Recently, in the lead up to Christmas, I travelled from Australia to the UK to attend the funeral of a close family member. I had been working through a natural sense of physical loss prior to my trip, and so I was feeling a gentle sense of acceptance within myself as I undertook the long journey north to celebrate the passing of this person’s life.
Travel protocols and security require us at several stages of air travel to declare our reasons for travel, and we often converse with fellow travellers and share our reasons for making such a long trip.
When I shared that I was attending a funeral, the first and immediate response from people was to connect deeply with themselves and with me. However, what I began to notice is that after a short while, this turned into sympathy, expressing how they felt sorry for me. This began to sever the connection we had established at the start and it was immediately evident how this emotion separated us.
For example, one remarkably consistent comment was, “Well, at least it might snow for Christmas.” Another person also added, “…and you may get to see a robin.”
What I began to observe was that these responses came in after I did not go into sympathy myself or follow suit by feeling sorry for myself.
An incongruity arose because I was not holding myself as a victim of this circumstance, a natural part of life, but felt that it was simply this person’s time to pass on. I surely mourned the loss of the specific relationship we had and the loss of the physical presence of the deceased: this too felt like a natural, ‘clean’ expression of loss.
However, I had no need of drawing pity from others, or of wanting to make myself a focal point of attention by having others feel sorry for me.
I was at peace with the passing of my relative and I found the imagery of the snow and the robin to be a strange non sequitur to the conversation, and what had initially felt like a heartfelt connection seemed to turn into more of a mental conversation of sharing happy thoughts.
The image of a snow-covered landscape with a red-breasted robin was one I had seen on many Christmas cards throughout my childhood in the UK. The anticipation of it snowing on Christmas Day is a huge part of the lead in to Christmas; snow is romantically idealised as being the feature that makes the perfect Christmas.
These pictures have been consistently shared through the postal system since Victorian times so this idealistic picture comes with close to 200 years of romance attached to it. That is a lot of energy when one considers the amount of mental aspiration, wishes and fantasies that would have accompanied this image during that time, all validated, confirmed, embellished and contributed to by literally millions (or billions) of people.
What I began to feel in this situation was that this potent imagery, as well as the socially expected and endorsed response of sympathy, were overriding the initial opportunity to connect and to share an event that touches all of us.
From this situation I understood two very significant factors:
- Initially there is an attempt to connect with another on the subject of passing on or death. However, if either person is not open to receiving love, there is a very distinct turning away from the initial impulse to connect through Love, and then sympathy follows superfast on the tail of this turning away. I could sense it was anticipated that I would feel bereft and abandoned and that life at that point had become futile. However, my actual feelings were that it was the right time for this person to pass on (not pass away, pass on), that they had been sick for some time and that this was the next part of an ongoing cycle for them. I felt that holding them in love was truly supportive of them, my family and myself. Going into sympathy would have made this love appear ‘wrong,’ so I was left with the conclusion that sympathy is what we ‘do’ in the avoidance of this Love.
- We often seem to have a tendency to use ideals and images, to distract ourselves in potentially emotionally charged situations like this one, to give us something to aspire to for the future – to give us a future. This takes us out of the present moment and the opportunity to connect, and into our minds.
I was touched that ‘strangers’ should want to connect with me. However, I also saw clearly that, perhaps collectively, we use sympathy and mental energy – ideals and pictures with great longevity – to distract us from the truth of a situation.
Which leaves me (and all of us) with some probing questions to ask.
Why would we substitute sympathy for Love, especially in the area of someone’s passing on?
What would happen if we had more understanding about our cycle of physical life and passing on, rather than believing that once we draw our last physical breath, that’s it – we are gone?
Of course we are going to feel sorry for each other if we believe that our close family is gone forever! Is it possible, though, that this is not actually true?
That the actual truth is that we are all ongoing and that in our ongoing-ness, we have no need for sympathy, only the acceptance and the celebration of the next part of our cycle?
If this were the case, then sympathy could most likely be the very tool that would inhibit our absolute acceptance and understanding of this; sympathy could well be what cements us into this belief that we end forever, that we pass away, rather than that we pass on to the next phase of our ever unfolding, divinely sustained life.
by Coleen Hensey