June 1, 2020
Years ago my first mentor in pastoral care taught me a valuable lesson. “A short pencil is better than a long memory!” Something I’ve taken to heart over the last 20 years of pastoral care. The most embarrassing situation a chaplain can get into is forgetting someone’s name, especially if they just asked you to pray for them! Oh how many times I’ve had to pray for someone, right in front of them, sweating the whole time trying to remember their names. So embarrassing!
Sure, most people don’t notice. Most people just assume that I’m being sentimental when I pray for my “brother” or “sister”. However sincere I am, I just forgot your name 10 minutes after meeting you. Sometimes people do notice and most don’t say anything. They just smile and laugh internally at the absent minded preacher.
One time, however, I made the mistake of trying to guess. It’s awkward enough to forget, imagine how awkward it is to say the WRONG name out loud and be corrected by a family member in the middle of a prayer! But, grace and kindness abounds! It was overlooked and never mentioned again.
I’m the kind of guy that prides himself on his memory! I can remember EVERYTHING from years and years ago. I can recall a conversation I had in college more than 20 years ago and tell you verbatim what was said, where we were, and what I was wearing! Send me to the store with more than three items? I’ll buy everything but those three things! It’s a curse! I can write it down, recite it over and over in my mind, and as soon as I get thinking about something else! BAM! It’s gone! I do not understand how my mind works!
Some science experts think that our sense of smell is tied to memory. I’ve know this to be true. Every time I smell peppermint I remember that time in high school when our food science class made homemade candy canes. NEVER, EVER stand over a boiling pot of sugar and pour in peppermint extract with your eyes wide open!!!! It’s not a pleasant sensation!!!!
Every time I smell peppermint I remember this traumatic event. My sense-memory strongly connects me to that fateful day in 1995! My eyes still burn!
Trauma has a way of connecting, almost anchoring us, in a time and place. Years after a traumatic loss we can almost recall verbatim where we were, what we wore, the smells around us, and the feelings we experienced in the immediate aftermath. For me, flashes of memory like still frames shoot through my mind whenever I am reminded of a certain traumatic loss. One particular traumatic event smells like winter, like camp fire, like cheap church coffee.
This afternoon, after dinner, I took our new puppy Charlie for a walk. Along the road that circles our neighborhood there is a line of trees doted with honeysuckle. They were extra fragrant tonight! Suddenly a flash of memory shot through my mind. I remembered playing in my grandmother’s backyard with my cousins. I could almost see her face in the window of her kitchen where she stood washing dishes. Suddenly I could smell all the flowers in her back yard beds: roses along the fence line, touch-me-nots, snap dragons, irises, tulips. I suddenly missed her and summer nights in her back yard.
Sense-memory is one of those double edged swords when it comes to grief. Years and years after a loss, traumatic or not, a simple scent can take us right back to the grief we may have thought we had left far behind us. Truth is, grief never really ends. Grief merely ebbs and flows much like a wave. Some days the waves crash into the rocks or break gently on the sand. Other days, they wash right over us, threatening to drown us with grief.
Any scent can do this. A perfume or cologne, a food or spice, the way the air smells after a storm or the way coffee smells in a Styrofoam cup, anything can remind us that our grief is still there and still in need of our attention. It often comes as a shock when all that grief comes flooding back after years of distance and healing. It’s only more confirmation that we never truly get over our grief, we simply learn to live through it.
Over time, grief does indeed become smaller. The pain becomes more of a kindly companion who reminds you on occasion that something valuable is missing. It is not something we can avoid. Simply walking your dog 10 years after the death of a loved one can trigger all sorts of feelings when you suddenly stumble across a patch of honeysuckle bushes. It is amazing, it is cruel, and it is beautiful!!
Mary Oliver observes this point in this way in her poem about the death of her friend in her collection of poems titled Felicity:
For Tom Shaw S.S.J.E. (1945– 2014)
“Where has this cold come from?
“It comes from the death of your friend.”
Will I always, from now on, be this cold?
“No, it will diminish. But always it will be with you.”
What is the reason for it?
“Wasn’t your friendship always as beautiful as a flame?”
Sometimes when we least expect it, the wind will blow just right, the cold will chill a certain part of your body, the honeysuckle will bloom, and you will remember. It’s ok, my dear hearts, it’s supposed to be this way. Pain will diminish. The memories never do. Cherish them, for they are what’s left when love is all that remains.
Love and Light!