As the World prepares for one of the largest funerals in history, Patrick Regan, OBE, reflects on how we deal with pain and grief.
Over the last couple of years, I have experienced grief in various forms. Two weeks ago, I had two funerals in two days; my precious uncle Barry and a dear friend who died too young at the age of 47. Speaking at my late uncle’s funeral was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
We have also seen another family grieving Chris Kaba’s whose life was lost so young and suddenly.
The Queen has been described in some places in the media as everyone’s Grandmother. I had the privilege of meeting the Queen when I received my OBE and I have huge respect for her years of service, yet she wasn’t my Nan. My nan had a very different upbringing, and her last years were stolen from her by Alzheimer’s disease. The Queen has raised some real questions about how we grieve well, the need for belonging and identity, and how as a nation we react when someone so consistent in our lives (whatever your views on the monarchy), isn’t there anymore. Add to that uncertainty around the cost-of-living crisis, the health care system, the climate, and the war in Europe and it can feel like nothing is consistent anymore. It also makes us reflect on the pain we all carry for losses we have faced.
My Nan was a precious soul. Alzheimer’s disease took her mind years ago and, as a family, we have witnessed this beautiful lady slowly deteriorate over time. Seeing her memory fade to the point of not remembering or recognising who we were was a painful experience, especially for my dad. Watching this amazing lady no longer react to what was going on around her and seeing her void of emotions when faced with what once brought her pure joy was tough.
We could argue that the person we knew and loved had already left us ten years ago in some ways. Yet, there she was in front of us, a body, and a face and, every now and then, there was an odd smile, a word… My Nan had the funniest laugh, yet I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard it. My dad often said she may have forgotten who we were, but we knew who she was, and it was important we visited her even if she didn’t seem to acknowledge us.
When you look into the eyes of someone you know is dying, you become strangely aware of the pain you are carrying. It is the pain of lost relationships. The pain triggered by traumatic events you didn’t expect or didn’t think you would experience. Nevertheless, you have no choice but to endure the undesirable feelings that come with those. We are not given a choice as to whether we want this to happen or not. The only thing we can do is cope with these feelings and emotions by accepting them and recognising that, while unpleasant, their impact on us and our state of being is natural and a normal process that we cannot escape from. That process is called grief. You can try and suppress it, but you will only be putting up a front. Deep within us, the impact that these difficult life events have on us cannot be shunned or denied.
Having been a Christian all my life, I cannot help but think about the classic advice given by many of my Christian friends in those moments like “Give your pain to God”; as if I had not thought of that or even tried. While these phrases mean well, we need to recognise that calling upon God in those moments will not make us forget what happened and minimise the pain we are experiencing. We must also accept that wounds take a long time to heal.
While I am conscious of God’s power to heal over time, I am also realistic and accept that there are no quick fixes in these moments. My solace is that I am not suffering alone. God, rather than removing me from the pain which I am experiencing, (something I sometimes wish He did) joins me and suffers with me. Love is not a refuge from pain, but pain can’t keep love at bay. Love is always there and where there is love, pain may follow, and sometimes we might even wonder whether those two strong emotional states can in fact interact independently from each other.
If you love, you will experience pain!
Our attitude to pain is often shaped by our upbringing, the environment, and the society in which we live. I believe that it is better to let pain happen rather than run away from it or avoid it. This is particularly difficult for men in our society to do as they would rather escape or toughen up. From a young age, they have been told that “boys don’t cry” and in due course to “man up” and not let their emotions show. The suppression of emotions that result from such expectations and social norms can only lead to a wealth of emotional upsets and imbalances. In the long run, I believe this can be unhealthy in the life of a man.
When you become aware of both the pain and the love of God at the same time and accept both, you can see beauty in most things. You realise that grief isn’t getting over something or someone but getting through a situation, and it is so much easier to get through stuff with company than on your own.
Pain tells us we are not alone and something inside us longs for relationship not just from those around us, but from God Himself.
When my Nan was still with us, I watched my dad faithfully visit her in her home every week for ten years. I watched him get involved in the smallest details of her care even though, during most of that time, he didn’t have a meaningful conversation with her. I saw him get shouted out and hit by the person he loved and cared for. I saw him sit in A&E for hours on end knowing that she might not be aware of his presence. That love of always being there, of expecting nothing in return- that love comes from a deeper place than is humanly explainable. That love…is unconditional love.
Loving others when we are loved back is easy. However, loving without being loved in return is one of the hardest things.
When you reach that time in your life when you are so close to death, the space between life and death is a very fine line.
At that time, the people around you are those you love, and who love you, whether they were there all along, or disappeared and reappeared. A meaningful relationship is what keeps us alive.
We gathered around my Nan’s dying bed believing that despite her lack of response, all she would want at that time, is to have the people who love her there with her. And so we continued to talk to her and to hold her hands not knowing when the next time we’ll speak to her will be. Despite her not showing it, we believed in our hearts that she knows we loved and cared for her. We wanted her to know and express she would never be left or forsaken, as is promised by God in the Bible.
In Honesty Over silence, I wrote that:
“Neither depression, anxiety, nor self-harm, neither cancer nor OCD nor an eating disorder, nor Alzheimer’s, nor pain from the past or the present or the future, nor disappointment or shattered dreams can stop God from loving us.”
As you grieve the loss of our Queen and the many other losses you may have suffered, some known to others, and some no doubt very private, I will pray that you will know that you are loved.
Patrick Regan OBE