Mom and dad were getting ready to fly home. They had just spent two weeks with us, mostly with our boys – their grandchildren. It had been a difficult visit. My mother’s heath was declining. As she hugged me she quietly whispered, “I am just tired of being touched.”
My mind drifted to a day thirty years earlier, I was 5 and my sister was 3, we went to the hospital for Christmas Eve dinner. I still remember the meal – turkey, mashed potatoes and brown gravy with green beans on the side. Each plate was covered with a stainless steel meal warmer. I cannot recall where my father sat, but my sister and I sat near the head of the bed at an adjustable table. We ate and watched my mother. She was sick, very sick. The doctors did not expect her to live. We were granted special permission to be there after visiting hours.
When my mother hugged me on that day, I was sad, but not panicked. In my mind this was just another moment of sickness. Mom and dad got on the airplane and flew home. The first hint that I was about to enter into a new normal was when my sister called me from the airport later that day. Mom wasn’t doing well; she was bleeding and nothing seemed to stop the flow.
There I was in that room watching the medical profession do everything they could to save my mother. They went about their tasks with tenderness and love. The nurse slipped quietly out of the room. For the first time since I arrived, my mom spoke to me. Her words were simple, “Don’t let them touch me, I’m ready to go home.”
Within five minutes the medication took over and my mother drifted into a restless sleep. I made my way to the nurse’s station. I called my sister, then my dad. We talked about mom’s final wishes. She had been clear with all of us – no extraordinary measures and no experiments. I hung up and spoke with the nurses, who dialed the doctor’s phone number. His voice was kind and soft, we talked about what they were doing to my mom. By the end of the call I requested that they stop all treatment and make my mom comfortable. I would not wish this conversation on my worst enemy. Within the hour the medical staff came in and unplugged my mother.
The next day I shared what was to be my final conversation with my mother. I don’t remember all the details of what we talked about, but we held hands and eventually she said, “Thank you.”
24 hours later I flew home.
Ten days after that she passed away.
The seasons of Lent and Easter have always been important to me. This year has been different. Ash Wednesday came and went without me taking any notice. The only time I was reminded that it was the season of Lent was when I went out for lunch and saw fish on the menu.
Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, Rita and I skipped church. I cannot remember the last time I missed a Palm Sunday service. Instead we attended a funeral. I was there to support a friend whose sister-in-law died. My wife came for other reasons. The lady whose life we were remembering had passed away from cancer. A little over a year ago, within a month of my wife’s diagnosis, that she received similar news. Both faced and fought cancer with dignity and strength. Her battle lead to a memorial service on Palm Sunday.
I stood in the chapel with hundreds of other mourners listening to the stories of this amazing wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend, and woman that brought laughter and tears. This was a person whose definition of family was always expanding to include outsiders. Strangers were nothing more than future family members. She met her soulmate and husband at a young age and together they promised to do their marriage “right.” This couple lived, loved, worked, and laughed together. They managed to forge a marriage and life together the rest of us dream about. All the stories reinforced the fact that they managed to do marriage right.
About halfway through one of the stories the speaker mentioned that this lady met her soulmate and married in 1986, the same year Rita and I started our life together. Looking across the chapel at a husband mourning the loss of his partner in life and love was heartbreaking and sobering. On this morning I was standing beside my wife and partner of more than 30 years, and he was across the room with tears flowing down his face. I was there holding my wife’s hand, and he would never feel his wife’s hand again.
I am a self-described “theology nerd.” Over the years I have officiated many funerals. I still struggle to make sense of death. I did walk away from that service with a renewed passion for life. It was Jesus who suggested that worrying about tomorrow wasn’t worth the effort (Matthew 5:25-34). None of us are promised any moments beyond this one. On the Sunday as Rita and I walked away from a service of remembrance and celebration of a life well lived, I took my wife’s hand in mine and sent up a prayer of thanks for another moment.
I remember the first funeral I officiated at like it was yesterday. She had passed away quietly of old age. In an effort figure out what to say at the service I arranged to meet with the family a couple of days before the service, my goal was to get to “know” this lady. I would weave what I learned into the meditation. Imagine my surprise when the entire family agreed that they were glad that she had finally died. Apparently she was mean, angry and insufferable for as far back as anyone could remember. It was not an easy first funeral, but I must have done OK because afterwards a deacon came and thanked me for “finding just the right words” for such a difficult situation.
That was over 20 years ago. I have officiated at many funerals since and figuring out what to say has not gotten any easier.
What do you say to the grieving parents who have just suffered to loss of a newborn baby?
How do you comfort a grieving newlywed whose husband has just died of leukemia?
Where do you find words of comfort for others who are mourning the death of your mother?
What do you say when a loving husband of 50+ years finally slips into eternity?
How do you tell your children that grandpa isn’t coming back?
Finding words of comfort is never easy. Death is scary. Sometimes in the rush to be pastoral and comforting it is easy to say all the wrong things for all the right reasons. The twelve words at the top of this list are: “If given the opportunity to come back, they would choose to stay.”
Really, is this the kind of God we serve? A God who intentionally keeps loved ones apart from each other?
My mother died 8 years ago. I cannot imagine a scenario where my boys are better off because she has gone to a “better place.” If I tell my boys that grandma doesn’t want to come back, how are they supposed to understand that? That grandma doesn’t love them anymore? Telling grieving families that loved ones would choose not to come back makes God seem mean, self-centered and small.
As Christians our faith does talk about the hope of life beyond death, this hope should be talked about at funerals. Turning the hope of heaven and reunion into “I don’t love you anymore” is wrong.
Filed under aging, Christian, death, eternity, faith, funeral, grandpa, leukemia, ministry, mourning, religion, responsibilities