In the last few weeks, we’ve been to several funerals. Bruce’s two aunts on his father’s side died within a week of each other, so we made the trek to the middle of Wisconsin. Both were in their mid-nineties. And there was a sense of women who’d lived good, generous lives. It was so good to be with family and remember.
Another friend’s stepmother, a woman we’d prayed for, as he sought to do right by her, just died. Yet another friend’s brother has taken deathly ill with cirrhosis. The only two people I ever babysat, I pray for reconciliation between them. A dear friend’s father-in-law fell asleep around the same time.
The closest loss came when a man of God and good friend died this past week. Bruce and I used to go to MacDonald’s after Weight Watchers when we ran into our friends who welcomed us into church. He listened to my ideas for church ministry, he said you should do that. He talked about how his mother was a writer left reams of papers after she died. It was a work pitching them. I think of this with the twenty feet of notebooks sitting upstairs and no children to leave them to. It’s too much to read over and the thought of tossing them in a hot fire, stalls me, though on the other side, I think I’d feel relief, a mind more clear.
When I gave up on Weight Watchers, those chats over Egg McMuffins stopped. But a few weeks ago, our man of God friend caught pneumonia after abdominal surgery and went home to be with the Lord. Bruce and I feel helpless what to say or do. We are grateful the food and sweets brought comfort to his wife in the first hard days. These words have tumbled their way to my fingers. My mother died 42 years ago.
First, I am not sure I have the right to say anything because every walk through grief is as unique as the person grieving. My “this is the way, walk in it. This how it was for me” might not be the way anyone else should walk.
Words meant as comfort can wound, when your skin is as raw as if you’d canoed up a river, and you thought the clouds kept you from burning and they did not. “I’m so sorry” wears thin, but it can be all people know to say. “It’s for the best or They’re in a better place” might comfort or might deepen the pit opening before the grief stricken, a pit that widens every day, day by day, as the grief stricken wakes up to their beloved not there.
Nights are dreadful. That side of the bed empty. There is no warmth to curl up with. No hand to hold as you fall asleep. The pent-up energy to keep moving, to do the next thing, all those legalities, all the funeral details, roaring to life, as soon as you close your eyes. The woulda, shoulda, coulda’s whisper in your ears. Sometimes they shout. You speak your apologies but they don’t shut the woulda, shouldas, couldas up. You whisper the Jesus prayer—Lord Jesus, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” but the words wind up like toy scuttling across the floor.
There is a prayer that breaks up the shame: Even though I failed my beloved, I am loved and accepted by God. Even though I failed my beloved I love and accept myself. Even though I failed my beloved I will trust you God. It broke up my shame when my horse’s last week of life was likely torture for her, as a horse. I said it quietly, in the barn. Then I imagined riding her to the River, slipping off her back, slipping her bridle off and sending her off to God.
At night you will have people who wake up praying for you. And people you can call, who know how to listen, and pray even at three am.
On the other hand, a touch that opens tears can be a great and good gift. Because you can long for tears but they won’t come. Instead, a peace that passes understanding can wrap His presence around you, and it doesn’t feel natural. How come I can’t honor my beloved and wail? Shouldn’t my eyes fill with tears day and night? But that rest from tears can also be a good gift.
A touch that opens anger can also be a great and good gift because anger is sometimes the glue that holds you together, until time reels and the memories return and you can cry. In The Fountain and the Furnace, Maggie Ross has written, “I used to think there was never any excuse for anger because, being pride’s cowl, it is never justified. I used to think this, that is, until I underwent an experience so painful that my anger was the only vehicle through which my sanity was kept intact. I lived with this anger, struggled with it, fought it, nearly drowned from my thrashing, and finally simply allowed it to run its course” (154 -5). (She’s my latest favorite author. )
Or maybe you have been blessed with tears, that might be hard to release in front of your children because you’ve been the parent, protecting them from difficult things, your difficult emotions, but now your children and grandchildren wrap their arms around you and quiet you. But the tears, your sobbing, insisted they shove open your reserve like a dog nudging her way out the door.
The communion of saints is real. “Seeing as we’re surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, run with patience the race that is set before us.” That’s what the writer to the Hebrews says. A not so beloved pastor told us, “If you are in Christ, your beloved is in Christ, you are not very far apart.” Sometimes the saints who have gone before draw near and we can sense their presence. A theologian I follow says that it’s not beneath Jesus to share his work with them. So they are praying for us, hoping for the best. And we can pray for them. Those prayers making a connection.
Death is not the last word. Jesus says, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died and behold I am alive forevermore and I have the keys to Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17). He did this by dying, but death could not hold down the author of Life. When my mother died, her funeral felt more like a wedding. It felt like time bent around and she was raised out of the grave, then and there. When my brother died, I felt deep as my bones that death was dead, done for, kaput.
When your beloved was in the process of dying, Jesus was by their side, swimming with them through that river, the river through which we came into this life and the wet river through which we leave it. This is how I imagined my mother’s journey through death, a swim in a cold river to a field where the New Jerusalem settled. She boarded a train to take her there. Even before we die, we die before we die by jumping into that river when we were baptized into Christ’s death and risen to new life. The river that is our baptism, where we died to our old life and were raised to new life, soaking wet, disoriented by what it means to be a new creation, while living in the old one.
When Bruce’s mom died, she sounded like a racehorse breezing down the track. She was laboring in the great birth canal that takes us to the Lord’s presence and makes us fully human. Ireneaus, who studied with Polycarp who knew the Apostle John personally, says, The glory of God is a man fully alive, who has also died. We become fully human, the person God had in mind when he made us, when we are raised. But dying itself can be a hard work for the person falling asleep and for us.
Even with knowing death was dead, I have still grieved. I fought for the stuff left over. I was furious for years. I wrote and rewrote The River Caught Sunlight, finally knowing how much I’d been loved by my family. It was like a long, slow walk, of not knowing where I was going, thinking the child’s chorus, “The Lord knows the way through the wilderness, all I have to do is follow.” And the line from Dante before he entered the gates of hell, “I did not die but nothing of my life remained.”
What I should be saying is nothing. I should be offering nothing more than presence, than my own emptiness that fills with listening or silence or maybe small talk. Well, I’m sitting where a former owner of our farm was laid out for the neighbors to visit. Sometimes I feel her presence or the presence of others here. Sometimes their noise is so great my thoughts feel like they are slogging through two feet of water. So for now that’s all I know.
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