I attended my uncle’s funeral today. He was 80 years old, lived a full life and had dementia and other health issues in recent years. His dying was not unexpected although death always brings some grief and sorrow.
My sorrow today, however, was not for my uncle. It was for my cousin who came into the church with his family, dressed in orange prison overalls, shackles on his hands and feet, followed by two guards. The sight was so jarring and so unexpected, tears sprang to my eyes as my heart broke open for him.
You might wonder what a man must have done to be brought to his father’s funeral in prison gear. I suspect it has more to do with him being a flight risk than a danger to the public, although, to be honest, I don’t know why he is in jail this time. His family has struggled with his path for some time and, understandably, don’t want to talk about it too much and they shouldn’t have to. He has been in trouble with the law on and off for the last twenty five years, not because he grew up on “the wrong side of the tracks” or because he had a terrible childhood or because he had a bad streak in him.
He is in trouble with the law because the part of his cognitive ability that helps him discern right from wrong, appropriate from inappropriate, ethical from in-ethical, was destroyed in his mid twenties when he suffered a brain aneurism that instantaneously changed the course of his life forever. It was a wonder he survived, many don’t, and survival came at a very high cost.
My sorrow is for a young man who lost any chance of living out his dreams or of living a normal life because he simply doesn’t know that walking out of store without paying for merchandise is wrong. My sorrow is for a person who, one day, had a whole life of promise ahead of him and the next was thrown into unimaginable complexity and chaos in a world that had no answers and no systems to truly support him. While I don’t know all the ins and outs of his story, I do know his family searched high and low and tried everything they could think of and then some to find a way to help him navigate his life, including having him live with them. He has been in and out of rehabilitation centres and programs as well as jail. Is it really true that the only place we have to house a person who’s had this kind of traumatic brain injury is in our jail system? That breaks my heart.
And, my heart breaks open for my cousin and the path he unexpectedly finds himself on. There is so much about him that is still quintessentially my cousin – he looks like himself, although he is now prematurely aged and hunched over. He has a wicked sense of humour. He knows all the people in his life. He just doesn’t know how to respond to events in his life. When his brother, someone he was very close to who kept a loving eye on him, died unexpectedly at a young age a few years after his aneurism, he went to see a neighbour and said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel.” And not from the perspective of the grief curve, but from the loss of this integral brain function.
Well, I know what I feel. I feel my heart breaking open for my cousin, his family, the wife and children he will never have, his unlived dreams and potential and the loss to all of us of a caring, responsible, delightful, contributing young man. I still think of him as young even though he is now in his late forties. My heart breaks open for this good person who has walked an unexpected path due to circumstances truly beyond his control that no one could have anticipated and which are, apparently, unfixable.
To see him makes me deeply grateful for the ability to intentionally shift the shape of my own path with levels of awareness no longer available to my cousin and leaves me feeling very humble. While I’ve thought about my cousin on and off over the years and have seen him at family funerals, seeing him walk into the church today in this way will stay forever etched in my memory and my heart will be forever open with love for this human being who is part of my family and a living example of the mystery of how our individual and inextricably linked soul journeys show up in this lifetime. Maybe if I can hold him in a field of love, even if he doesn’t know it, it will offer some ease and levity to the dark and difficult path that is his to walk. And, really, he is still just a young man.
thanks for sharing a heartfelt observation about family, about a young life cut too short, and a new found perspective, and appreciation, for what we all have and enjoy and often take for granted.
As I read your post, my mind and heart went quickly to empathy. I grieve with you for your cousin who should and could be engaged with Restorative Justice rather than the Retributive Justice (penchant for punishment) that American society and its policymakers find so satisfying.
Then, my emotions moved quickly to anger over the American “correctional system” that is so broken and so entrenched in antiquated rules and regulations.
Before I continue with my thoughts, I first want to stop and commend you for thinking of your cousin. The incarcerated person with a supportive (not enabling) family member is much more likely to receive care inside the prison and to successfully reenter society than those who have no one to advocate for them. Most people have no idea how difficult it is to advocate for themselves from inside a jail or prison. Also, letters from family members are a soothing balm to prisoners who otherwise have little connections to a world that is passing them by very quickly; and, they know that someone cares about them.
America is the world’s number one incarcerator and its Mass incarceration is a growth industry that budgets about $61 billion annually to house about 2.3 million people and to supervise about 4.7 million who are on probation and parole. The average cost of incarcerating a person is about $28,000.00 per year. Sadly, and this speaks to the brokenness of the free market enterprise system, some of our tax dollars go to for-profit businesses that operate some prisons. Make no mistake about it, these private prison operators have powerful lobbyists that work to increase their reach and their profit margins.
I remember well a statement made by Dr. Robert Franklin, Professor of Social Ethics at Emory University: “prisons are a barometer of our failed public policy”.
The number of people who are mentally ill, have a substance abuse issue, and who are incarcerated go up with each passing year of budget cuts and elimination of mental health care. As a local sheriff (Richmond, VA) once said, “I have people in my jail who should not be there. They need mental health care that we are not sufficiently prepared to provide”.
I could go on for some time about the challenges of our broken corrections system and the collateral consequences to our society. Rather, I urge you to become informed; to advocate for Restorative Justice (victim, perpetrator, and their community), to remain in touch with and supportive of your cousin; to vote for those who commit to ending the unsustainable prison industry and replacing it with a system such as Canada, Australia or other that values restoration rather than just meting out punishment.
From my work at the local, state and national levels, I believe that the only way that we can change America’s penchant for punishment (eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth style of justice), is to change our minds and hearts toward empathy and restoration, to focus our anger toward correcting unsustainable public policies, and directing our investments toward building communities where the mutual common good is goal number one.
If you are interested in sharing and or learning more, I am happy to communicate further.
I conclude with a resource from a colleague, Marc Mauer, who has devoted his life to this very difficult work: http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/index.cfm.
All the best to you and your cousin,
David, your passion for this topic comes across so clearly in your writing. I will take a look at the resource you have shared a bit later. I know my own path is not in prison reform (or in educational reform although that also has my attention) but I will certainly be exploring more my role in illuminating my cousin’s story. I only know bits and pieces. We are not close as a family but more there is more to explore I know. Wanting to move beyond the fleeting encounters at funerals to something with a bit more depth. Thank you for your passion and the meaningful, relevant work you are doing in the world. Kathy
A heart rending and poignant story, Kathy, told with exquisite sensitivity. It’s a world in which we are all more vulnerable than we allow ourselves to believe; most of us are just luckier than your cousin. Though he is quite fortunate, I believe, in having you as such a powerful witness.
Grady, thank you for your comments. They touch me deeply. Very aware of the power of witnessing and I think when I saw my cousin I was aware of really seeing him – in both his physical journey and his soul journey.
Thank you for sharing this – So much bitter sweetness this past weekend, Mother’s Day, a Funeral and your cousin. I’m sorry to hear about your uncle but glad that he had a rich life.
Your cousin’s story is sad and one that I am all too familiar with from working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. His situation is the one of the most difficult there are because he suffered brain damage and people probably look and treat him as if he should be fine and just get over it. There are still few supports for people who fall into the in-between mental challenge, brain injury and mental health. From my experince, love and support in practical forms mean the most and are the hardest to give over the long-term.
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this difficult time and consider yourself doubly hugged!
I`m sorry to hear about your Uncle. He always made me laugh with his Ernie (from Sesame Street) impersonation be it at church or in town.
I too remember your cousin because he used to look out for me during the summers at the community center when most others would have banned me he understood what was bothering me and cut me some slack.
Your writing does them both honor!
Dear Chris, Your comment (and others, too) affirms my decision to write about my cousin. I hesitated, wanting to respect the family and yet it was so predominant in my reflections from yesterday, I was compelled to write. With the outpouring of such beautiful reminiscences from people who know him and knew him before the aneurism, I now know for sure, it was the right thing to do – bringing out into the open what may some times be hushed or whispered conversations. Thank you, Kathy
I discovered your posting through Facebook and am so glad I took the time to read it. As a former resident of Lunenburg, I knew your cousin prior to his aneurism. He was a friend of my brother’s. It saddens me to learn that he is still struggling so with life. Your blog has highlighted the life altering effects of a brain injury. It also highlights that we, as a society, are quite ill-equipped to support people with brain injuries. I thank you for sharing your insight!
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