Going to places of greif

We gathered to say good bye to a remarkable woman yesterday. She really was amazing and her family’s tributes rang with truths that the rest of us knew about her energy, creativity, passion, intelligence and caring. The crowd that gathered was larger than the capacity of the place where we gathered. Briefly, I wished that the service had been held in our church, which has a room big enough for all of the people, ushers who know how to assist folks who use canes, walkers and wheelchairs, and a parking lot that doesn’t require crossing a busy street. But the location wasn’t the focus of the day, nor the reason we had gathered.

One of the realities of a world that is becoming more secular is that some religious notions that have value are occasionally rejected by people who don’t quite know what they are rejecting. A service is called “A Celebration of Life” instead of a funeral because somehow the term funeral seems to be too sad and too gram. What you call the service, however, doesn’t erase the simple fact that we grieve when we experience loss. We can plant a smile on our faces and speak of the most positive aspects of a person’s life and still their passing causes tears to well up and sometimes overflow. Saying we are going to focus on the happy doesn’t erase the sadness that is an essential part of life.

Real hope doesn’t pretend that sadness doesn’t exist. It doesn’t avoid pain.

Because my life is inside of the services of the church, I notice things that others may not. When a few words are left out of a traditional prayer, I miss them. When verses are left out of a hymn, I notice. I go to pay tribute to someone and no provision is made for visiting with the family and I feel like my actions were incomplete.

The world is changing and sometimes I have trouble keeping up because I choose to live within the embrace of tradition.

Another adventure of my day yesterday was spending time with a family who had just experienced the sudden and unexpected death of a young man. Because I rushed from one event to the other, I couldn’t keep them separate in my mind. I was thinking of the parents holding each other as they wept and the thought and the horror of the news of their son’s death. I was thinking of the gathering of friends, who came to offer their support, and whose presence was more powerful than any words and words were hard to come by. It was a stark contrast with the gathering of many whose lives had been touched by someone who had neared a century of living and whose passing seemed a natural part of the flow of life. And yet, both were places of grief. Both were occasions of being intensely aware that things had changed permanently for the people involved.

Life does not afford us the luxury of escaping sadness and grief. Sometimes we can delay our experiences, but none of us get through this life without coming face to face with the sorrow of losing someone we love.

In the middle of the family crisis over the death of a young man, his grandfather decided that it would be good to make a pot of coffee. It was his tradition of what you do when people gather. You make coffee. But he was not in his own home and the coffee pot was not familiar to him. He didn’t know how it worked and he was struggling with what his role should be. He wanted to do something. He wanted to sooth the pain his son was experiencing. He wanted to express his own pain at the death of a grandson. But the coffee maker was foreign to him. Kindly and gently a friend who had come to express support for the family took over for him and made coffee while I struck up a conversation with the grandfather. Soon he was telling me the names of everyone in the family pictures on the wall and sharing stories of his grandson. A few minutes later the friend handed him a cup of coffee. It was an act of incredible kindness. The friend clearly had no words of wisdom to offer. She didn’t know what to say. But her presence was invaluable. Her ministry of making a pot of coffee was a gift to a grieving family. I noticed that she wasn’t drinking coffee. She wasn’t doing it for herself. She was paying attention to the needs of others.

As I said my goodbyes and left that family I noticed that more friends were gathering. There were awkward hugs and tears and a few more people were holding cups of coffee. Someone went off to a nearby store to get some more coffee and cream. The natural process of grieving was starting to take over. There was no pretending that pain was absent. There was no way to avoid the grief and sorrow and sadness. It wasn’t the time for the public ceremony, but rather a moment for a friend to hand a cup of coffee to a grandfather who didn’t know what to do with the pain he was experiencing. No one took away his pain, they simply demonstrated by their actions that he was not alone in his pain. And it was enough.

I often say that the season of Lent is a gift of practicing for the grief that we will all experience. We go through community rituals of remembrance of sorrow, loss, pain and death. But more and more I come into contact with people who haven’t been practicing the rituals of Lent each year. They find the realities of life to be strange and shocking and overwhelming. Of course there is no way to practice for the shock of the premature loss of a loved one. That is why the wider community - the church - needs to keep practicing. We need to be ready to offer support and love when tragedy strikes our community.

And sometimes, ever so gently, we need to remind folks that we have a place to gather and offer our church home as a place for the community to grieve.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!