to the deceased. Not surprisingly, the one-sided conversations were mostly expressions of concern for the person who had died as well as assuring the deceased that the caller was doing their best to move forward. There were updates about how children were performing in school, what the weather was like, or their plans to leave or rebuild their homes. Tears and sighs and long pauses.
For us who believe in risen life and in the communion of saints, the knowing that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses both consoles and supports as we pray with them and for them. May we continue to be blessed by the holy ones who have gone before us, those who have companioned and loved us with a tenderness and care that endures long after their passing. May all that is precious to us continue to live and breathe in the heart of God.
Sit in a comfortable silence.
Call to mind a person you cherish who died and whose presence you miss or experience in a new way.
Speak to this person, sharing whatever is in your heart at this moment.
Thank them for their witness of a life given over in love and compassion.
Ask our loving God to continue to bless the bond you have shared.
Thank you for your prayerful support of the retreat day I led for the Daughters of Mercy and their Associates on September 23.
Please now hold in your prayer all who will be part of a Directed Prayer Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA, October 6-8. Thank you.
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