Speaking the Truth in LoveBy Seasons | May 25, 2018
When someone dies, their family processes the life and the loss of that person. Reflecting back on our relationships with a loved one at end of life can bring complex and difficult emotions and memories to the forefront. This is to be expected; it’s all part of processing life and relationships. We see this happen not infrequently in hospice care, and wanted to share an experience that one of our chaplains had. He received full permission from the family to share this story in hopes that others understand that it is ok to feel a wide range of emotions after a loved one dies.
Speaking the Truth in Love
“Thank you for saying it that way; that was just right about Lucy, the good and the bad.”
Lucy had been on our service for a few months when she died. Before she was admitted to hospice, we learned that she had a serious alcohol problem. When I met her, she had had an accident while drunk, and was not expected to live long.
During the months that we cared for her, there were many ups and downs as we worked through personal problems and she experienced difficulties with her family. I visited her many times during this time. Lucy was a very engaging woman, and it was clear that while she was in denial about her drinking problem, she had a sincere love for her family and wished to be reconciled with them. We also connected about her wish to reclaim her relationship with God and deepen her spiritual life.
Lucy and her husband Ben had three children in their twenties, and while I didn’t interact with her family very much during these visits, Lucy told them about our good talks. When the time came, they asked that I lead the Celebration of Life that would be held for her.
When I met with the family to plan the memorial, I started our conversation by acknowledging that their feelings were complicated, that Lucy’s life had problematic aspects, and it was okay that they had hard feelings. They agreed with all of this. Then they spent a long time reminiscing and talking about Lucy’s many wonderful and amazing qualities, and what a thoughtful person and great planner and family leader and caregiver she was. It was somehow as if the acknowledgement of the difficult parts of the relationship freed them up to talk about the wonderful aspects of her life.
On the day of Lucy’s memorial, about 100 people gathered for the service. Before it began, I spoke with my colleague Lisa, a Seasons social worker. I told her how I was nervous because I planned to talk not just about Lucy’s wonderful qualities, but also her struggles with addiction and her family. I was profoundly uncertain how this would be received. When the service began, all of her closest family members spoke, and they all spoke glowingly about her.
When my turn came, I got up, took a deep breath, and looked at Ben and the three adult children sitting in the front row. I began by saying that there were two sides of Lucy, one wonderful and one problematic. I spoke first about the wonderful side, sharing about the connection we had built, and telling a few personal details that had not yet been mentioned. Then I noted that Lucy’s addiction was a terrible problem for her and her relationships with those who were important to her. I had witnessed her stubbornness and manipulation to get what she wanted. As I spoke of this difficult side of Lucy, I saw her children nodding vigorously, and it confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing.
I concluded by noting that all of us have good and bad aspects to our lives, and that is what makes us human. It is God’s love that “abides,” and God’s love shone forth from Lucy in many ways.
A few minutes later when the service was over, Ben came charging up to me, and that’s when he said, “Thank you for saying it that way; that was just right about Lucy, the good and the bad.” Another close family friend approached me and told me of an embarrassing public episode of Lucy being drunk. She thanked me for including the wholeness of who Lucy was, for she was wonderful and also flawed.
Two months after the memorial service, I talked to Ben. He thanked me again for including at the service both sides of Lucy. “You were the only one who could do that.”
There is a dictum in our culture that you should not speak ill of the deceased. I am convinced that is wrong. It is better, and a helpful release in the ongoing work of bereavement, to tell the truth. In the Bible (Ephesians 4:15), Paul encourages his friends to “Tell the truth in love…” Lucy’s family wanted a “Celebration of Life.” Everyone knew it would be only half the story to talk about Lucy and not include that she struggled greatly with her addiction. That would only celebrate part of her life. Lifting up the wholeness of who she was, warts and all, brought a completeness to the ceremony. This was what was most helpful and healing to a grieving family with profoundly mixed feelings about their deceased loved one.