Allow me to declare an upfront interest. I have loved and lost several times over the years. But I don’t really get the idea of All Souls. I never needed to wait until Valentine’s Day to say “I love you” to my loved ones, why should I wait for All Souls to acknowledge the chasms their departures have left in my life?
Having said that, I am coming to the conclusion that All Souls meets a very real need. We went through a formal, structured liturgy this afternoon, with reading of names, lighting candles, and some silence, as well as some spoken bits. During my homily, I promised that this was a safe space for those who grieve. That safe space seems to me to be important, and it also seems to be missing from many lives.
Death tends to be formalised and ritualised. It’s how we cope.But in the last century, it has become so very professional, as I think I have said before. From care in hospital and hospices, to funeral directors, to clergy, to monumental masons, the actual space to grieve, to connect with conflicting emotions, seems to be missing. And when we acknowledge the emotion, the response is often again to turn to the professionals – counselling.
But today, having heard other All Souls accounts from other places, I asked the Church Warden nicely, and we served tea, coffee and biscuits after the service. Nothing fancy. And we asked people to join us for a cuppa. Bless their cotton socks, they came. And they talked, mostly to those they knew, but sometimes to strangers. They shared, they cared, there was kindness in the room, and people cried all over again, and were listened to by people they’d never met. There was, if you will, permission to show emotion, and permission to let people show emotion.
I wonder if the “British stiff upper lip” is why people aren’t allowed to express emotion as they feel it; whether that is why permission has to be given at formal events such as All Souls and perhaps Remembrance Sunday. The grieving process has been analysed and categorised to the nearest millimetre, but people seem less and less equipped to cope – which might be why mental illness still carries such unwarranted stigma. That reluctance to sit with, and be supported informally while working through, unfamiliar emotion might even be part of the causes of illness.
I am rubbish at showing emotion until I trust the people present – and if ever I show it at a public event, it’s a sign I have carried it for far too long. I do understand the attitude that tries to cope until it is too late. But today, I think I have seen one possible answer, not so much in the church service as in the church community which gathered, worshipped, remembered, grieved, cared and dispersed this afternoon.