If you hover around the church office often enough, especially if you let the staff know you are comfortable preparing food, the chances are great you will be called in to assist with a funeral meal for the family. I have hovered, I have let it be known, I have made the requisite salads and set the tables. The call that came in this Friday though was different, would I be able to set up a hospitality room for the family, a place for them to gather before the service? This was no ordinary service, not the anticipated prayed over passing of a long-standing member of our congregation. This loss was of a woman who died so suddenly none of us had yet caught our breaths, a woman who was so incredibly alive and loud and vivacious, it seemed unnatural to consider her gone, even within our faith where we expect to find better questions if not answers. I said yes.
Her children and my children are the same age, they schooled together, teamed together, the girls had sleep overs and parties and studied together. While this woman and I were not close, we worshipped together. As I shopped for fruit and pastries, I wondered at the absurdity of it all and at my first thought when hearing the news: what will Stella be thinking? Please God let her be feeling the freedom to mourn. She doesn’t do death well, which seems an odd statement, is anyone good at it and then that takes us down a dark path. But still, she lost a teacher very early on and then a friend from high school committed suicide in college and she lost a grandmother and then another and she holds it all in until she bursts forth with wordless tears that my heart was aching in advance for her when I heard this news. The mom in me went straight to my daughter, immediately wanted to comfort her, a luxury no longer available in the brokenness of our relationship.
Arranging tables, finding the cloths to cover them, an angel, a plaque, some flowers, only enough to disguise that the room is normally the setting for junior high youth group, I realized the walls and couches had probably already held a wide range of emotions and God would surely transform what I had been unable to. Boxes of tissues and pots of coffee, a bowl of fruit and some danishes, what could I possibly offer to this grieving family that would bring healing or allow space for their anger and shock? The busyness of it all reminded me of an old sociology class when we discussed death rites and I learned for the first time that funerals are for the living. I knew these tasks gave me something to do, a means to show love and respect back stage, I didn’t want to wander to close, this one was dangerous to my sanity.
I forced myself to stay within the sanctuary walls to listen as the daughter gave an eulogy, I couldn’t fill any more coffee pots or arrange any more chairs. Her words of cherished memories and lost dreams of the future and aching times of laughter and absolute brokenness of not having her mom available to process this, the hardest thing, those words destroyed the barrier I had established in order to lay out crosses and find the coffee cups. I wanted to hear about their relationship and I so did not. How many times have I lain in bed and imagined a cancer diagnosis or even my death and then the children come around, when it is almost too late or really is? Wondering what extreme measure it would take for them to recall our cherished memories, to fall back into times of our laughter and joy, to consider that I never missed a single event of theirs, what in God’s name will it take? So watching this family absorb a horrific shock, I could only selfishly wonder if my own children were watching also and wondering, considering realizing that they are wasting time that is not guaranteed.
My phone stayed silent, I received not the first text or email. These children did not heed the warning, this close to home reminder that moms are not permanent and are not perfect. As I grieved with this family, I grieved for my own as well. We have what they don’t, what they would give any thing for, we have another chance. We have time together to fix what is broken and to create new memories for later reflection, we can laugh again. All of their stories now will included wishes that their mom was present to witness this, to hear that. My children could have that and won’t. If a death around us makes us consider our own mortality, I considered the dying breaths of my family and realized yet again that only God can save us. My fantasies are useless, merely the desperate last attempts of a mother who has tried everything else.
As I stowed away tables, emptied carafes of coffee, exhaustion overcame me, not from transforming a room but from holding out hope. The weight of wishing on the backs of other’s sorrow is so ugly, so sick, such a clear sign of disease, shame washed over me like their tears. How could I have been so hopeful that this time of their greatest loss could be a place of reconciliation for me and how could I not? Wondering at what God wanted me to hear, wanted me to see, what deeper message than the one I was seeking on my phone, surely there is more because I was asked to serve as a witness, to be an observer. What God, what do you have for me?
Sometimes loss is senseless. Sometimes it is a horrible shock and takes years to absorb and we fight against the truth of it. In the end, all we have to rest on is our faith. I wrote on the whiteboard in the junior high room these words, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18. I thought it was for the family, if they happened to glance in that direction. I now realize it was for me as well. Families caught up in the long death of estrangement never experience a funeral, are not given a comfortable room to grieve. There are no pots of coffee and friends gathering to share memories. We take our last breaths alone, as all the dying really do, with God.