A few weeks ago, I went out with friends that I’ve known since preschool. We’d just been to our 25-year high school reunion, and this was the post-reunion meetup. At this gathering I learned more about a classmate who recently took her own life. I could hardly bear to hear the details, but I also wanted to understand.
I glanced down at my watch. I realized that hours had slipped away, and I needed to get home to complete a project. Here I was learning about a suicide and feeling its impacts, but the work waiting for me at home was a PowerPoint for a Suicide Awareness Symposium, where I would be presenting on preventing suicide in older adults.
The healing power of connection and memory
As an Optage Hospice Chaplain, I lead grief groups across our various Presbyterian Homes & Services communitie
s and I also provide education to the wider community. Our grief groups take us right into the heart of the human experience – we talk about loss, purpose, meaning and hope. We talk about the healing power of connection and memory.
Recently at a grief group at Waverly Gardens
, resident Myrna Camp brought 13 purses that her daughter Ava Bergan made from her husband, Harry Camp Jr.’s ties. Just before he died this past April, Harry Camp at 108, was the oldest man in Minnesota.
“He had lots of ties,” Ava said. “We hated to throw them away, but we did not know what to do with them. My mom had a tie that was made into a pouch, so I went home and experimented and voila! Each purse clasp holds symbolism as well, the trees represent Harry’s Foresting career, and other clasps come from Myrna’s jewelry and button collection, to represent their shared life. “My mom could remember Harry wearing a tie to a specific event, so each purse brings back memories.” The purses will be distributed to family members. As Ava said, “Harry was loved by our family, everyone wants to remember him in some way, and this felt like a nice way to keep all those memories.”
The things we get to keep
The work of remembering is about bringing the pieces of a life together so that you can understand what to carry forward. I often encourage group members to think about something that cannot be taken away. And then I remember that I too, must do this in my own life, even with the losses that are most difficult to reconcile.
The Christian writer Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That is how it is for me – every single day. Losses accumulate for our clients and their families, and I hear their loneliness and regrets. But I also see their courage, curiosity, love and a deep gladness that reaches beyond circumstance.
In this season of tremendous change, it helps to remember what it is that we get to keep; like Harry Camp’s ties turned into purses that carry memories of a beloved husband, father, grandfather and great-great grandfather. Like the deep gladness suggesting that beyond death there is only life, and more life still.
This is that intersection of hunger and gladness, heartache and hope. And by some extraordinary grace, I get to work there. This is “My Why.”
Before coming to Optage Hospice, Jenny Schroedel lived on the Big Island of Hawaii, where she worked as Director of Bereavement Services for Hospice of Kona. Jenny is also an author, most recently of Naming the Child: Hope-filled Reflections on Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Infant Death. She currently facilitates grief groups across Presbyterian Homes & Services communities and provides grief support and education to the wider community. Optage is the home and community services division of Presbyterian Homes & Services.
Postscript from Jenny: I shared this piece with Myrna and she smiled when I told her about the likely publication timing. She noted that Harry would have been 109 on September 20. A master of remembering, Myrna invited me to a celebration that day where the family and Waverly Gardens community are dedicating a blue spruce tree on campus in Harry’s honor.