There was standing room only at Carol’s funeral yesterday. Well over 200 people had come from near and far (some from very far) to celebrate her life and mourn her death. The funeral service lasted almost two hours and was not a minute too long – so much to say, so much to sing, so much to pray.
“I just can’t explain to others why I’m so upset about Carol,” one young man said last night at Carol’s home, where – after the funeral and the cremation and the sandwiches and the tea – some of us had gathered for sausages & mash & wine. He, like most of us round the table, had once lived in this house, together with Carol.
“They ask, Who is Carol? and all I can tell them is, Woman in her sixties, severe learning disabilities, lives in a care home. She died.” And my colleagues and friends look completely blank, wondering why on earth that matters. But it matters! It matters so much!”
There were vigorous nods of recognition. We have all heard the unspoken assumptions from people who have never met Carol or Michelle or indeed anyone else with learning disabilities. The assumption that really, deep down, isn’t the death of an elderly woman with such severe disabilities a blessed relief?
But look. The people who turned up for Carol’s funeral were not just members of the London L’Arche community, where she lived. They were also members of her family (lost during the first half of her life, when she lived in an institution, but found again in the latter half). They were parishioners, surprisingly many of whom had turned out on this Thursday morning. They were neighbours, people who simply knew Carol because she lived in their street.
They felt blessed, perhaps – but they certainly didn’t feel relieved.
Two hours of tears and laughter, and then more tears as we listened to Nunc Dimittis and sang as Carol’s friends and family finally carried her out of the church.
Oh, she matters. I had the huge privilege of giving the eulogy, telling the story of Carol’s life, which I will share with you in my next blog post. Because it is important that we recognise the important place people like Carol have in this world.
It seems to me that I appreciate only now just how big that place was. How huge the Carol-shaped hole that I am now staring at. I’ve been thinking about her life, I’ve been listening to so many Carol stories, and only now do I see, clear as anything, just how and where Carol fits into the bigger scheme of things.
But not only that: I see how Carol and Michelle fit into my life, and how they have shaped the person I am today.
With death and grief comes new understanding, a better understanding of who we are, and where we ourselves fit into the world.
Carol’s need for relationships and community was so strong that it was impossible not to be touched by her. I know there are many people in the world, people with severe learning disabilities like Carol, who touch those around them. Not only their families and carers, but also (if given the chance) people in their wider community. They are able to draw us into a different way of relating, sharing something of ourselves that perhaps we are not able to share with anyone else. Something precious.
And as I walked along a stormy beach today with only sea birds for company, I didn’t just cry, I howled. Because of the something precious that used to sit in the world-space taken up by Carol and by Michelle, and that is now empty. And I didn’t even know it.
But somewhere, also, there is a flicker of gratitude and admiration for the way in which these two women are bringing communities together, even now. The many people at Carol’s funeral, with more people getting ready to travel to London for Michelle’s funeral early next week. The L’Arche London Facebook Messenger group which has over 200 people in it, all over the world, sharing photos and memories of our two friends
And you too, reading these blogs: count yourselves in.