Death has always been an awkward topic for me. This is due partly because death is hard on all of us: both the reminder of our own mortality and the newfound absence of someone we’ve loved; but it particularly awkward for me because I didn’t attend a funeral until I was nineteen years old! That funeral was the funeral of a complete stranger, an older gentleman who’d passed away after a long, full life, and I was only there to play music A year later, I had the privilege of playing music for the funeral of a friend, Nicole, taken a few months shy of her twentieth birthday by cancer.
When someone dies after having lived to a ripe old age, there is a real sense of grief – but it’s a grief mixed with joy. I’ll never forget the prayer service I led for an older woman, Ida, who had died in her nineties, surrounded by children and grandchildren praying the rosary. I remember them talking about her being able to join her husband who had pre-deceased her. While there were certainly tears, what I remember most vividly was a real sense of peace, a sense of the hope Christians are supposed to carry about the life to come. I also remember clearly that Nicole’s death had seemed nothing like that.
It was Thanksgiving weekend, and while we had plans to visit Nicole in Calgary the following week, a group of us had gone out to Hinton, AB, to stay at the Way of Holiness for a couple of days break at the start of our Bible School year. We were just getting ready to leave when we got the call – and we wound up sitting, staring at one another in the laundry room at this retreat house for what seemed like an eternity (but was probably only about ten minutes) with the feeling like we had collectively been punched in the gut. I remember an older priest trying to help us find hope in our grief – and in spite of his best efforts, all his words falling painfully short in that initial moment… in fact, it was a long while before the words of hope that our faith offer started to make sense at all.
When I’ve been asked to do the same – to help others make sense of their grief – I’ve often thought of the feeling from that October afternoon. I’ve thought of the angry prayers people prayed in the days that followed (God, why didn’t you send a miracle?) I’ve thought about the ways in which Nicole continues to touch people by her life & death (I started giving blood during Nicole’s illness, and made my fiftieth donation a month ago) – or the way in which Fr. Mike Mireau‘s illness led people to pray (many of whom might not have otherwise even tried to talk to God.) While I will always try to express the hope we cling to as Christians, I know that there usually are no words that make sense of this type of grief.
There is no parable that will make the pain one feels at the loss of a loved one – particularly when that loved one is young – feel better. There is no anecdote or beatitude that will somehow put it all into perspective. It may even seem like you’re barely hanging on to faith at all in a moment like that: and that the bit you’re hanging on to is full of anger and confusion.
In those moments, give that anger and confusion to God. Yell, scream, curse at Him if you must (He can take it!) – but don’t let go of the thread by which you are hanging on to Him. He may seem silent, only because He knows you have a lot to get out… and God isn’t about to rush you. Trust me: He has not abandoned you in this moment that doesn’t make sense. He may not have much to say – but He does weep with you in this moment.
And where I don’t have words – sometimes a song can help. So I give you this song by MercyMe, written for just these moments:
Homesick by MercyMe (2004, on their Undone album)
You’re in a better place, I’ve heard a thousand times
And at least a thousand times I’ve rejoiced for you
But the reason why I’m broken, the reason why I cry
Is how long must I wait to be with you
I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now
Help me Lord cause I don’t understand your ways
The reason why I wonder if I’ll ever know
But, even if you showed me, the hurt would be the same
Cause I’m still here so far away from home
In Christ, there are no goodbyes
And in Christ, there is no end
So I’ll hold onto Jesus with all that I have
To see you again… to see you again