My uncle passed away the other day, quietly slipping from this life surrounded by the people who loved him most.
I was not there. It’s not that I didn’t love him, I did, but that time, when breath is labored and the fleetingness of life has become the truest reality, is so intimate, so personal, that it was not for me. Not then.
My aunt had said that I could come, as I and my husband had been planning to do, even though she was praying that, for his own sake, her beloved would not last much longer. “I think he’s in his last hours,” she responded to my text. “I pray it’s minutes.” And then a few minutes later, “You can still come…”
That’s just who she is: gracious, warm, welcoming. Even when her heart is torn open, and she cannot grab hold of it. Even when that heart is lying on a hospital bed; the man that she has loved for decades, who cannot hold on much longer.
How do you say goodbye to your heart?
In the midst of that, she said I could come.
But I didn’t. I loved my uncle, but I didn’t belong there. Not then. I didn’t lose what she lost. I didn’t lose what my cousin lost: his dad three weeks before his high school graduation. They needed enough room to say goodbye. The husband, father, brother, uncle, in-law, lying on the bed in the middle of the living room was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses whose presence testified to the import of his life.
Those of us who were not there testified as well, and when I texted my aunt that the moment they were in was too intimate for intrusion, I simply asked her to tell him that we loved him. And she did, and then again she welcomed me into that sacred space by texting me back, “that got a smile.”
I was undone.
My aunt is not a great lady in the lineage of social prestige. I don’t think she’s ever been on a magazine cover or the topic of an op-ed in The New York Times. But maybe she should be. She works hard, she loves her husband, she mothers her son. She is quiet, friendly, and unassuming. She opens herself to others – even in the moments of her greatest grief. That, my friends, is a great lady.
Her husband lay dying, and she texted me back. She made time for me, when time was her cruelest companion.
And then he was gone, only six months after we got the word, that word, CANCER.
Cancer is a thief. It steals health, wholeness, and time. But she would not let it steal her kindness.
And after the goodbye, now what? I imagine that people all do this differently, filling in this space after the goodbye.
Goodbye, my love.
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I don’t think anyone else does, either.
This perhaps is the real business of grief. Answering this now what? of filling in the empty space, the gaping hole. How do you live with a gaping hole without getting swallowed up by it?
I don’t know, but I don’t think anyone else does, either.
And of course, the logistics. The tangible business of grief. Phone calls, plans, and arrangements. The mechanical processes of dealing with the dearly departed.
How do you make decisions when your heart is gone and your brain is mush? I imagine that you laugh, you remember, and you wait. Because everything doesn’t really have to be done right now. Because now, suddenly, you do indeed have time.
Time does not really heal all wounds, I don’t think. Only God can do that. But when time slows down, and the urgency of the moment is overshadowed by the joy of the memory, time moves slower, and gives enough time to breathe. And that glorious inhalation is the gift of peace that God speaks to us when He says,
Be still, and know that I am God.
Be still. Not stillness in the paralysis of grief, but stillness in the deep soul recognition that God is God, and I am not.
Death is profound, mysterious, and mundane. And in each part, the ones for whom the grief is rawest need us to sit quietly with them, so that when they slip at the edge of that gaping hole, we can reach out our hands to lift them up.
Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God.”