Funerals, Families and A Family Story

I attended my uncle’s funeral today.  He was 80 years old, lived a full life and had dementia and other health issues in recent years.  His dying was not unexpected although death always brings some grief and sorrow.

My sorrow today, however, was not for my uncle.  It was for my cousin who came into the church with his family, dressed in orange prison overalls, shackles on his hands and feet, followed by two guards.  The sight was so jarring and so unexpected, tears sprang to my eyes as my heart broke open for him.

You might wonder what a man must have done to be brought to his father’s funeral in prison gear.  I suspect it has more to do with him being a flight risk than a danger to the public, although, to be honest, I don’t know why he is in jail this time.  His family has struggled with his path for some time and, understandably, don’t want to talk about it too much and they shouldn’t have to.   He has been in trouble with the law on and off for the last twenty five years, not because he grew up on “the wrong side of the tracks” or because he had a terrible childhood or because he had a bad streak in him.

He is in trouble with the law because the part of his cognitive ability that helps him discern right from wrong, appropriate from inappropriate, ethical from in-ethical, was destroyed in his mid twenties when he suffered a brain aneurism that instantaneously changed the course of his life forever.  It was a wonder he survived, many don’t, and survival came at a very high cost.

My sorrow is for a young man who lost any chance of living out his dreams or of living a normal life because he simply doesn’t know that walking out of store without paying for merchandise is wrong.  My sorrow is for a person who, one day, had a whole life of promise ahead of him and the next was thrown into unimaginable complexity and chaos in a world that had no answers and no systems to truly support him.  While I don’t know all the ins and outs of his story, I do know his family searched high and low and tried everything they could think of and then some to find a way to help him navigate his life, including having him live with them.  He has been in and out of rehabilitation centres and programs as well as jail.  Is it really true that the only place we have to house a person who’s had this kind of traumatic brain injury is in our jail system?  That breaks my heart.

And, my heart breaks open for my cousin and the path he unexpectedly finds himself on.  There is so much about him that is still quintessentially my cousin – he looks like himself, although he is now prematurely aged and hunched over.  He has a wicked sense of humour.  He knows all the people in his life.  He just doesn’t know how to respond to events in his life.  When his brother, someone he was very close to who kept a loving eye on him, died unexpectedly at a young age a few years after his aneurism, he went to see a neighbour and said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel.”  And not from the perspective of the grief curve, but from the loss of this integral brain function.

Well, I know what I feel.  I feel my heart breaking open for my cousin, his family, the wife and children he will never have, his unlived dreams and potential and the loss to all of us of a caring, responsible, delightful, contributing young man. I still think of him as young even though he is now in his late forties.  My heart breaks open for this good person who has walked an unexpected path due to circumstances truly beyond his control that no one could have anticipated and which are, apparently, unfixable.

To see him makes me deeply grateful for the ability to intentionally shift the shape of my own path with levels of awareness no longer available to my cousin and leaves me feeling very humble.  While I’ve thought about my cousin on and off over the years and have seen him at family funerals, seeing him walk into the church today in this way will stay forever etched in my memory and my heart will be forever open with love for this human being who is part of my family and a living example of the mystery of how our individual and inextricably linked soul journeys show up in this lifetime.  Maybe if I can hold him in a field of love, even if he doesn’t know it, it will offer some ease and levity to the dark and difficult path that is his to walk.  And, really, he is still just a young man.