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Helping A Grieving Family
All the passages below are taken from William H. Griffith’s book, “More than a Parting Prayer---Lessons in Care-giving for the Dying.” It was published in 2004.
Benjamin Franklin was taking his customary walk.... A young admirer greeted him with the question: "And how is Mr. Franklin today?" The old gentleman responded, "Well, the house in which he lives is in a growing state of disrepair.... But, Mr. Franklin is very well. "
-Herbert N. Conley
I WAS CALLED TO the hospice unit to offer a prayer with a Navajo family whose ninety-seven-year-old mother had just died. When I arrived, some of the family members were in the lounge, while several of the woman's sons were in the room, where her body still lay on the bed. I identified myself and asked if they would like to gather in the room to share a time of reflecting about their mother. They responded positively to the suggestion. Twelve of us gathered in the room, some in chairs and some standing. I stood by the bedside and began by asking, "What would you like to tell me about your mother that would help me to know her and help you celebrate her life?"
One of the woman's daughters, who had been the primary caregiver over the past ten years, spoke up. "Mom was a very giving person. She gave to each of us and to others in the church and the community. She loved people. She's going to be missed."
Another daughter added, "Here is a poem that tells you exactly how we feel about our mother. I'd like you to read it for all of us."
I took the sheet of paper and read:
Blessed is the mother who follows the Lord,
so her children can learn and can grow.
The unselfish mother who holds on with love,
Yet knows when it's time to let go.
Blessed is the mother who's patient, forgiving,
The one who cannot bear a grudge,
The one who accepts people just as they are
Without stopping to question or judge.
Blessed is the mother whose faith keeps her going
Through trials and traumas and cares,
Who handles the easy with wisdom and love
And the not-quite-so easy with prayers.
Blessed is the mother who meets all your needs
From the very first day of your birth,
Blessed is the mother, who shares so much love,
For she's God's special angel on earth.
When I finished, one of the woman's sons said, "She is the one who passed on to us the love that she knew from God. She is the one who told us about Jesus and his love for us, and she showed us how important it was for us to pass it on to our children also."
The others in the room nodded their heads in agreement, smiles on their faces. We stood and joined hands, and I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the love that was shared in their family. Then I asked for the Spirit to surround the family as they journeyed together through the valley of the dark shadow.
After I left, I reflected on the fact that within the Native American culture, it is important to pass on to the next generation those things that were valued by the previous generation. It is important for them to instruct their children in the ways of their culture so that they will be able to appreciate the values that have shaped their community. This can be seen in the way that a Native American mother teaches her daughter how to weave a basket or in how a daughter or a son is taught the art of making jewelry or pottery. Families of any culture often create customs and traditions that they pass on to the next generation, and the way they celebrate holidays often provides a glimpse into those traditions. Native Americans, however, exhibit this generational bonding with more than holiday customs and tribal crafts and skills. They also place a high priority on their religious practices. That deep desire to pass things on also includes the values of their faith.
The Navajo mother had lived through ninety-seven years of great change. She had to raise her children to value their tribal customs and traditions even as they were introduced to an American culture that challenged them. Her own spiritual journey of discovering the true God, rather than "The Great Spirit and Creator of the Earth," was a legacy she imparted to her children. The threads of her children's spiritual journeys were strongly woven into the fabric of hers, and their very lives were like vessels of pottery shaped by her gentle touch.
The children's tribute to their mother's spiritual influence on their lives reminded me of the day when my wife and I sat before a judge at the final adoption hearing of one of our children. 'The judge had asked us, "How willing are you to accept this child as one to whom you will leave your inheritance?" And then, before we could answer, he peered over his reading glasses and, with a smile on his face, said, "Seeing that you're a clergyman, I suspect that won't be much."
Feeling that his remark was totally inappropriate, I couldn't help responding, "Judge, that depends on how you define inheritance, doesn't it?"
He slowly nodded his head in agreement and said, "Yes, I suppose it does."
Parents, by nature of their job descriptions in any culture, are expected to shape the attitudes, values, and behavior of their children. How wonderful for that Navajo mother's family that she did her job well.
Lessons for Caregivers
Death has an impact on families in a variety of ways, and a caregiver who does not know the family must find a way to encourage them to reveal what that impact has been in order best to help the family through this time. One way to do this is to gather the family at the bedside of the deceased and ask each of them to share some memory or word that would help you as the caregiver to gain a brief glimpse into just who this person was to them. Through the telling of their stories, the relationships they each shared with the deceased will soon become evident.
It is important for caregivers outside the family network to recognize and affirm the wonderful gift that the family has been given in the deceased and to remind them of how their lives will continue to reflect the influences of the one who has died. This was not hard to do in the instance above, for in the Navajo community, when a matriarch or a patriarch dies there is a sense of loss of the leader who was responsible not only for giving birth to the family, but also for setting the standards by which that family lived. The Navajo mother had been the significant influence in shaping the values and beliefs of each of her children and grandchildren. Contributions of the deceased may not always be so readily evident, but caregivers do well to identify them.
Family members need the support of caregivers at the time of death even though the death has been anticipated. They have been working through their grief, but the death always begins a new phase as they move from anticipation to the reality and finality that death brings. It is a good time to encourage them to begin speaking of their loved one in the past tense, and they can do that most easily if a caregiver invites them to share a memory or tell a story. They may find such a moment even more memorable than the formal funeral or memorial service. [76-70]
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