By John T. Catrett, III
Chaplain at AllCare Hospice
I’m not going to die;
I’m going home
Like a shooting star. – Sojourner Truth
A precious minister friend was dying. Loved by so many, he still shouldered his responsibility to his faithful members of the community of the redeemed. He kept a diary, and one of his entries reads, “My life doesn’t exist by itself. It is woven into the fabric of our family and friends. As I grow weaker and less able to care for myself, the fabric loses some of its strength. What I have to do is keep reminding myself that I am not dying alone, that part of my family, church family and friends are dying with me…”
We leave so much, and so many, behind when we die. The loss is felt deeply by those who continue on – family, friends, and acquaintances. We realize that, so many times in our life we have to face good-byes of one kind or another, and somehow muddle through to get beyond the pain of parting.
I attended a funeral service for one of my spiritual mothers in the faith some years ago, and it brought home one of the most bittersweet good-byes of all, the loss of my own mother. Another member of my family passes on, and we grieve loss again. We are not past the pain, just yet. We have not quite healed from the last one…
The children, grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren of my spiritual mother were there. Somehow, it was comforting to know that the generations would carry on – the fabric of our families would continue to be woven in their lives. Her classmates from the graduating class of 1940’s were there; as many of them as could attend. Their numbers grow smaller as their school chums cross over, one by one. Who among them was not thinking, “Who’s next?”
It is hard and frightening to deal with death, a subject about which we talk little. Yet we must face it squarely, because we have no choice, but to deal with reality. When it takes someone dear to us, it is important that we give a voice to our sorrow. At the memorial, we cried not just for our cherished mother, but also for the others who had preceded her – Grampa in 1944, Grandma in 1982, Mom in 1999, and Dad in 2008 and all others.
In the midst of this grief, laughter comes forth as we remember wonderful memories of days gone by. Not out of place in this family, mind you, because a sense of humor runs deep in this crazy, wonderful family. One of the older grandkids took it upon himself to speak aloud the many thoughts that some had expressed quietly, or privately. “Grandmother was a funny gal, and had lived though some interesting times. She loved her precious family with all of her heart. She liked to shop, but often took her purchases back to the store the next day. Pepper was her favorite, and perhaps only, spice used in cooking. We could have talked for hours about her and her life dimension, depth, and a quality that could not be dimmed by the means of her passing.” When the grandson was done with this tearful-but-joyful eulogy, there was little that could be added. He gave voice to our sorrow!
Rituals like this are important to humankind. Without ritual we would have less continuity, less civility, less warmth and commonality with one another. Like the rest of our family, but perhaps more so, our mother had her own rituals, among which was reading the Daily Word. We giggled about a few of her other rituals. But we realized the vital importance of this ritual of gathering in love, to honor the memory of her.
Yet, this is a ritual with which we never quite become comfortable, no matter how many times we practice it. Still, this ritual is better than grieving in silence, far better than pretending the loss doesn’t hurt, because it does. It always does.
The sorrow of that loss needs a voice. It is the voice of that part of me that died with her, and the voice of that part of her that yet lives through me. It is the voice that reassured her, while she walked through the valley of the shadow of death, that she was not truly alone. And it is the voice that reminds me, neither am I.