Normal People Don’t Talk about Death So Much

Does anyone really have that many stories about funerals? That’s what I was thinking as she told the third story. Was it really the third funeral story? I tried to retrace the steps of our conversation seated there in the convalescent ward. She’d said something about both her son and her husband. That was one and two. Both were funeral stories.

And now, it seemed she was telling a third.

adult-675338_1280Was it really a third funeral story? Could it be? I shook my head in disbelief as I tried to connect the dots but I was missing something. I hate when this happens. I hate when I’m visiting a sweet old lady and my mind starts to wander so much so that I lose the conversation. And I have. I’ve completely lost it which means that I missed something rather important. What she’s saying now no longer makes sense — and it surely would if I had been paying attention. But, I wasn’t paying attention. I was thinking about my own funeral stories.

When my mother died, there were two funeral services in two different churches with two different pastors with two different sets of mourners. I remember sitting in the front pew. I remember how one of those pastors — the one who had been at my mother’s bedside as she died — spoke directly to me. He told me that God loved me. I remember that but not as much as I remember the stuff that those two separate groups of mourners gave me. This is what I learned about death when my mother died. No one knew what to say so they gave gifts. Every day after my mother died, I was given new selection of trinkets from my second grade classmates. They gave me stuffed animals and chocolates and fashion accessories that would make any child of the 80’s proud. If they were really brave, they hugged me and said they were sorry as I imagine their mothers told them to do. I have heard it said that children couldn’t understand death. Maybe so. But, the children in my class didn’t behave any different from the grown up mourners at those two funeral services. They too hugged me and said they were sorry and handed me something that might make the pain go away. For grown ups, that something was always a picture book with black and white photographs illustrating how some kid’s pet died. I didn’t lose a pet. I lost my mother. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why these grown ups didn’t understand the difference any more than I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to see me cry.

The other children looked away when I cried in school while my teacher and the other grown ups tussled my hair into a rat’s nest without saying a word. Rat’s nest is something that my grandmother would say. So many years after she died, I’m still saying silly phrases that I used to hear her say. Yes, there have been a lot of funerals. I have plenty of stories from funeral services I’ve led and those I’ve attended, but this always seemed strange.

Normal people don’t think about death as much as I do. Maybe they have fewer stories than I do or maybe what makes you normal is that you actually overcome grief. I never have. It was expected that I would pull myself off the floor, brush off my hands and my knees and shake it off. But, I never did. I couldn’t get over it. No matter how many times they told me my mom wouldn’t want me to be so sad. I am still sad. I still miss her. And it’s not just my mother but my grandmother, my childhood friend Missy, the beautiful 94-year-old woman that came to Leisurely Lectionary every week in the last church I served and too many others to name. There have been a lot of funerals.

I didn’t reach a certain age — sitting in a convalescent home chatting with my new pastor — when I suddenly had so many funeral stories to tell. I didn’t have grey hair or grow up in a war-torn country but I have plenty of funeral stories to share. But, it wasn’t these stories that began this visit. I didn’t talk about Missy or Charlott or anyone else. This is where she began our conversation. Awkwardly lying in bed propped up on a single pillow, with the blue glow of MSNBC revealing the deep shadows on her face, she had started this visit with not one, not two but three stories about funerals. How did we get here? How had this become the topic of conversation after saying hello?

Or is it always the topic? Are we all just waiting for someone to bring it up? To ask us how it is now? To make us feel like we’re not totally crazy for still lamenting over all of these years? Or is it just me?

Because it’s always on my mind.

My grief is always there. I carry it with me with the memory of every funeral — and there are days that that weight is so heavy that I would just love for someone to ask how it is. There is a moment in the 2014 film St. Vincent. Just after the main character’s wife dies, he’s told what any grieving person has heard so many times: “I’m sorry for your loss.” I hate this phrase. He hates this phrase and he says so. “Why do people always so that?” he asks before he demands, “What about, ‘What was she like?’ or ‘Do you miss her?’ or ‘What are you going to do now?’” But, no one asks those questions. They say that they are sorry for something for which they never had any responsibility. They never ask anything more. The conversation is over because they don’t know what else to say. Perhaps there is nothing to say except that I do still miss these people. And I want to talk about them. As in the movie, I want to share how much I miss these people and what I’m trying to do now which is why I ended up sitting in the convalescent ward in the first place.

So I ask the question that I would want to be asked. After the third story about funerals, I ask this dear lady if she’s been thinking about funerals lately. Because when someone talks about death that much, it seems like they must be thinking about it a whole lot but they can’t find a way to talk about it. She just needed someone to ask. So I did. I asked her if she’d been thinking a lot about funerals. Her mouth puckered and her brow furrowed. No, she hadn’t. She didn’t want to talk about it. She hadn’t been thinking about it.

It was just me.

The visit ended rather abruptly after that. I had said the wrong thing. I had obviously said the wrong thing. It was time for me to leave. I had to go. I raced out of there so fast that I forgot my sunglasses. In the heat of my car in the parking lot, I debated going back in but I was so mad at myself for assuming her question was my question. But, it wasn’t. It wasn’t what she wanted to talk about even after three stories about funerals. Because normal people don’t talk about death so much.

I don’t know what normal people talk about. The weather, I guess. Or maybe what they did on their summer vacation. Maybe all of those essays we wrote in second grade were simply practice for normal conversation. I should have learned these topics then — but I was busy sharpening the tip of my pencil to such a fine point that whatever came from the tip would finally make sense of what didn’t make sense. Those essays became poems and the poems became sermons. It’s what brought me into faith and what called me into ministry. It’s this conversation I want to keep having. It’s this question that I can’t quite answer. It’s this reality that there have been so many funerals and not enough space to talk about how much I miss these people and what I’m trying to do now.

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6 Ways for Congregations to Care for Grieving Families

Last week clergy did all that they could to proclaim the greatest mystery of Christian faith. They preached with all that they had in them. They led beautiful, inspiring liturgies throughout the weekend — some did so all week long. They proclaimed a faith that they might not have been feeling themselves, but they did it anyway. They dared to make the impossible feel possible for their congregations and themselves.

angels-458341_1280This week, after the brunches, egg hunts and brass, they are tired. They are so very tired because it’s hard to practice self care during Holy Week. It’s hard to find that perfect balance where every ordinary detail gets covered as well as the extra demands of Holy Week. And this week is no better. Easter is over but the busyness hasn’t yet subsided. Pastors are tired. So tired. They would like nothing better than to binge watch episodes of Call the Midwife or the last few episodes of Mad Men. They would love to lounge on the couch all afternoon but members of their church are dying. My Facebook feed is full of clergy expressing their grief over the recent deaths in their congregations. There is some dismay in those posts on social media too. Because it isn’t just one member of the congregation that has died. There are two or three.

It’s hard for the church. It’s hard for the pastor. It’s just hard. Recognizing this, here are a few things that congregations can do to support each other when death comes.

1. Recognize that every family has different needs. Every family has a different experience of death and loss. Each person within that family responds different than the next. Some will want to talk about their loved one and their feelings. Others will want to hide. You may or may not think that the family is doing it the “right way” but please do everything you can to recognize that there is no right way. What honors the grief of one family will not work for the next.

2. Get busy in the kitchen. It is only natural after recognizing that each family has different needs to ask what they need. It seems like the right thing to do. But most families haven’t a clue what they need or want — so it’s best not to ask. Instead, get busy in the kitchen making something that can be easily stowed in the freezer for the family to enjoy in the days to come. My last congregation loved to hand deliver lasagna purchased from Costco. It works if you’re short on time — but I still think that there is something special about something homemade. Deliver it to their home, but don’t expect to talk much to the grieving.

If you have a knack for reception style catering or have been blessed with baking skills, call your pastor to inquire about the family’s plans for the reception following the memorial service. Some churches have women’s groups (and rarely men’s groups) that provide this particular hospitality. But, as those groups are disappearing, this very special care for grieving families falls to a local catering company. This is wonderful for supporting local businesses but we can do better. The early Christians were known for how they took care of each other in the most difficult times — and food is one of the best ways to do that. So, get busy making those veggie platters and finger foods. Bake some cookies filled with chocolatey morsels of love. Bring them on the day of the memorial service to the church — and maybe even offer to host. The family will be so moved by the love of your church family by this gesture alone.

3. Comfort the mourning. There was a widow in my last congregation who reminded me nearly every week how much and how long grief lingers. As a child of grief myself, it was something I knew and should have been more conscious of in my ministry. And my own life. But, I wasn’t. It was she that made me realize this because she wasn’t afraid to say that it still hurts. Her husband died two years ago — and for most members of the congregation, it was old news. She had received the message from more than one person that she should “just get over it already.” Of course, no one had ever been so blunt. It was something they said by omission. They had stopped asking how she was. It only took six months for this to happen — and she still isn’t over it. She is still hurting.

When someone dies in your congregation, make a special effort to comfort the mourning. Look around and be aware of those that have lost a spouse, a child or a sibling. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus tells us. Be part of their comfort by sending a card like one of these or simply saying in coffee hour, “I’ve been thinking about you. How are you?”

4. Proclaim the good news. Christ is risen! You proclaimed this truth on Easter Sunday. Now it’s Friday again and it seems like Barbara Johnson is right: we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. Death has come to your church family so that it seems that it’s just back to normal.

Don’t believe it. When Mary and the disciples went to the tomb, they were told to tell everyone what they had seen. You might not see those signs so clearly — but you have probably seen something amazing in this person that has died. Tell that story. Keep telling that story to everyone in your church and beyond. In this storytelling, Mary and the disciples saw the Risen Lord. They saw what work needed to be continued by their own hearts and hands. They started baptizing and healing. They taught and preached. They made disciples as they allowed themselves to be taught by the stories they told. Proclaim the good news.

5. Pray for your church familySomeone in your family has died. It may not have been someone that you knew very well or it may have been someone that everyone knew because he served on every committee there was. This person was a part of your church family. Offer prayers for his family and friends — but offer prayers especially for your church. Because there is no “right way” to grieve for any one person or a whole community. As it says in the United Church of Christ liturgy,

We humbly acknowledge that death is no stranger to your people, for it comes to us all, the strong and the ill, rich and poor, the proud and the humble. But to us, death may come as an intruder or a welcome friend, leaving us with confused and mixed feelings.

Help us to see in this ending, new beginnings as well, and remind us that you are always bringing light out of our darkness, and new life even out of death.

Only God knows where that beginning will emerge. It’s not for any of us to predict — but as people of the resurrection, as Easter people living in a Good Friday world, we believe that there will be new life and light. As you wait to see it, pray for your church family’s confused and mixed feelings.

6. Pray for your pastor. My favorite part of ministry is this particular work. I love walking with families through the grief process and writing liturgy for memorial services and funerals, but few pastors love it as much as I do. Your pastor may be carrying her own grief. She may be among the mourning and be struggling to write the liturgy for this memorial service. Or she might just be tired after all of the stuff surrounding Easter. Pray for her strength, her wisdom and her compassion.

Hope Within Me

hopeFrom far too many pulpits, there isn’t a word said about how long and how hard grief can be. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know if it’s a hallmark of our society or the stubbornness of a particular kind of Christianity that denies the depth of agony that begins on cross and continues in the darkness of the tomb. Perhaps it’s neither of these things. Perhaps it’s both. I don’t really care. Because it doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is the tears that glisten on the faces of those special and rare people. What does matter is that they heard the good news that didn’t insist on the challenges of Easter Sunday. They heard it from their own story. They heard that their pain, their grief and their inexpressible groaning isn’t something to just get over already — but a way for them to see the promise of resurrection.

There is resurrection in those “sighs too deep for words.” Resurrection comes in the story of our faith after betrayal and doubt. It comes after piercing and suffocating death before it waits in the tomb. Resurrection, as someone famous once said, doesn’t come without Good Friday. It is not resurrection unless there has been some pretty horrible inexpressible groaning first. Because that always comes first. There wouldn’t be a story without the death. There wouldn’t be anything remarkable or heroic. It wouldn’t have caused anyone to wonder if Jesus hadn’t been dead and buried. Sounds like a downer, I guess. Maybe it is for those who have never felt that sting. But, my mom died when I was seven years old. This still stings. I am not over it. I may never be over it even though it seems that there is always someone who believes I should be.

Grief is what I know best so that when I sat down to write my morning pages this morning and read 1 Peter 3:8-18a, this verse leaped off of the page of my Bible:

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

Because I believe I do have such an account. There is hope that is in me. There is hope in each of these rare and special people — even if doesn’t sound like triumphant joy. There is hope. I won’t get over my grief. It won’t vanish with the resurrections I might experience. It will always be part of the story. It will always be what happened first. It will always be the hope that is in me. It will always be what allows me to believe that there is resurrection. I’ll defend this hope. It is the hope that is within me.

For All the Saints

There are two days on the church calendar when I simply cannot preach. There are two days when I know that my emotions will get the better of me — and I will likely not be able to proclaim the resurrection that I so need to hear. One of these days is not liturgical. It’s Groundhog Day and the day my mother died. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed since she died. I still need this day to be honest with myself and my God that it still hurts. So I do not preach. The celebration of All Saints is no different.

I did not grow up with this tradition but discovered its lush wonder in James Chapel at Union Theological Seminary. Seated upon those green chairs, I was permitted a sacred space for my grief — and I claimed that space with my tears. And it’s that sacred space that I want for everyone.

So, every year, I attempt to create that space where others can feel what I have found so healing and so affirming. In a church culture that insists on an effusive joy all of the time, I long for a place where I can be honest about how heartbroken I still am. This year, this space was centered upon these words from the Gospel of Matthew with familiar words to those that have been attending church for years and years. For those saints, the wisdom that Jesus has never quite felt like good news. Or so I heard it discussed in our study earlier this week. This doesn’t feel quite so good: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” So I used it as a way to talk about ourselves as saints, including this prayer of confession that truly seemed to say it all as we prayed together:

Good God, we have heard you say so many times:all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.But, we are so humble that we hesitate to call ourselves your saints.Forgive us. Exalt us a little. So that we might see ourselvesso honored, so respected and so loved that we might be called your saint.In your mercy, we pray.

But, I did not preach. I could not. I choked up even mentioning my mother in the prayers of the people so instead I told a series of stories of the saints of God. I told the story of an old saint (one that is actually canonized), a child of color (who you might not expect) and one of the pillars of this church (who just deserves it). We shared these stories amid our prayers, those wonderful hymns that mark this day and sharing in the feast of God. It was a truly wonderful time of worship.