In a collection of letters by Henri Nouwen, I came upon this one that he wrote following the death of his mother:
OCTOBER 25, 1978
A few days ago I returned from Holland, where I buried my mother. Only five weeks ago she was with me in New Haven. She returned four days afterwards with my Father after the internist had discovered a tumor which caused the jaundice. Two weeks later she was operated on, a week after that she died. I am still in a daze. Everything seems different to me and I am slowly rediscovering the world which she loved so much. She has been so much part of my life that I have to do some real relearning. I am spending a still week at a retreat center trying to let my mother’s death reform me and lead me to new fields. It is all very intimate and very deep, very sad and very joyful, very beautiful and very painful. I am trying to write a little bit about these last few weeks, but I am still too close to all that has happened to do it well and with the necessary peace of mind. But I keep trying. It seems at this moment my way of letting her spirit come to me. I am still somewhere between Easter and Pentecost not knowing what really has happened. Keep me in your prayers and pray for her. Nobody has ever been as close to me as she was and never did I lose anyone whom I loved so deeply. Somewhere life needs to be rediscovered. But I am sure that her death will mean many new births for me.
This evening, a friend of mine named Josh Nadeau hosted a “Kitchen Talks” event on death and dying and so, naturally, I had to attend.
Josh describes the broader initiative as follows:
Kitchen Talks is a series of events where people from different walks of life gather to discuss controversial topics. It was dreamed up in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where ‘kitchen talk’ refers to the conversations that, back in the Soviet Union, were too contentious to be had outside the home.
A generation ago, the kitchen was a safe space to discuss history, politics, sex, religion and everything else under the sun. We hope that our own “kitchen” provides an opportunity, and a safe space, to engage with the people and the ideas we don’t always encounter in our everyday lives. We strive not only to speak, but to facilitate an encounter that respects the fact that we all have different life experiences and come at important questions from different angles.
Our meetings involve introductions, discussions, large-group exercises, small group work, anonymous activities and more. We encourage all participants to join the conversation, but understand if some decide to listen more than to share. Our facilitators come with a prepared set of discussion questions and exercises, but often adjust their plans depending on the group and what participants are interested in discussing that day.
I was struck by Josh’s ability to offer compelling prompts to the diverse participants he convened. Everyone certainly diverged in terms of viewpoints, however it was a group that self-selected on the basis of having a willingness to listen respectfully to others and to affirm what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “the dignity of difference.”