“I don’t really understand what the grieving are going through,” I’ve said many times. “I’ve never lost anyone very close to me.” I will never say that again.
My mother died last week. It was sudden and shocking to us, her family, even if it seems a rather ordinary death in the retelling. My mom was 80. She’d been in the hospital a couple of weeks back with a urinary tract infection, but seemed to recover and was sent home. The last day I saw her alive, January 12, she was carrying her walker through the house rather than leaning on it. She didn’t want to use it, didn’t feel she needed it, but still wanted to dutifully follow the orders she’d been given.
After several good days at home Mom grew weak again and wound up back in the hospital. There were a few days of trying to discover the cause of her decline, rallying moments when she chatted with visitors, and then suddenly my father was calling me to say, “Mom is dying.” I felt it must be a mistake. My father must be overreacting. Despite decades of chronic, severe pain and several years with Alzheimer’s, my mom had remained essentially healthy. We’d celebrated her 80th birthday with a surprise party in September and she’d been radiant with happiness, surrounded by not only her friends, but children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. This strong, cheerful mom of mine could not possibly be dying right now, out of the blue.
But she was. I picked up a sister at the airport and hurried to my hometown to see Mom. Another sister, already there, called when we were about half an hour away and told us to come straight to the hospital. She offered no information, but her voice was tight and strange, and I suspected what we would find. I rode up in the elevator pretending that things were going to be normal, taking the last opportunity to believe that there would be a surprise recovery waiting for us in the hospital room. Mom sitting up in bed, perhaps, fussing a little about the bland liquid diet and the limited TV stations.
As soon as we pushed the door open, pretending was finished. “Do you know?” my dad asked. “Mom’s gone.”
And there she was, looking for all the world like she was sleeping. For years, my mother had slept “the sleep of the dead” when her pain medication kicked in. But this was not sleep, and in an instant I’d entered a new world.
I remember that when I was newly married, I would marvel over my change in identity. “I am someone’s wife. I am a married women.” I did the same thing after my first child was born. “I am someone’s mother,” I would say, rolling the word over my tongue. Leaving the hospital Wednesday I had the same sense of foreignness, of some mysterious change having come over me. I am now someone whose mother has died. I am a child who has lost a parent. It doesn’t matter that I am 47 years old. Looking at my mother in that hospital bed, knowing that I would never hear her voice or see her smile again, I was a child.
I’ve always felt a little stunted when it comes to caring for those who are hurting. I’m easily embarrassed not only by my own strong emotions, but by those of other people. I worry about saying the wrong thing in a crisis, so I often find myself clumsily keeping my distance. Doing nothing. I know this is not a good thing, and it’s an especially terrible thing for a person who is a pastor. That’s why when God called me I was certain He would limit my calling to study and writing and teaching. Not pastoral care. I mean, God’s not crazy.
The past several days have felt like a gentle tutorial in how to minister to those in pain, and I’ve been learning as a recipient. At the reception after my mother’s memorial service I was chatting with a social worker, a family friend, about my trial and error approach to ministry. “I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, but I just say pray and show up,” I said. The social worker replied, “Showing up is the most important thing.” And I knew, absolutely knew, she was right. I’d already been amazed by the people who had shown up for my dad, and for us. Neighbors were at the house within a few hours of mom’s passing, sharing tears and long hugs with all of us. My parents’ friends were coming by with food and stories to make my dad laugh. One of my high school friends came loaded down with pizzas and sodas for all the grandchildren, and stayed to cheer me with his company. The little boys from down the block came by every day to walk my mom’s dogs. No one said or did the wrong thing – the very fear that keeps me away. I found myself thinking, “This is not so hard, being loving. They’ve just had the kindness and courage to show up, to keep us from being alone in our grief.”
In the movie Lars and the Real Girl, during a time of crisis, the church ladies arrive with food and keep Lars company. “Is there something I should be doing right now?” Lars asks.
“No, dear. You eat,” they reply. “We came over to sit. That’s what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over and sit.” How is it that I thought I couldn’t do that? What have I been so afraid of, that has kept me from doing the loving thing for people I care about?
In the letter to the Romans Paul instructs them to “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” It’s just that straightforward. When we shared favorite family stories about Mom, our friends laughed with us. When we thought of Mom, free from pain, in the presence of the God she loved with all her heart, our friends rejoiced with us. And when we thought of going on here, without her, our friends let us weep and sometimes wept with us. They showed up.
I wasn’t ready to lose my mom, and I still wish I could wake up and find that it never happened. But if there is a gift in this loss, it’s that I think I finally get it. I think I can do it the next time someone I love suffers a loss. I can make a casserole, and show up. I can sit and be with them in their grief. I know now what a precious gift that is.