As we learned in the last lesson, having everything you own destroyed leaves you with only the people and relationships in your life to hold on to. That's when you'll learn how very important they are. You'll realize that you're much better off losing the things in your life and keeping the people than keeping all your stuff and losing even one person you love.
But that unfortunate scenario is the one we turn to next. Losing someone you love.
When I was fourteen years old, my mother was diagnosed with an advanced case of pneumonia. For four months, her doctors tried every medicine and treatment known to cure it, none of which had any effect. Then they realized why. She didn't have pneumonia at all. She had lung cancer. They'd been misled by the strangely uniform and checkered pattern on the X-rays. By the time they had a proper diagnosis, it had progressed beyond their ability to treat it. They gave her six months to live.
At the relatively young age of forty-seven, and with five children, three of whom still lived at home, she searched for any way she could to ease the burden she knew the loss of a mother would have on her kids. And one of the things she found came from an unlikely place: a poem.
Her mother (my grandmother) had been an accomplished poet and therefore had a circle of friends who were also poets. When my grandmother passed away, one of those colleagues wrote to my mother to console her. In the handwritten letter, she included a poem she had composed that she thought might help. Apparently, it did. Because thirteen years later, my mother still had the letter. And facing her own imminent death, she took it out and read it to each of us. This is that poem.
"One Dark Branch" by Marie Erwin Ward.
I have at last returned…
I have come back from alien lands that burned
With hate; back to this tree.
I dreamed her sweeping fronds were over me
Through nights and days, rest-yearned.
I ease my tortured way
To sit beneath the pepper tree and sway
My mind with her green lace
To calm my broken spirit, lift my face
And learn once more to pray.
This tree lives not to grieve
Because of one dark branch where green sprays weave.
One useless bough a grief?
She crowns her loss with crimson fruit and leaf…
I touch my empty sleeve.
After reading the poem to us, my mother shared the author's explanation: A soldier has returned from war. He comes home and sits under the pepper tree he used to sit under to think. His quiet time under the tree helps calm him from the horrors of war he's seen. And it's there that he relearns the healing power of prayer.
He looks up and sees "one dark branch" on the tree, a dead limb. He notices the tree doesn't give up and die because of the loss of one branch. Instead, it just makes that many more leaves and fruit on the other branches to fill the empty space.
Alright, the last line is "I touch my empty sleeve." This soldier, like the tree, has also lost a limb (his arm) in the war. What he learns from the tree is that because he no longer has his arm, the other parts of his body and mind should strengthen to accommodate the loss. He must become a more stable and mature person to persevere with that loss.
Our mother told us that it's like when blind people's sense of hearing becomes more acute to compensate for their loss of sight.
And the way she related this to us was by showing us how the same thing applies to families that lose members. When someone dies, the other members of the family must grow, strengthen, and mature to compensate for that loss. The family must grow new love and wisdom, just as the tree grew new leaves and fruit.
That poem was her dying gift to us. But it was also her expectation of us. It was her expectation for how we were to respond as a family after she was gone. And when the situation calls for it with someone you love, it can be your gift as well.
Okay, when your family has lost a loved one, or you anticipate that happening soon, that would be a good time to share this story and poem with your child and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
Do you know anyone who's lost a family member? What are their family relationships like now? Do you think they might benefit from hearing this poem?
How do you think it is that other senses can improve in someone after they lose their sight, for example?
If one of your parents died, how do you think they would want you to behave as a family after they were gone?
Okay, in the next lesson, we'll look at an example of what it means to grow together as a family after a loved one dies.