L’Arche, Jean Vanier and revelations of abuse: The tasks of mourning

The shock waves are continuing to send ripples around the world.

There are so many people, those who are connected to L’Arche but also those who are not, who have been profoundly shaken by learning that Jean Vanier (L’Arche’s respected, revered, beloved, inspirational, charismatic founder) had been abusing at least six women, sexually and spiritually, as recently as 2005 and stretching back decades.

I lived in the L’Arche London community between 1985 and 1992 and have been a member and close friend ever since, but for many years now I have been quite peripheral. I live fairly nearby but have a job, a family, and many activities that have nothing to do with L’Arche. Sometimes months (and dare I say years) go by without being very much in touch with my friends there.

So the level of my distress and exhaustion is taking me by surprise.

I haven’t been in my L’Arche London community since last week, so haven’t witnessed the most recent reverberations of the sledgehammer-level-shock, but I know I am not alone in this.

This is the #MeToo era in which we are, thankfully, much more aware of how widespread sexual abuse is, how it can (and does) happen anywhere, how at risk people are of being abused, how dangerous it is to have power and to sit on pedestals. But somehow, Jean Vanier always seemed to be a sign of hope in a difficult world. And as my 16-year-old daughter said, when all this exploded two weeks ago: The brighter the light, the bigger the shadow.

It helps that the world beyond L’Arche seems to agree that this is, indeed, Big and Bad. That validates our shock. I’ve had lots of supportive comments following my previous blog posts, and in particular following last weekend’s interview on BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme (if you missed it, here is the sound clip).

Even better, listen to the people from the L’Arche Toronto community, in particular Stacy Gilchrist who said:

He touched women’s bodies. It was wrong. He was very bad, and he was naughty… I got so angry about him. I’m not going to talk about him again.

I have been pondering the analogies with death and bereavement, and that continues to help us.

This is as bad as a death, I thought.

Or is it worse??

As is so often the case, it was someone with intellectual disabilities who hit the nail on the head when the two of us talked about this. We were remembering the times when one of our friends had died, and we all got together on the evening of the death, to share our shock and distress. Wasn’t it good that we could get together like that, that Saturday afternoon when we heard the bad news about Jean Vanier? He said:

Well yes, BUT… at least when Michelle died, we could say nice things about her. And have good memories.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? He is right. Jean Vanier’s death last year was easier, because we could celebrate his life. We lost the man, but not our relationship with him, not our memories, not his legacy. Now, it seems, we have lost all of that.

When Michelle died (and some of you may have followed the story of how we coped with her death last year) we could mourn and yet celebrate the wholeness of her life.

Mourning Michelle’s death together (February 2019)

Now we can only mourn, because how do you celebrate broken pieces?

The tasks of mourning

I don’t really know how we are going to get through this, but perhaps it will help us to take some further cues from the analogies with bereavement. As it happens, last month I wrote about Helping people with profound intellectual disabilities cope with bereavement.  I just re-read it, and I am struck by how useful it might be to think about all this as Grief Work (now wonder we’re exhausted! It’s WORK!) and the Four Tasks of Mourning.

These four tasks were described by William Worden in his book Grief counselling and grief therapy. It was first published in 1983 and has gone through several adjustments, but I still find it very useful and relevant. So I’m going to share it with you again and think aloud about how it might help us now, in L’Arche.

Remember, grief is unique to all of us and will be different in all our different communities. Remember, too, that there are many theories about grief and how to help. This is just one of them – you can take it or leave it.

I am going to take it as truth that our L’Arche communities have suffered a loss and are mourning.

Worden suggests that there are four tasks that we must work through and accomplish, before mourning is completed and an equilibrium is re-established. (Hard to see now what kind of equilibrium that might be, but it is quite clear that we have work to do!)

Here are the four tasks.

  1. Accept the reality of the loss

  2. Process the pain of grief

  3. Adjust to a world without the person who has died

  4. Find an enduring connection with the person who has died

These are in no particular order, although there is a bit of logic to the way this list is arranged. As you will see later, it will be quite hard to find a new and enduring connection with Jean Vanier, unless you have started to accept the reality of the loss. And we may need to go back to the tasks over time. Grief is not a linear path. It’s more like a labyrinth.

Here are my reflections on how this might apply to our situation in L’Arche, where we have to come to terms not with the death of our Jean Vanier, but with his fall from grace and the shattering of our founding story.

Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss

On one level, this is fairly simple. We need to tell each other the news, as clearly and simply as possible (which is exactly what we did when the news broke). We need to repeat it. We need to talk about it with each other, with our friends, even with strangers. It needs to sink in. We need to begin to understand it. Those of us who can read, have not only read and re-read the 11-page summary report but also the articles, blogs etc. that have been shared online. All this is helping us to realise: This Has Really Happened.

(I’m not saying “accept” yet, but before we can accept it, we have to believe it.)

As an example: It is surprisingly helpful to explain the whole difficult story to people who know nothing about it. I’ve done it quite a few times now, and each time I’m telling it, it becomes more real. I am slowly getting used to the story.

On another level, this task is complicated. Because what is it, exactly, that we have lost? What is the significance of the loss?

We may be inclined to diminish it (He was only one man! L’Arche is bigger than its founder!) or we may diminish the importance and relevance of Jean Vanier in our own lives.

I find myself doing both: “I never did get through any of his books. I believe in the founding principles of L’Arche, the stuff around equality, but always found the whole spiritual explanations of it quite difficult. And anyway I didn’t know Jean very well, personally. So what does it matter?”

Yet I know, on a profound level, that I have lost something. Understanding what that is, is part of the task I’m working on at the moment.

We will have to do some of this together (because some of what we have lost is true for all of us), but we also have to find, name, accept what each of us, individually, has lost. This can be wide-ranging. A loss of trust. Of innocence. Of aspects of our spiritual lives and understanding, perhaps even of faith. For some, perhaps, especially those who have suffered abuse themselves, a loss of certain coping strategies (maybe trying to forget or block out the demons of the past). For some, especially those who counted Jean as a friend, a loss of love and a tainting of memories.

Blimey, this is going to be hard.

Task 2: Working through the pain of grief.

We’ve definitely started work on that one. The “pain of grief” will mean something different for different people, and there is no right or wrong here. Put simply, this is allowing ourselves and each other to feel all the different feelings associated with grief. This can range from feelings of anger, despair, sadness, loneliness and fear to feelings of shame, blame, guilt, or relief. It’s a long and non-exhaustive list.

The best thing we can do is to acknowledge these feelings. Talk about them. Share them. Create space for them. The worst we can do is to try and move on as quickly as possible, or to put a time limit on them. I don’t want anyone to say, in six months’ time: Surely you must have got over it by now? Isn’t it time to move on? The pain of grief never completely goes away. It’s OK to feel pangs of it, even years and years later.

The least helpful thing someone has said to me in this past week was what I heard (rightly or wrongly) as: How on earth can you be so extremely upset about this? Shouldn’t you know better? Why does this come as such a surprise?

The most helpful have been those who have listened, and nodded, often in silence: Yes, of course. I can see that this is deeply upsetting. You are right to be upset. (That includes many of you, reading this. Writing these blog posts, I realise now, is one way of sharing the pain of grief.)

People who are working through the pain of grief need no explanations, no justifications, no efforts to try and make things better.

Task 3: Adjust to a world without the Jean Vanier that we knew

This, too is going to be hard. Thinking about it at the level of local, national and international L’Arche communities, it means that we have to understand what the relationship was with the founder, and how this affects the way we live now. We need to understand not only what we have lost, but also what we have NOT lost… and even what we have GAINED.

I really believe that there is hope here. It may seem strange to talk about gain, and I don’t quite know or understand what it is – I think it will be a while before we can even start focusing on this task – but I can smell it. How else to explain the fact that I have never, in all my 35 years as a member of the L’Arche London community, felt as much unity, as much being part of the community as I do now? Not just our London community, but our communities worldwide? It is a unity I feel even with people outside L’Arche, people in my choir, in my local church, at work, strangers responding to my blog posts: I am convinced there is something we will find, and move forward with, that does not need to include the charismatic founder. Perhaps it is better without him, even.

In task 1, it is unhelpful to say that L’Arche is bigger than its founder. Here, in task 3, it might be extremely helpful indeed.

This task also includes adjusting to a new spirituality, a new vision, a new way of understanding why we live the way we live. We need to find confidence in a new way of understanding our world, and that has many different levels: spiritual, practical, individual, collective.

It also must, absolutely and without question, include a new openness and honesty. About sexuality, about abuse, about power, about the connection between spirituality and daily life. And it must include the most stringent safeguarding procedures and practices that we can think of. I’m glad that L’Arche International has already started serious work on this aspect of task 3.

Task 4: Find an enduring connection with Jean Vanier

For many of us (including myself) this is almost too difficult to contemplate right now. We may not be ready to work on it for a long, long time. Yet, if Worden is to be believed (and I think I do believe him), we cannot find our new equilibrium unless we find peace with the memory and legacy of Jean Vanier. Before we can do that, we have to truly accept the terrible things he has done, as part of our founding story. We have to understand how it has been possible for L’Arche (much of which really is very good) to grow from such a terrible story. We have to accept, really deeply accept, that our true founding story is far from charming. That there is no pedestal. We have to let go of the saint and welcome the sinner. And a terrible, terrible sinner at that.

This task is quite difficult to get our heads around (and it is the one that Worden himself kept re-phrasing and re-framing in the different editions of his book). But the crux of it is that the relationship between L’Arche and Jean Vanier, and between individuals and Jean Vanier, was so important that we cannot move forward and live well unless we give that a place in our lives, and in the story of our communities. We cannot, and should not, erase Jean Vanier.

But I don’t quite know how to do this, and perhaps it is too early. Some people in our community (and this includes people with intellectual disabilities especially) have found it in their hearts to pray for Jean Vanier. Perhaps forgiveness comes into it. But I can’t do that yet, because I haven’t even started properly on task 1 (remember? Accepting the reality). And nobody should be “taken to task” on this one.

Especially not the victims of abuse.

Please don’t take any of this as guidance (and definitely not as gospel truth).

I have, quite literally, been thinking aloud. I’ve written this without thinking it through. You can use it as something to think about and perhaps talk about. I would be really interested to hear your thoughts and your suggestions. Let’s keep sharing the many different ways in which you (and your communities) are coping with all this.

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