Losing Home, And Finding It

Bereavement is a journey for which there are no road maps. Many of us are familiar with the stages of grief that many researchers and therapists talk about – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance; DABDA. Many now accept that this isn’t a linear, one way journey; it’s more of a description of the various places we can pinball back and forth amongst, often with alarming suddenness and speed as we continue to live with the reality of the death of people we love.

My father died on the 9th August this year, leaving me without parents. His death wasn’t unexpected, but the final descent was somewhat abrupt. Even so, I was by and large prepared for his death. Living a hemisphere away from him and facing various challenges of my own that made it difficult to travel, I had reconciled to myself some time ago the possibility – even likelihood – that I may not see him again before he died. The funeral date took some organising; my sister also lives abroad from our birth-town of Edinburgh, so we had to co-ordinate around our various family commitments. Still, arrangements were made, and we eventually made it to our Air BnB a short drive from where we were lived as children.

It was a precious, sweet time – not without busyness and tears, of course; but there was less busyness than others at this stage of life have, thanks to my Dad’s lawyers being professional, personal and efficient (a pleasing combination of traits). There was a lot we didn’t have to do. The funeral came on a cool, crisp later-summer Edinburgh Saturday; the sort of day when the city shows off both its natural and architectural beauty with a kind of proud swagger that’s irresistible to tourist (this was the end of Edinburgh Festival season) and inhabitant alike. It was a lovely, moving, memorable day.

The day after, Sunday, my sister and I returned to the church where the funeral was held – the same one we had been bought up attending, and with which I still have links with. I spoke in the service about our work in Cape Town. We chatted to old friends; in the afternoon I relaxed and watched movies.

On the Monday morning we had an appointment with the lawyers to talk about Dad’s estate. It was straightforward, and there were no nasty surprises. I left my sister to her own devices in order to amble, via shops, to meet a friend for a film and lunch; I felt OK, but something unidentifiable nagged. It was only after I made my way back to the flat from meeting my friend that I realised – via a WhatsApp message from my wife – why I was beginning to struggle in unidentified ways. I was losing my sense of home. I suddenly realised that a place I had always come back to at some point was no longer a one where the familiarity of family, home and roots would exist. I didn’t know when I would be back. I walked slowly, the colours and sounds of the city amplified to remind me that I didn’t know when I’d see them again.

person giving keys on man

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A couple of days later and I was back in Cape Town, back with my wife and kids, and back into the swing of work and life. But an alarming sense of rootlessness remained. I realised I’d moved around so many times  – I calculated that at the age of 45 I’d moved house 15 times and countries once. My wife had moved rather less – until we moved to Cape Town, she’d never lived outside the M25 circular road that attempts to keep London in its place. I was beginning to question where my home was; not that I was unhappy in either my family life or my working-life (I’m not, to be clear). It was a sense, growing and laden with grief, that I didn’t belong anywhere. I’m reminded, for example, at least once a week, often in as many words, by a local that the reason I do/say/wear something is because I’m a foreigner. My foster children are fluent in languages I barely understand. And so on.

I expressed this on social media, and a friend both affirmed this as a real sense of loss (as my therapist had also done), and recommended a book called Home by Jo Swinney. The author is married to a minister, and has moved homes and countries more than me. If ever there was a book designed for me, in this moment, then this seemed to be it. I bought it and started almost instantaneously.

As I read, much resonated and rang true and appeared to be helpful. But something wasn’t quite hitting home. Something felt like it wasn’t working for me or providing the answers I sought. I didn’t think it was a fault in the book – though obviously there were places where differences in our contexts and experiences meant I couldn’t quite connect with the details of what she was saying. Maybe it was a fault in me? I didn’t think so. I was open to new thinking; it just wasn’t quite landing.

It was only in the last couple of chapters that it clicked. I had thought she was providing a series of different ways we find home – church, family, place … and so on, inviting us to find the one that works for us. I had done her a disservice. She was erecting a home, layer upon layer. It needed its final floor to be a complete home. The final floor, the part that finally made sense of it all, was the need to find home in what we do. That’s complex for a minister – everything can seem so temporary, at the whim of a Bishop or God. I have no plans to move anywhere, but Cape Town still seems foreign and I have always seemed to feel slightly out of place everywhere I go, even before moving countrie. The book helped me see that I needed to add, or emphasise more, activities in my life that are not work (in the sense that it’s what I’m paid to do), but that give me life and joy, and where I’m using what gifts God has placed in me in ways that are fulfilling. Writing – this blog – is that thing for me (in a similar way to how writing is for Jo Swinney as expressed at the end of her book).

I don’t know quite what that means or how it looks in reality. I process thoughts and feelings best by writing; having written, I find I can (if necessary) speak about it. This blog really serves a large part of that purpose for me, allowing me to work out what I think about various things in a way I enjoy; the enjoyment or help it may bring others really is secondary in that sense. But I find that in this new era of my life I need to give myself permission to do this – and that may well mean a few changes over the next while to how I use this platform.

I lost my father, my second parent. Clearly that’s sad, and there’s grief associated with that. But it’s the rootlessness that is leading me to a new, intangible place (not a move of location, but a move of mental roots). It’s often repeated that the world is smaller than it used to be, populations increasingly mobile; immigration may be the big political issue of the day. As that continues, we may find the experience I’m describing here reflected and refracted in many different ways and different contexts. We – especially those of us in the church, who seek to point people to an eternal home – need help to rethink what we mean by home and help those we encounter to do so with us. Jo Swinney’s book may be the first resource to help us do that.


Stumbling towards resurrection’s launchpad

Yesterday I cried whilst the rice was boiling. Not that the rice was taking an especially long time to boil, though it remains true that a watched pot never boils. No, it was more than that. Let’s take a couple of steps back for some context.

The latest series of the BBC’s Sherlock finally airs here in a few days’ time, and thus far I’ve remained mercifully spoiler free (keep it that way, please). I decided to fill the time waiting for the new series with a re-viewing of series 1 and 2; last night, whilst the rice was boiling I watched the last episode of season 2. Which, as everyone knows by now, [SPOILER] ends with Sherlock apparently plunging to his own (self-inflicted) death, maneuvered into a nightmarish corner by Moriarty. Of course, we know from the final scene of the show and the fact that series 3 is coming that the death was staged. We won’t know, however, how this was achieved until series 3 airs; at the end of series 2 every character apart from Sherlock thinks Sherlock is dead. It ends with a poignant scene as Watson lingers at his friend’s grave asking for ‘one more miracle … don’t be dead‘.

That was what made me cry. This last few days I’d been thinking often of my friend who died at the hands of terrorists just four months ago. I don’t want him to be dead. Rewind history, please. Make the bullets take a different path, make him take the trip to the mall on a different day.

Whatever the circumstances we’ve all been there or will be there one day, wanting someone not to be dead. Which is where I was, and why I found myself crying as the rice boiled. Fiction like Sherlock Holmes is many things, not least wish-fulfilment. We all wish we noticed that much, we  all wished everything could be solved with the ruthless application of logic, and we all wish people who are dead weren’t. The more inevitable a resounding ‘no’ becomes, the more we wish it wasn’t so. Not for nothing is acceptance of the new, painful reality a part of the widely recognised 5 stages of grieving. 

Acceptance is a hard and tantalizingly shifting goal. If the person we’ve lost didn’t mean something to us, acceptance wouldn’t be so hard to attain. It’s often confused with resignation  – a benign shrugging of the shoulders, a reluctant tipping over of the king on the chessboard when there’s no other option. It’s not so; acceptance is hard-bought and hard-fought to hang on to. Circumstances, reminders, anniversaries, anything really, can take us to that place of wishing he was back with us, that she hadn’t gone. Nothing to be done about it, but we go there nonetheless.

As with death, so with any loss – illness, moving house or city or country, end of a relationship or job, a new stage of life for you or someone you love – all these and more are bereavements to which we are constantly challenged to reach that point of acceptance. Even if the change is on the face of it a good one, we need to reach a point of acknowledging and accepting the loss in order to properly re-engage with the new reality. The human desire to turn back the clock or rewrite the story is a ubiquitous one; from social media to games to alternative history fiction and more, all give us the opportunity to un-make something we want to change or are just curious to see what it could have looked like. Entertaining, natural to some extent – but potentially damaging to the process of healing, the journey towards acceptance.

Acceptance is especially hard to hold to when what we need to accept seems to sit in opposition to something we hold dear … justice, equality, the power of our God to heal. To speak of acceptance in such contexts seems like surrender, a lack of faith or courage.

Or maybe not. Maybe true acceptance – the realisation that this is real and isn’t going away any time soon – is the level ground we need in order to take a firm stand. We can’t protest something we don’t really accept the reality of, after all; we can’t seek healing for a diagnosis we don’t believe. Acceptance isn’t surrender – it’s the end of one process, and the beginning of another; one which leads to change.

Think of Jesus in Gethsemane, the night before his death. Desperate for a change in circumstances, sweating blood, asking for help … but accepting at the end of it all that the decision doesn’t lie in His hands, and whatever will come, will come. You can see many of those 5 stages of grief in that once incident, denial being perhaps the one that doesn’t fit with a divine man (though that’s more than made up for by Peter et al.). Anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance are all writ deep in the Passion narrative of the incarnate God. We all know the story ends not with death, but an empty tomb.

Acceptance for most of us may not lead to immediate change; but for the Christian it always leads to resurrection – the transcendence of simply defining an illness as an illness, a loss as a loss, a death as a death. Acceptance leads to resurrection which means the object of our acceptance becomes part of a deeper and wider and truer reality. What that looks likes may be beyond our control, but is ours still to discover, or allow others to discover when we’ve gone. Alternatively acceptance can give us that level ground from which to actually do something. This is real now; we’ve accepted it’s part of reality. Good; then we shall do something about it. Imagine if God had just pretended we people didn’t have a problem. Acceptance of the problem was the start of salvation.

Acceptance really isn’t resignation, defeat or faithlessness. It’s a launchpad for resurrection.

The thing is, though, in this, for now, I don’t want to accept. I’m still asking for the miracle. Maybe it’s something to do with the violence, something to do with the public nature of it all. Maybe it’s connected to my role as pastor. I don’t know. I do know I can see new life springing up, but I’m not quite there in my heart and soul.

As I stumble towards the launchpad, a few steps forward, a few back; as I slouch roughly and reluctantly towards resurrection, stay with me a while, would you?