We continue our journey through Fall towards winter, with the hour change, the colder weather and the more prevalent darkness. We see the reality of cyclical decay, darkness, and death, which will later give way to new birth. Of course, we know this change is coming and we prepare for it, even accept it and welcome the good that it brings in turn. As State chaplains at the Prisons, State Hospitals and Veteran Homes, the reality of loss and death of loved ones for the people we serve comes so often with no way to prepare oneself, no way to accompany or be accompanied during any part of the process, little opportunity to grieve in a healthy way,
and little opportunity to heal.
In the Catholic tradition, we celebrated the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day) on Nov. 2nd, with some relation to Día de los Muertos. As a Catholic Chaplain, I have always felt that two of the most meaningful liturgical days for the people we serve in detention are Good Friday and All Souls Day. (Mother’s Day would be third if it were part of the liturgical calendar). These days seem to provide a particularly relevant liturgical focus that offers an opportune moment of connection to God and others, a healthy recognition of and application of suffering and loss, and finally a path for healing.
All Souls Day, in particular, is meaningful because of how many have lost loved ones along the way without having had the chance to properly mourn or grieve. Certainly, many have lost young friends, neighbors and close family while growing up and some have not dealt with that loss in a healthy way. And yet in some cases even heavier than this, are the death of friends
and family members who they lost while being incarcerated.
All Souls Day is an opportunity to identify those losses in a general way since the focus is not on a current or particular deceased person, but rather we are asking all present to pray for those they have lost in the past. So that provides the chance for them to reflect on and recognize their loss, bring it to the surface, feel solidarity with others who have lost loved ones, put it on
paper, recall and note the beauty and gifts of that person, vocalize it in a petition, pray for their loved one, express tension that is still there in the loss or relationship, maybe even start a dialogue about it with a caring peer, staff or Chaplain. For some, it might be the first time to be able to recognize their loss and pray for their loved ones with others.
And likewise, I know this is something that we Chaplains of all faith groups deal with constantly in our ministry, whether on days where we intentionally bring this theme to light in our services or groups, but especially in our pastoral ministry of death notifications, memorial services, and as it comes up in one-on-one conversations.
I personally am always struck by the burden of this reality amongst the people that we serve. To lose someone special in your life, to receive the news through a formal process or a quick phone call or delayed letter and then being all alone afterwards. To not be able to be there, not be able to say goodbye (before or after death), not to be able to openly cry and mourn with other loved ones and to comfort one another, not be able to reconcile or make peace with them,unable to have any closure, unable to listen to all the stories and good that others share about them, etc.
Once I was talking to a man who has been out for several years and that topic came up and he started to remember about when his grandpa died while he was inside. He started to mention how hard it was, and then for about a minute, I lost him. He seemed to return to the place and moment in sadness. Sadness about the loss of his grandfather but also about what he experienced when he found out, and for all that he wasn’t able to experience as well. He was still carrying that pain inside of him.
How many times have we seen people who wanted to go to the funeral but there was no support to be able to, or maybe they got their hopes up thinking they might be able to, only to be told they could not, or simply having everything arranged and then not being picked up that
Once, I helped a young man at the Youth Authority process the paperwork to be able to attend the funeral of his brother. I asked those in charge what was the next step and they said there was no next step. For safety reasons, he could not know if he would be going for sure, and if he was, then he could not know what time they would take him or any of the details at all.
I couldn’t imagine that, wanting so much to go and not being told if I was going. Thinking that I would probably be leaving but then not going after all, or from the beginning just feeling that I probably wouldn’t get to go even though my family was trying to make it happen. And then, for those who just burned too many bridges, not much communication from family at all.
So it is good that as Chaplains we are always aware of this pastoral need and being available. Whether we capitalize on regular celebrations in our traditions that allow for focus on loss of loved ones; we make ourselves available for memorial services for inmates and patients who pass away, for individual or group memorial rituals for loved ones, or for memorial services of loved ones of staff; we make ourselves available for death notifications and give proper time, ambiance and presence to that moment; or we choose to be present to individuals who are dealing with a recent or past loss at any given time that it comes up. And part of the work in this area is to support other staff and even inmates and patients who carry out formal and
informal bereavement ministry and accompaniment of their peers who experience loss.
There is something to be said as well for the capacity of dealing with loss and grief that draws people together, even people who might otherwise be divided or on different sides of the fence at our facilities. The faith tradition celebrations and memorial services are one of the few opportune moments where you sense a solidarity between all the different people present.
And of course, the opportunity for healing from loss and grief and even to open doors for healing beyond that is very great and opportune at those services, our groups, or on a one-to-one pastoral counseling.
I certainly appreciated the presentation on death notifications that they had at our last ACCSS training, along with the comments and discussion afterward with other chaplains, hearing different insights and methods that they use for those circumstances. And I have appreciated other Chaplain gatherings, whether Catholic or interfaith, where I hear experiences of how Chaplains have handled a memorial service, death notification, group dynamics on grief, etc. I have learned a lot from those exchanges and have put it into practice along the way.
What an important and privileged part of our ministry, to be able to be there for those who are dealing with loss or help open and facilitate the process for those have not been able to deal with loss and grief in the past. Let us be present to them above all with compassion and help them to remember, to share, to mourn, to cry, to recognize hurts, to express their experience of the loss, but also to celebrate, to smile and laugh at the good memories, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive, to reconcile, to let go, to hold out hope, and to heal.
Patton State Hospital