Leave-Taking: A Rite for the Home
by Deborah D. Steed (May / June 2004 — Volume 20, Number 3)
For our elderly, leaving the family home is one of life’s major transitions. Through a special rite, our author shows us a way to help them say goodbye and look ahead to something new through the resources of the faith.
The average age of an active ELCA congregational member is 55. As our life expectancies climb, as older people increasingly take advantage of life-sustaining medications, dietary guidance, and exercise, and as extended families continue to include busy, far-flung second and third generations, more and more pastors are being called upon to help their parishioners with the difficult decision to move into retirement facilities.
As providers of pastoral care, we are usually the primary listening posts and prayer leaders. Occasionally, we are even called upon to help grown children persuade their parents of the need to make a move. This often places us in awkward and ambivalent situations, responsible for the spiritual nurture of our elders yet without the authority or expertise to make any decisions on their behalf.
However, there is one thing we can do, once the decision to move has been made. We can help them say goodbye to their homes. Many aspects of growing older feel like steps toward the grave. A leave-taking ritual can help elders to see that they are also at the beginning of something new and, in God’s good time, life-giving.
Our houses hold us. They are the places where we begin our adult lives, where we cross thresholds with new babies, where we break bread, spill cereal, and wash the dishes day after day. They are the spaces in which we seek haven. If we can’t cry anywhere else, we can at least cry in our own rooms. Our memories of Christmases and birthdays past are very often memories of a particular spot in the house.
In my own growing-up home, I always sat in the same living room chair on Christmas Eve to open presents before the midnight service. I will never forget the five of us — my parents, my brothers, and me — carrying out the same giddy ritual for more than a decade.
Homes also hold the secret dramas known only to their inhabitants: the anguish of a marital rift, the tension of the teen years, the bonds which at times felt too fragile to last. When we say goodbye to our houses, we are also saying goodbye to the sorrows that festered there and were uneasily laid to rest.
Some people are their homes, or at least that’s the way it seems to them. This can be especially true of older adults who, in retirement, spend more and more time at home and, as they become frail, spend more and more time alone. Who will I be when I am no longer in this space? How can I leave the only real comfort I have, now that my children are gone, my health is no longer robust, and my own friends are dying?
When my husband’s parents made the difficult yet necessary decision to leave their home of 43 years, I decided that the one helpful thing I could do was to enable them to say goodbye to a house whose design and construction they had overseen and into which they had moved with their four children in 1960.
It was a place that had held the usual comings and goings of a busy brood, as well as the holiday celebrations of extended family and receptions for students, faculty, and administrators from the college my father-in law had served through four decades. It had also been home, at different times, for an uncle attending college and two high schoolers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I first prepared for the leave-taking by soliciting the adult children’s reactions. They were unanimously positive and gave permission to ask my husband’s parents, who also thought it would be meaningful. Looking through the “Blessing of a Dwelling” in Occasional Services, I realized that those Bible verses would work well for my purposes. (Some of the prayers also can be edited for a leave-taking ritual, though I used very few of them.)
When the time came, I gathered the extended family (13 people from 3 generations) in the living room and told them how we would proceed. It was really their ritual; I would only be the guide.
The adult children had been thinking about this for some time, and immediately they blurted out the Story of the Broken Light Fixture and the Tale of the Yellow Dye on the Ceiling! The siblings crowded each other out with their revised versions of each other’s memories. Though it wasn’t quite the orderly beginning that I had planned, this rowdy start proved that the family was indeed ready.
Following that “prequel,” I gathered the group at the front door, where I read the blessing, “Peace be to this house,” and Proverbs 24:3-4. I began by telling how I met my future mother-in law in the very place I was now standing. From that moment on, other stories poured forth. We went to the study, through the bedroom hallway, downstairs to the playroom, back up to the dining room, and into the kitchen. In every place, I would begin with an appropriate Bible verse, and then hear shared memories of sibling rivalry, family dinners, and holiday snafus.
Finally, when we got to the kitchen (identified so strongly with my mother in-law, who found leaving the most difficult), the hilarity toned down, and the spouses expressed gratitude for being welcomed so lovingly into this family. The hour of laughter gradually became a few moments of tears, and when all the stories were finished, we held hands around the kitchen island as I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for walls that had sheltered us, parents who had loved us, and artisans who had created spaces for growing and giving.
Things to Consider
Pastors who wish to incorporate leave-taking rites into their care of parishioners will want to take the following into consideration:
- Who will be invited to participate? It is a good idea to include family members who grew up in or spent much time in the house. Other close friends may also be invited if they are closely identified with the space. But it is best to limit numbers so the group can move comfortably through and congregate together in hallways and smaller rooms. The people moving will have the final say regarding the “guest list.”
- On first thought, a ritual may seem less important than letting the elderly talk about their feelings during a regular pastoral visit. However, the act of moving through hallowed halls with one’s family can create a lovely intimacy and remembrance of things past. It lifts this life passage from the maudlin to the majestic by bringing together the joys of many lives, and encourages thanksgiving, which is so often forgotten in times of loss.
- It is not necessary that the person leaving his or her home be able to recall many events there. Even in the case of Alzheimer’s sufferers, the choreography of moving through familiar spaces and offering blessings and prayers in those rooms can help to validate the “holy ground” in which the residents have lived. It reminds them that God has been present inside these walls and will be present in the new ones that will shelter them.
- The gathered family will determine the formality or informality of the event. If they are deeply and sacramentally connected to the church, you may want to carry a candle or cross from room to room, or conclude with distribution of Holy Communion around the kitchen table. If the family is not, as a group, formally religious, their own narratives will form the bulk of the ceremony. The closing prayer and/or benediction can incorporate what the pastor hears of God’s saving and life-giving grace in the collected memories. A hymn-loving family may want to sing together. “O Christ the Same,” from With One Voice (#778), would be appropriate. A family meal may follow. The pastor will choose the style of leave-taking based on the heartfelt spirituality of the people who are leaving the home and by the readiness of other participants to join in the leave-taking.
- The pastor is not the only one who can lead this ritual. A Stephen Minister, lay staff person, or other individual closely connected to the people leaving the home could also effectively do it. However, many older people want their pastors to provide such care since they often see their pastors as the “authentic” ritual-makers in our parishes. As in my case, it also can be the gift that a pastor gives to his or her own family, even when they are not members of that pastor’s parish.
- The more the leader can connect specific memories to the “God-story” of a home, the easier it may be for those moving to see God’s hand in the upcoming change. Prayer (525) on page 187 in Occasional Services could be amended to read, “O God, protect and guide those who have lived here. As you have blessed their going out and their coming in, so bless their final going out from this home; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Since my husband and I returned to our own home before my parents-in laws moved into the retirement center, I asked their pastor to visit them a week after their unpacking. He promised to do so; I trust that he, too, asked for God’s care and guidance of them in the days ahead. (The apartment itself is tiny; moving from room to room for a house blessing would be a compact event!)
They have already discovered that many of their old friends are their neighbors, and while one long chapter is now closed, I trust that another, perhaps not as long but just as rich, has opened with hope and anticipation.
Deborah D. Steed, an ELCA pastor, is a chaplain at Greenville Memorial Hospital, Greenville, South Carolina, and is taking part in a Clinical Pastoral Residency there.