I was driving to a business meeting the day my dad called to say that my 94 year old grandma had passed. Our 13 year old daughter had succumbed to leukemia 8 months prior and I was tired of grieving. I was tired of the way it kept interrupting my life at unexpected moments, tired of finding myself sobbing in the grocery store when someone asked me how many children I had or I saw something that reminded me of her. I was tired of feeling raw and exposed for the whole world to see.
I loved my grandma, but she was 94, so her passing was not that surprising. Still, my heart lurched and I found myself crying enough that I had to pull over for a minute. I thought that would be enough. I decided to go on to the meeting. It was just with one person after all.
When I arrived, I tried to act like everything was normal. About 10 minutes into the meeting I had to admit to myself that I was having a lot of trouble concentrating. But worse than that, my heart was physically feeling increasing pressure. A very real, heavy physical pain was growing in my chest and I started having a lot of irregular heart beats.
After a very brief explanation, I went home. I don’t really remember the rest of the day, but I didn’t attempt much else. That was almost 15 years ago. Fast forward to 4 years ago when my mother died, within the space of 2 months, from brain cancer.
During those two months, I recalled all the depths of grief I was familiar with. I allowed myself times to cry, but I also put a lot of energy into taking care of my dad. I was struggling to find the balance between grieving and not being sucked into despair. I was trying to acknowledge the hope I have in eternity, but be honest about how the temporary separation made me feel. I was trying to enjoy the people still here with me, but also remember my mom with them.
Then, four weeks ago my little sister died quite unexpectedly due to a massive brain aneurysm. She was 51 years young. She was the picture of health before that happened. Everyone who knew her was stunned.
She didn’t pass right away. She was on a ventilator for a couple of days, and when it was finally removed I stayed by her hospital bed for nearly 36 hours straight. I slept on two office chairs pushed together, aided by one pillow. I did this both for her sake and because the one time I tried to go rest for a couple of hours I developed terrible, sharp chest pain.
I watched my sister as she breathed her last few shallow breaths and then slipped into that other place that remains a mystery to those of us left behind. I felt numb and exhausted. I began to worry that everyone around me might die at any moment. And then I remembered that is true.
I have discovered that there is much dark humor in grieving. Since I am a fan of Star Trek, I found myself thinking weird thoughts like, “Death, the final frontier – going where everyone goes sooner or later.” I picture my sister laughing from paradise at the fact that she got there first! She who readily admitted she wanted to win at things, but she didn’t really want to try.
And so I laugh and I cry a lot lately, feeling incredibly deep emotions all the time. I am no stranger to grief and I know that it is like breathing. It happens because I am alive. I notice it and I work with it, but I am not in complete control of it.
In some ways grief is like a fresh wound. It will bleed profusely at first, and this is good because it helps clean things out. However, to let it keep bleeding or to keep it from healing is not good. There is nothing wise or honorable about re-opening wounds like some self-flagellating monk.
Yet, I cannot make it heal faster by wishing it gone, either. I have to rest and care for it. In essence, I have to care for me. I may have a scar to remind me of the pain. I may even have some residual recurring pain, like I do from a ruptured disc in my neck. But I should do everything I can to help the healing along and to learn to function in whatever state I then end up in.
Death in this world is that unavoidable reminder of what is important. It humbles the most arrogant. It gives relief at the end of what can sometimes be a weary journey.
It also reminds us that there is more than this broken world. There is a joy and hope that is a bit blurry from here, from this side of things; but pure joy is there and our turn will come.
Death reminds us that we can begin to have that joy here if we seek our Maker and love our neighbor as ourselves. Grief at this death offers to heal any misconceptions or poor priorities we may have. It reminds us to do our best to heal the relationships we have now.
I recall the prophecies that Mary received about Jesus, that a sword would pierce her own heart. I believe God was trying to prepare her for the mother’s grief she would feel at his death. This was her unique grief at his death on the cross. Though his death would lead to the ultimate, final healing to those who will believe, for her it was more personal. God was not oblivious to that.
We can trust that God wants to help us through our grief. He wants to lead us on to the complete joy of resting in him. He wants us, in our finite state, to trust that he works all things for our good, as he is quite capable of doing. He doesn’t mind if we cry along the way, because some things really hurt.
However, if we stay mired in grief, it is because we aren’t looking up to his loving face. He loves us more than any mother, spouse, sister, or child can. He is the source of all love. Death is not some cruel trick. It is the final release from these sinful bodies. It is the gateway to paradise and he will come get us when it is time.