As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to depart. I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith.2 TImothy 4:6-7
Signs of the old house remained: deep, chestnut-stained woodwork trimming the doors and windows. An ornate staircase with a wood-paneled wall, richly detailed with dark, patterned carpet covering the stairs as they turned along the wall. High ceilings with gaudy brass fixtures, subdued with age and looking as if they had once produced gas light where lightbulbs now resided. However, impressions of a home-that-once-was ended upon entering the large parlor arrayed with rows of chairs, whitish curtains with doves outlined in their folds, flowered wallpaper attempting to evoke a sense of the eternal in patterned hopefulness, and the simple urn resting on a table, surrounded by flowers. Like all funeral homes, the place was familiar as participant in the tradition of funeral homes, yet strange in its attempts to comfort with notions of the afterlife
Into this scene walked my nearly four-year-old grandson, Cooper. His reaction was immediate and visceral: he wanted nothing to do with it. He sensed the grief, the pain, the awkwardness, the loss, and the strangeness of the entire affair. Refusing to set foot in the parlor itself, he retreated to an enclosed front porch decorated with bird figurines and a bronze statue of a uniformed soldier. His dad tried to draw him into the event, get him to join those seated in the large room, but Cooper resisted as if his life depended on it.
Walking out to him, I kneeled down and asked him what was wrong. He looked at me with hesitation and did not answer. “Are you scared? I asked.” “Yes,” he responded. I said, “Now is the time for us to be brave and join our family for Aunt Net’s memorial service.” He said, “I’m not brave.” “Sometimes, when I’m feeling scared, I pray the St. Michael the Archangel Prayer and it helps me feel brave,” I replied. “It doesn’t make me feel brave,” he said.
Looking around that room, the faces said it all and I completely understood Cooper’s hesitation. Sadness, regret, and fear filled every corner of the space. Death is a mysteriously intimate and foreign threshold looming before each of us even as we desperately look in every other direction. The loss of a loved one forces us to look deeply at how we’ve lived and how we’ve loved while challenging us to reconcile them with our own mortality and the question of how we move forward. We mourn what is no more even while we look to the path we all must walk. The little boy intuited the fearful complexity of living and dying without a word ever being said.
A few days before, I sat on the beach watching a young girl stand at water’s edge. Her mom and sisters had waded into the rough waves of a blustery Gulf day and were gleefully trying to ride them on their boogie boards. The girl was about 12 years old, tall, strong, and frozen in fear as she assessed the drama of the churning waters. The roar of the ocean drowned-out the encouraging words from her mom beckoning her into the water. She saw danger and her own mortality in the violent heaving and pulling of the waves upon the beach. She intuited the dramatic threshold between her world and the next in the threat of forces far greater than her, likely playing words like “riptide” through her head as she struggled to master her fear.
My brother-in-law and his grown children wake up today in a world dramatically different. His grandchildren will never know their grandmother and those of us who live in his orbit will struggle to be any help at all as he walks the solo path of grief and moving forward that only a spouse can walk. As you read this, many others, possibly even you, are waking up today facing that same world. Such loss is an isolating and lonely ordeal, yet we all must walk it and so many share in it simultaneously. The threat of the unbearable has become real and fear of it shifts into coping amid a darkly new landscape.
Gathering after the service, the faces of fear receded and something else emerged: hope. Cooper quickly transitioned to the important things of a little boy’s life: play, toys, food, laughter, games, boundless energy, and endless curiosity. The broken-heartedness of the moments before turned to shared stories, catching-up, breaking bread, the ease of old relationships, and the common ground that families enjoy – even if it’s sometimes rocky and difficult to navigate. The gaudy strangeness of the funeral home surrendered to the sunny brightness of grandma’s new house and laughter soon returned. The hurt was subdued for a moment, however, it was a joyful moment.
Back at ocean’s side, the young girl took her first faltering steps into the persistent tide, gripping her boogie board like a talisman to ward off impending evil. The face of fear faded to a face of joy as she overcame the grip of uncertainty and doubt. She had seen death, injury, and pain in those waves. Then, she found something else. Something in the water and something inside herself.
For those waking today to the face of fear, uncertainty, and doubt brought-on by death, be patient. Courage may seem miles away. Bravery may seem a sumptuous luxury. Peace and joy may seem incomprehensible. Be patient. All will return. Take your own first faltering steps into that new life waiting. Much of the strangeness will fade and the patterns that emerge will reflect what you’ve become along the way. No, you won’t move on from the loss, the love, or the memories but you can move forward with them.