This past weekend our parish held our Confirmation Retreat (teenagers who are preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation - a sacrament of initiation in the Catholic church), of which I have been a member of the team for so many years, I have lost count. I enjoy and look forward to being on the team each and every year, it gives me the opportunity to share my faith journey with others, as well as glean knowledge to continue my own.
Part of the retreat day is listening to the 'witness' of others, who have found their way through life, and have come into a closer relationship with God. Catholics are definitely not the only ones who offer retreats, sojourns, contemplative experiences, etc., many religious and spiritual organizations, do the same. This same concept is used for those suffering from addictions, such as alcohol and drugs, those who are dealing with life's uncertainties, such as divorce, death, and any other issues that leave people in a state of flux. Listening to someone story, helps us in our own journey, whether it is our faith journey, our grief journey, our road to recovery, or simply gaining guidance in parenting, or life skills; if we are open, we can gain so much from just 'listening.'
This weekend was no exception, we asked some individuals to share their stories with the focus on getting young people, adolescents to share. We have come to understand that listening to an adult share their story is one thing, they are 'old' of course they get it, but having someone who is close to the groups age, has an amazing impact on the group.
We have a group of dedicated young teenagers who help us every weekend with our faith formation program, as well as helping out in other ways around the parish. So we asked them if they would be willing to share their experiences, why they decided to help out, and what do they feel they get in return. Two of these individuals were able to give us a hand, and to my great joy, my son was one of them. But I also had my reservations, why, because my son can be brutally honest, not a bad characteristic, but I worried about what he might say. As the date drew nearer, I kept asking him if he had written anything down, what are you planning on talking about, so on and so on. To which he just kept asking me, 'don't you trust me!' 'Yes!' I would reply, but I just don't want to say anything that might not be okay. Finally, I just gave in, said a prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to guide him and gave it over to God.
Saturday morning we both got ready and headed to the retreat site and my only question was 'are you ready?' to which he simply said 'yes.' Jacob and his friend Sierra helped us with set-up and then sat and discussed their respective talks, what music they wanted to play and who would go first, ironing out all the little details. Then the confirmation candidates began to arrive, and all else was forgotten as we welcomed them, laid out the house rules, and began the day’s activities. Once the ice-breakers were completed, they were gathered for their first talk, they listened as one of our team members shared his story, then they went into the break-out rooms to discuss the talk, key points, and anything else they wish to discuss.
Now it was Sierra and Jacob's turn. Sierra began her talk, shared her journey, why she helped out, and how she loved being involved and teaching. Then it was Jacob's turn, I held my breath as he introduced himself, not knowing what my son was about to say or what thoughts were floating in his head. His opening line floored me. Jacob looked at the young people gathered there and said quietly, 'No one should have to go through what I went through at the age of 14.' He paused, and then continued, 'My sister died and I was forced to 'grow-up' fast, too fast.'
Rachel died 4 1/2 years ago, and in all this time, Jacob has refused to talk about his sister's death. If her name was mentioned in conversation, he would leave the room. He could not deal and did not want to deal with the pain and confusion of losing his sister, his friend. As Jacob continued to share, I held back tears that kept threatening, and a pride and relief surrounded me, without my son's awareness, he had taken the first steps towards healing. He was talking about it, he was sharing his story, he was letting himself express the hurt, pain and confusion that followed his sister's death.
As Jacob continued his talk, he let them know that he had been very angry with God: why had he taken his sister?, why had He let this happen?, where was God when we needed him? All the questions that plaque each and every person who has had to deal with tragedy and loss. Eventually he came to the realization that God felt his pain, knew his pain, and that God had in fact been with him the entire time. He shared how it was because of his faith, that he was able to go on, he had something to hold on to. He learned to talk to God, to yell at him, to just unburden himself. To quote Jacob, 'I talk to God just like I talk to my friends.' 'If I'm upset with them I let them know it, if I had a great time I let them know, if I am confused or unsure of something, I ask their opinion and get their advice, after all God is my Father and friend.' Jacob reminded them that we all need something to hold on to when the going gets difficult, when no one seems to care or understand, we have God. 'It is so sad to hear that some have no faith, no beliefs, no God, we all need something to believe in.'
As a mother, I could only stand by helpless, knowing my son and daughter both were hurting after Rachel's death, but I also knew I could not force the issue. I had to give it time, I had to 'trust' that when the time was right, they would begin their journey towards healing, towards acceptance. This simple exercise of allowing my son to express himself, trusting that he would say the right things, that he would do okay, was a powerful reminder to me, that if I believe, if I trust, in time (maybe not as quickly as I would like) things have a way of working themselves out. It does not mean you ignore them, for me I just let my children know that when they were ready, I would be there to listen; and then only if they wanted me to. I also let them know, that they did not have to come to me, they could talk to anyone whom they felt comfortable with, I would not be offended.
As parents, we want to fix everything, kiss the boo-boo, bandage the cut, but there comes a time when we realize we can't. When Rachel died, I realized that I was powerless to do anything to change the events, I could not kiss my daughter's accident away, there were no magic , I could only stand by, watch and trust that this was how it was meant to be. Not at all easy for a parent, so can you imagine a brother or sister.
In the reading that I have done, often a sibling fears that the same thing will happen to them, or worse yet, why didn't I die instead, why am I alive. According to The Sibling Connection: 'the experience of losing a sibling results in adolescents feeling different from peers, being more mature than his or her peers, and being angry and insecure in relationships.' They feel a sense of abandonment, they may even feel guilty because they may have had mixed feelings about their brother or sister. I am willing to bet that Jacob felt he was protecting me from further pain by not talking about his sister. It is hard for adults to cope with, I cannot imagine what it must be like for a teenager who is not only in limbo between childhood and adulthood, but now facing the fact that we are not immortal.
We all face difficulties in our lives, we all have to deal with the good as well as the bad, unfortunately it is a major part of our human existence. How we choose to cope, who we reach out to, and what we hold on to, plays a big part in how we heal. If you have someone in your life who is grieving, whether it is grief caused by death, divorce, devastation, or any other upheaval that causes pain, confusion and anxiety, give them time and space, but always let them know you are there for them. Whether it is now, or later, you will be willing to listen, and please do not be offended if they go to someone else. Sometimes it is the total stranger who has no connection with the events that allow you or someone you love to unburden themselves.
Finding our way is as important as arriving, we need to get lost, we need to ask for directions, we need to retrace our steps, and we have to understand that there will be delays along the way. Besides who knows what wonderful opportunities may be there waiting at the end of a wrong turn, or by stopping to get directions. My son's journey has taken him a while, but by sharing, he is beginning to find his way, he is accepting the detours and delays, and with a renewed sense of hope, is headed toward healing.
Blessings! and until we meet again.