Someone very special in our family died this week. As we drove home from the funeral, with the rain beating down on us on I-10, I pondered some of the aspects of the grieving process while Mrs. Greenbean and the sprout slept.
Emily Dickinson famously wrote a short poem whose first line is,
After great pain, a formal feeling comes
In my years of ministry I have found this to be undeniably true. It is precisely because we do not know what to say or do that ritual, formality, and tradition become necessary helpers. This is why I am an ardent believer in the funeral service as a relevant and vital part of the grieving process. I know that the popular trend is to downplay the service and minimize all the fuss, but I don’t think that is particularly healthy. I noticed driving home how in the time after the funeral the elements of the service, the words of the minister, the actions at the cemetery, and even the placement of the grave were natural points of conversation and shared experience that the entire family was able to lean on. It provided context for what we were all feeling. I never noticed this connection, fully, until I read the excellent book by Thomas Long titled Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral. It is a theological, historical, and sociological gem.
I thought about other things too as I drove, like how grief bubbles to the surface in different ways for different people. For some people, it is a nervous anxiety in which they cannot get comfortable. Others cry openly and loudly. Still others hold it all in, like a suppressed volcano. I am a split-personality griever. When the news first comes, I want to be left alone, reflect, and cry in solitude. This usually lasts only an hour or two. After that, I find that I grieve by telling funny stories about those we miss, laughing at his or her quirky, unique characteristics, and enjoying hearing other people share their stories. As a pastor I always thought one of my primary functions during a funeral was to give others permission to laugh and enjoy, in that weird kind of way, the moment. That is what our departed love ones would want. For evidence of this in my own plans, click here to read an old post about how I plan to put “FUN” in fun-eral. I think we need both the forma feeling of the service as well as the informal laughter. One helps frame the hurt and pain of the situation, while the other allows for the release of tension and the celebration of life. One more thought passed between my ears while I avoided hydroplaning out on the freeway. Death is our constant companion throughout life. We grow up knowing that somewhere, out on the horizon, we will close our eyes for the last time, take our final breath, and the last neuron will fire. Everybody dies. What matters is not the circumstances of our death, but the investments we make during our life. By investments I don’t mean monetary decisions. I mean investments in people. I think about those who invest in their children, in the next generation, those who invest in liberty by defending our nation, those who invest in the environment by protecting it, those who invest in love by opening their heart, and so many other kinds of human-investments. Those are the things that matter. images from http://honda.checkeredflag.com and amazon.com
6 responses to “A GRIEF OBSERVANCE”
When my mother died, there were ancient Orthodox hymns and prayers at her wake and at her funeral. I took comfort in singing Κύριε ἐλέησον by her grave. I ate more than I have ever eaten in one sitting at the meal we had afterwards—alas, that’s as far as I got in the “fun” part of funeral, but let me tell you, the bananas foster I had after the funeral was one of the most delicious and fun deserts I’ve ever enjoyed. Anywho.
This is a good post, as always, and I’m very sorry for your loss. Much love to you and your family.
thanks virgil. it is so hard to move through those difficult times, we need all the comfort we can get. my fear is that so many people detach themselves from these rich traditions that they never get the feeling of being embraced by the love of the community through liturgy and food. thanks for reading and commenting.
Great words, Jamie. I enjoyed Long’s piece on preaching.
Recently finished “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry ” by Rachel Joyce. Loved the book and this passage from a widower,
“I miss her all the time. I know in my head that she has gone, but I still keep looking. The only difference is that I am getting used to the pain. It’s like discovering a great hole in the ground . To begin with , you forget it’s there and you keep falling in. After a while, it’s still there, but you learn to walk round it.”
that is a great metaphor–a hole in the ground. thanks for sharing joe.
I work part-time at a funeral home. It’s a tremendous ministry opportunity. And it has become apparent to me that the funeral service is of great importance. It’s a time to worship God, find comfort, take a step forward in the grieving process, get a little more closure, and reflect on our own lives. Thanks for your blog post on this important topic, my friend.
it is the reflection on our own lives that is often a missing element, i think. the death of someone we care about should cause us to think about soberly about the choices in our life and the direction it is heading. thanks for reading and commenting!