This holiday season will be the first one in my family without our father in this world.
He passed away in June, and I know from working with other families that the first holidays after a death are often layered with sadness. Last year, I wrote a column about one of our final conversations with my dad while he was still lucid.
This year, remembering some of what he said has helped us through our grief. As I mourn him, all the things I've said to people as a pastor over the years are coming toward me, now. It's strange and beautiful to be on the receiving end of comfort. Holidays are special markers in communities, large and small: who is still with us, how we have changed, where are we now, who we are becoming.
For some of us, maybe even most of us, holidays are both poignant with remembered loss, and sweet with hope for our future. Sometimes, the way we move through loss shapes the possibilities of our hope.
One of the most useful teachings about grief I've ever received came from Rabbi Jonas Goldberg, retired now from Temple Sinai in Marblehead. We served on a spiritual advisory board together at the Hospice of the North Shore, and met just about this time of year.
We talked about "blue" holidays, where mourning took precedence over celebration. Jonas spoke of helping people find a structured way to move forward in grief, by thinking clearly about saying good-bye.
Good-byes happen in death, but also in relationships, in families, in friendships, in communities. Many of us don't know how to say or do that, and for all the training I've had, saying good-bye is different when it's someone in your own family.
Rabbi Jonas taught us, that day, a process called the Four Things that Matter Most. The name is taken from the book of the same title, by Ira Byock. It's such a useful book that the author created a website to support it: here is the link: http://www.thefourthings.org/.
This structure of saying good-bye has helped me, and perhaps it will help you, especially if the holidays are a time of remembered or present loss. Each part of it is based on spiritual truths: our lives are better when we know how to forgive and receive forgiveness, when we experience gratitude, and when we can love.
The first thing is "please forgive me." Part of saying good-bye is accepting we may have failed someone in our relationships, and taking responsibility for that. We're human, we're not perfect, and our relationships are kept sound and whole because we're able to ask, receive, and offer forgiveness. It's a foundational spiritual practice in most faiths, this capacity to ask for, receive and offer forgiveness. It's healing for everyone when we can ask for it. Grief is sharp when forgiveness hasn't happened.
The second thing is like it: "I forgive you." And that is sometimes even harder than asking for it. In many families resentments can linger for years if they are not talked about, aired out, and released. In the Greek New Testament, the terms often used for forgiveness are the same words for "release, let go, be freed from, unbind." These are all words of movement, and change, and forgiving someone changes everything. Forgiving someone means a future relationship is possible. A transformation is possible.
The third thing is about gratitude: "I thank you." Gratitude for the other person is also transformative. We understand the other person as gift. Just seeing the other as a gift changes how we relate to them. I remember making a list of all the things I had learned from my dad, from tying a square knot, to how to listen carefully and deeply to others. Holidays are times of Thanksgiving. We have a special opportunity to express our gratitude for each other, for the joy of companionship in this pilgrimage we call life.
The fourth thing flowers from gratitude and forgiveness: "I love you."
This is both a benediction and a possibility. It's sometimes the last thing we can offer someone.
As Alzheimer's took my father's mind, the one sentence he could always say, understand, and always hear, was simply "I love you." We could always bring him back to the present moment simply by reminding him he was loved. "I love you" is a blessing, a benediction upon the person, and the foundation for all that might happen in the future.
Asking and offering forgiveness, gratitude, and compassion—these are the foundation stones of all relationships. They are the spiritual graces of goodbyes and new beginnings. They are the beauty underneath the sadness of loss.
During this poignantly lovely and sometimes complicated season, may beauty shine through for you in the love you've shared.
The Rev. Anne Deneen is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Lanesville. Midweek Musings is a column rotated among Cape Ann clergy.