We are rich in native medicines here, coveted Noni just hanging on the bush, healing coconut oil easily available. There are treasures in our midst which are so ever-present we sometimes forget their value – our elders.
They are the ones who preserve our history, care for the little ones, cook for the ceremonies and sustain our faith communities. They hold rich knowledge of Maori medicines. They are our wisdom keepers. Talk about Gray Power!
I’m not saying all elders are worthy of the title. Among the First Nations of Canada, people are called elders as a term of respect, reflecting good and often hard-won character. As the saying goes, “Growing old is inevitable. Growing up is optional.”
A true elder is a person not only rich in years but in virtues. The Dhammapada of Buddhism says: “A man is not an elder because his head is grey; his age may be ripe, but he is called ‘old in vain’. He in whom truth, virtue, gentleness, self-control, moderation, he who is steadfast and free from impurity, is rightly called an elder…is called respectable.”
One of the beautiful virtues of Cook Islanders is the care and respect given to elders within the family, watching over them in their later years, helping them whenever possible to remain at home, celebrating them on important birthdays, and sanctifying their memory with unveilings a year after their passing.
There is one missing ingredient in the care we give our elders. I think of it as one of the seven deadly sins of the well-meaning. Because of their age, they lose many people in their lives – spouses, siblings, friends, children. A mama in her late 80s told me that losing her son was even harder than losing her husband. “That broke my heart,” she said.
When they grieve, what do we do? We try to comfort them out of their feelings, which is a strange kind of bullying. We don’t listen. We don’t let them simply empty their cups. Their tears are terrifying, so we rush to distract. We give them little sayings. “God needed her more.” Really?
Another friend, about six weeks after losing her son to sudden death, told me that friends were stopping by wanting to know the gory details of how he died, not even asking how she was. One man, finding her lighting candles at the graveside, just a few months after her son’s passing, said, “You need to move on.” This well- meaning phrase got him kicked off her property.
A dying woman with a brain tumor surrounded by siblings was told constantly, “You need to fight this.” “Don’t give up.” Is that how they are helping her to prepare for death? Is that how they are giving her comfort?
There is a way to give an invaluable gift to our treasured elders. Offer them what The Virtues Project calls spiritual companioning.
1. First, give them your time. Sit with them. If they are telling a story over and over, let them. Act as if it is the first time.
2. What’s the magic question? “What” IS the magic question. Ask things like, “What is it like for you now?” “What’s the hardest thing about this?” “How are you, really?”
3. Don’t fix, listen. Listen with receptive silence. Douglas Steere, author of Quaker Spirituality wrote: “To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery is almost the greatest service any human being ever performs for another.”
4. When they have emptied their cup, give them a virtues acknowledgment. “I see your love for him.” “You are a faithful sister.”
5. You can only offer this gift if you call on two virtues to shield your heart: Compassion and Detachment. With these virtues, you can walk intimately with another without taking on their feelings.
It is perfectly healthy for people to grieve, because grief is a form of love. As it says in Isaiah 49, “I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” So, let them remember. Be their story keepers. Give these treasures the gift of your sacred curiosity.