abide with me: the walk to remember
Edmonton is beautiful in October. Weeping golden trees and leaves all crunchy underfoot and warmth despite temperature. This was the fourth Walk to Remember, and for the fourth time, I spoke to a thousand bereaved parents in front of the bandshell at the Legislature Grounds. Here are those words, offered with thanks to Jocelyn, Chris, and their little baby Lincoln, who continues to inspire this healing and beautiful day.
Days from his own death in 1847, Henry Lyte wrote what's arguably the most famous hymn ever put to paper.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
Friend who changest not, abide with me.
If there are flowers and casseroles at one end, and silence at the other, then in the middle, in a bewilderingly rare space, there is abiding. People who abide with us are friends who can sit with sadness. That's all abiding is, really. To be with someone. Not to reason, or deny, or rush through pain by force or guilt or shame. Not to try and fix, or silence, or lecture. To abide is to just sit, to be present for the unfolding of another person's story.
Friends like that are a power higher than any you'll find in any holy place. They are here with us today, standing in this field, remembering with us. Family can choose to be your friend like that. Friends can choose to be your family like that. One in the same, regardless of blood.
Thank you to all of you who abide with us today.
The Buddhists insist that life is suffering. They say that life is not joy interspersed with pain. It's the other way around. Life is longing, a series of unwanted absences one after the other. But that's not a miserable outlook at all. That's a deep breath.
Loss is the human baseline. What happened to you—to us—was a horrible trauma. Such an injustice. Extraordinary. But the effect of it brings us home to the most fundamental human state: suffering. We mark it with these balloons, hanging onto it thanks to a ribbon that tickles your palm. You might feel a strange re-enactment of loss, a little twinge when you let go, and then awe and wonder as it goes up, and up.
We don't just honour our babies when we let go. We honour what we lived through as the people who loved them. We mark our loss of faith, of our innocence, our obliviousness, our grace. We mourn those things as we mourn our children.
But there are things we've found, through suffering, and we note them too, as we let go. We've discovered truths, and strengths, whether it feels that way right now or not. Through our babies, as with all babies, we were given glimpses of otherworldly things we never would have noticed before.
Thank you sweet love. Thank you.
I mutter it the way that some mutter when shocked. But I guess that's fair, right? Liam has left me perpetually shocked. Shocked at the things that grow and thrive. Shocked at the things that don't grow and thrive. Shocked at the sky, the wind, the weather, the fact that I am here at all.
Thank you sweet love. Thank you.
Our future selves whisper at us to make us weary of the present. That's their goal. To make us weary so that we'll step forward to create what they know is next.
But when you get weary of grief – or perhaps when grief gets weary of you, at least that daily, drowning, choking grief – it doesn’t look like weariness. It looks like rosy cheeks.
One day you’re able to pause, and nod, and say without collapsing: I remember you, baby. And you sense a nod back from some other place. Not necessarily from your baby but from the sky, the wind, the weather. They approve of the way you tip your hat and continue on with ordinary things like a desperate craving or an afternoon with a book or a good sweat.
That’s what it feels like when grief loosens its grip. A need for something else. A vigor or a hunger. Your body or your mind or your heart say Feed Me and you jump out of your chair and stir up a cloud of dust. Or maybe it's not dust. Maybe it was ashes clinging to you all that time. Little flecks of what happened to you all magnetized, that you wanted and needed to be seen.
Ashes say Look at what happened. There was a fire here.
They cling for a while. And then they catch breezes, one by one, until you’d almost not even notice that your skin is just your skin again.
I'd like to ask that right now, we all think together very intently as a collective. Please listen, and direct your energy with me:
Blessings to the new mothers with the undrunk milk and that heart that feels so heavy. Blessings to the mothers who have lived with grief for a while now, who have adapted, mostly, but who still have no answers. We hold your hand.
Blessings to the fathers, who had counted on things that fathers should be able to count on - camping trips, Sunday pancakes, tussling. Blessings to the fathers who worry about her. We hold your hand.
Blessings to the grandmothers and the grandfathers who had been looking forward to so much joy, and who then had to witness the pain of their children in addition to loss. We lean on you, we look to you.
Blessings to the big brothers and the big sisters, and to the nieces, nephews, and cousins. Please know that even though we're all grown-ups - and we're supposed to know the why of things - we don't understand either. Let's just keep getting muddy together because somehow, I think that helps.
Blessings to the friends who felt like there couldn't possibly be the right words, but who just sat with us anyway, abiding. Just being there. We won't forget.
Blessings to all those who couldn't - or wouldn't - abide with us. Who turned away from the spectacle of our sadness because it made them uncomfortable. What happened to us served to illustrate how we all walk along the edge of a precipice. Some people don't want to be reminded. This turning-away was not because they didn't care, but because their own histories and fears were, for the moment, overwhelming. Forgiveness.
Finally, blessings to the babies. I don't know what to say of them... I wish I did.
For a while I felt watched-over, close to the fantastic. He is with kind gypsies in a tent, I'd say. They feed him chocolates and they let him stay up all night long on sheepskins, until he drifts off to laughter and woodsmoke. Or if I were feeling uncertain I'd just say He is safe, I hope. Somewhere, safe.
For a while, I was able to hypothesize, to dream. I felt exquisitely aware of every beautiful and every tragic thing. And now I feel kind of tired and plain. We must concede how ordinary we are in the extraordinary experience of loss. Some people have missing babies. Some have missing parents, lovers, friends.
And there it is again - we'd be wise to stitch a few Buddhist threads into whatever we believe. All of us wish for more peace, more certainty, and more faith - and for less emptiness.
The human baseline is to not be as grateful as we should for how our lungs just ... work. For our eyes showing us things; our kidneys cleaning our blood; our arteries and capillaries, ribbons that move our life around; our ears, for giving us whispers and bluegrass music; our skin for sheltering us, our muscles for holding us up, and our brain for being uninjured, despite all its illusions and ego.
Here we all are, working. Functioning. Miraculous with every breath, with every sneeze. But a lack of gratitude is just as human as suffering, and so we tend to forget.
Blessings to you and to all your longings, all your imagined faults, all your nightmares. Deep breath, and forgiveness.
You don't have to be good at grief. You don't have to be good at grace. You don't have to be good at recovery. Anais Nin wrote, "Most human beings acquire the truth fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic. There are very few who receive it, complete and staggering, by instant illumination."
Bereaved mothers and fathers are among the very few. You have been illuminated. Right and wrong, fair and unfair. Love, fortune, time. Parenthood. I thought I knew what all those things were. And then he died and I realized that all my life, I've never known anything at all.
And so now I devote the rest of it to learning, because I have a humility now that I didn't have before. When you're humble, that's when you learn. Thank you, sweet love.
You might say, My Baby is gone, and I don't know how to feel. I don't know how to breathe, I don't know how to walk, I don't know how to exist when my baby doesn't. I don't know what to do.
Four years into this, I don't know either, to most of it. But I can tell you what to do. In the last moments, you looked at your baby and you thought the same thing I did.
Please live. I don't mind if you dye your hair kool-aid blue. I don't mind if everything you believe turns out to be different from what I believe. I don't care who you love or how you love, as long as find some and give some. I don't mind what you're into, as long as you're safe. I just want to support you. I want to witness you. I want to see the things that make you smile. I want you to have the chance to be. To be happy.
And then your baby died, like mine, and unconditional love was illuminated for you. You might have thought you knew what it was before, but you probably didn't. Now you do. Carry it with you. Every single day, turn that into compassion for other people, all of whom started out as somebody's baby.
When you're moving through the world, you'll come across people with blue hair, who live differently and love differently and speak and think differently, who are perhaps in every way—aesthetically, spiritually, culturally—the opposite of you. Or maybe they're not sure what they are yet. Maybe they're struggling. Maybe they have nightmares too. Extend them the same compassion that you would have given your baby, had you been given the chance. Regardless of how they align or don't align with you. It's one of the only things you can do, after a loss like this. To treat others the way you would have liked to treat your child. With care, with hospitality, with humility.
It's a daily practice, and it does bring some peace, to look at every person and think, There goes somebody's baby. Could have been mine. And before you're finished, extend some of that compassion to yourself. That's what you can do.