Choosing A New Response to Loss When A Community Elder Dies

The other day, I was paging through my college’s alumni magazine when I came across the belated news: Sister Miriam Ward had died in January 2014 at age 88. “What?” I thought. “Wow. I can’t believe it.” I had somehow expected her to live forever.

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Sister Miriam had been one of the elders in the Vermont community who inspired me with her fierce dedication to social justice and peace issues. As a leading voice on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, this Sister of Mercy touched thousands of people as an activist and professor over the course of her long life.

I hadn’t seen her in 10 years, maybe longer. And now she was gone.

My heart sank.

I felt that sensation I can only describe as “dropping” inside my chest, as if my emotions stepped onto an elevator from the top floor and pressed L for the lower level underground parking garage.

And as I felt my heart sink deeper, I felt my curiosity rise up . . .

Curious about the sadness

I was curious, of course, about the circumstances of Sister Miriam’s death – How did she die? Had she been sick? Was this expected? Was she with friends and family? Did she died peacefully?

But even more so, I was curious about my response to her death. I was curious about my immediate sadness. Me, the one who claims to embrace death and celebrate people’s transitions to their next chapter. She wasn’t even someone in my inner circle, or that I had seen recently. And yet, I felt a big jolt of sorrow upon reading the news.

Typically, I don’t tend to think of someone’s death as a “loss,” and so I don’t feel grief as readily. And yet, in this situation, that was my automatic visceral response. A sense of loss and grief.

It seemed ironic that this would come up. A couple weeks ago, a friend expressed a similar experience. A religious leader she admired and cherished died at age 89. Like Sister Miriam, he was living fully and writing books until soon before his shift. My friend said she was in deep grief.

I admit I was a bit perplexed. I listened, but I couldn’t really relate. The Rabbi who died lived a long, satisfying life. He made huge contributions to the world and the Jewish Renewal Movement, and shifted the course of history for countless people. Where is the sadness in that? Isn’t it all gain, not loss?

And then, weeks later, I had the same initial response to Sister Miriam as my friend did to the Rabbi.

Responding to collective loss

Sure, feeling sadness at someone’s death is an understandable response. But I do wonder where this sense of loss comes from, even (or especially) when someone lives such a full, rich, long life? How has it become the “default” response? People often say “I am saddened by the loss,” but what do they mean?

When I reflected on this, I found the place inside me that wished I’d known Sister Miriam better, wished I’d had the chance to tell her what a role model she’d been for me. Then I wondered who would fill in the “gap” that she would no longer fill in the community.

Maybe this gap is what we tend to refer to as the collective “loss”?

I wonder if we feel sadness in these situations – when an elder and leader in the community dies – partly because the gap is tangible, and partly because of conditioning that sadness shows we care. We imagine that a feeling of “loss” or grief actually honors the person and shows how much they meant to us, how much they will be missed. Somewhere along the way, we learned that caring and sadness were a match. If you are sad, that must mean you care. If you care, you must feel sad.

I believe there are other ways to honor the deceased and acknowledge the gap someone filled by living their life. They filled the gap with their life. And they can fill the loss with their life, too.

Resetting the default to gratitude

What if, instead of saying “What a huge loss for our community” when an elder dies, our automatic reaction was “They did amazing work here! I’m so grateful for all the ways they touched my life”? What if we reset the default to “Wow, I’m so glad I had the opportunity to know them. I’m so blessed!”

This is the kind of shift I’d like to see. Why? Because when we experience “loss,” we are experiencing our end of things. Which means we are the ones who get to reframe it. To me, focusing on the loss is like saying “I wish you could stay here on earth as long as I do.” At some level, we want our elders and role models to stick around so that we don’t have to go through life without them, so that we don’t have to adapt. Or perhaps, so that we don’t have to be the ones to step up and “fill the gap” with our lives.

This is what I believe we are called to do. This is what I believe honors the legacy of those who leave before we do.

We know that – even if people live healthy lives – they will age and ripen until they eventually release themselves from the tree of physical life. And yet, we still may feel sadness despite the bountiful fruit they have given us and the world. But we can choose to touch the soft earth and collect the aliveness they have given us in a new way.

We can reframe how we process the news of their departure, and enjoy the seeds they have left for us nestled in the juicy example of their life.

Choosing our next response

So, yes, let’s feel the emotions we feel when we are surprised by the death of a community elder we admire, someone who has earned the status of “immortal” in our eyes. And let’s remember we get to choose our next response. We can congratulate them for a job well done, a life well-lived, by shifting their absence into a deep presence that will never die.

After digesting the news of Sister Miriam’s death, I get to choose my second response:

(Take 2) “Wow, Sister Miriam Ward’s life on earth is now complete. Time for her to retire this body, which served her and the community so well. What an amazing woman! I’m a better person for having met her years ago. I am moved by her death because I have been so moved by her life. While I can’t fill the gap that she did, I am inspired by her to live in such a way that fills the gaps I’ve come here to fill. And to know someday I, too, will release from the branch of life, leaving seeds for future generations. Thank you, Sister, for yours.”

My hope is that gratitude becomes an automatic first response to loss as a way to call forth the gifts, rather than the gaps, of someone’s life. Including my own.

Question: What happens if you reframe the “loss” of a community elder to focus on your gratitude? Does this choice shift your emotional experience? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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8 thoughts on “Choosing A New Response to Loss When A Community Elder Dies

  1. Hi Jen,
    It is amazing how often we fall into our knee jerk reaction; our conditioned response. How much our environment and upbringing form this. Gratitude is the way. There is no loss, only gain, when we are open to receive it.
    Love you…

    • Yes, that is my experience as well. Thanks for letting me know you resonate with what I’m sharing. Much appreciated!

  2. Gratitude, gratitude, what a wonderful shift in thinking. I will hold this up the next time, Jen, thank you for the suggestion!

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. So simple, and yet gratitude tends to be secondary often enough. Why not reset it to be the automatic default? Thanks for reading!

  3. Wow, Jen, I love this concept. AND, I wonder if the Rabbi you are referring to is Zalman Schacter??? If so, I get to practice gratitude for the amazing work he has done in the world… promoting peace, equality and connection of all sorts. This is also a timely post as I just returned from Jim Parker’s memorial service. I am so grateful that he lived and worked in our community. These people are indeed potent role models for how I can aspire to be a better person…how I can “fill the gaps” that I have been placed here for.

    • Thanks, Bayla. Yes, he is the Rabbi. I love the phrase “practice gratitude.” It is indeed a practice, isn’t it? I went to Jim Parker’s memorial celebration, too. He is certainly another perfect example, though younger. Thanks again for reading and posting ; )

  4. Hi Jen!
    I didn’t know you went to Trinity! I worked there from 1990-2000! I loved your post and I found such resonance with your self inquiry. I like how you reframed it.
    How are you going to fill the gaps that only you can fill?
    Love you!

    • Hi Liz! I went to St. Michael’s College, and while Sister Miriam taught there too, I knew her from Pax Christi and activist work. Did do peace and justice things with Laurie G. from Trinity from 1990 to 1993, though, so you and I overlapped in our connection there. Loved that school and the Sisters of Mercy!!

      Yes, that is the question, isn’t it? How am I and are you going to fill the gaps only we can fill? I think the answer is constantly unfolding as we simply BE who we are. Big love to you!