Grief: it’s a strange process. Last week I travelled to my dear friend’s funeral. Grace was only in her thirties. Her husband, Victor, while outwardly ‘holding it together’ was in the grip of a tidal wave of sorrow. It broke my heart to see him; he’d lost weight and looked like there was nothing more than the stiff black of his suit holding him up. I did my best to give Victor what few words of comfort I sensed he needed to hear. Less is always more, when it comes to sorrow. The worst thing to do is to offer banal sentiments, like my mother-in-law’s well-meaning but tactless friend who blithely said, “You’ll always have him in your heart, Mary,” as if that somehow made losing her husband all right. I think the friend desperately wanted to not have to talk about it because she didn’t really know what to say and, well, another person’s grief is so very intimate. You see a person’s soft underbelly when they’ve lost their spouse. Unless you know how to handle it, you find yourself feeling uncomfortable, as if you shouldn’t be looking or something.
Anyway, for my part, over the past couple of years the biggest sense of grief has been for those left behind, not those who have gone. Indeed, knowing that a person of faith has, as the Salvation Army so delightfully say, been ‘promoted to glory’ renders the funeral strangely bittersweet. We’re so sad to say goodbye, and so sad to think of all the things the deceased may have done had they lived, but we also know that they’re safe in their heavenly home.
This past couple of years we have said our last goodbyes to my father’s best friend, my father’s cousin, my mother’s cousin, my husband’s uncle and aunt, my husband’s father, my aunt, two great aunts, my dear old grandmother (who was of such an age that we were starting to wonder if she’d outlive us all), and then, just over a month ago, dear Grace. Funerals… you wait around for one for years and then they all come along at once
It’s so bizarre seeing people you’ve not seen for years and only meeting from shared sorrow. My cousins all came to our grandmother’s funeral. The last time I’d seen any of them was when I married first time around. They’d all grown up since, and had children of their own. There we were, standing like penguins around the tea table, stiffly exchanging pleasantries and chit chat, along with a few memories. I learned more about my grandmother’s life at her funeral than I’d ever really known when she was compos mentis enough to tell me. I think I even managed to offend my mother’s cousin by an off the cuff remark about my grandmother’s late sister (oops). The funeral of someone who had been around for so long was was such a surreal affair. But I knew she was home. Safe. Where she belongs. And I have the exquisite joy of knowing we will meet again, when my time has come.
One of the things that stood out for me about Grace’s funeral, other than the real and genuine joy and celebration of her life instead of a sad and solemn affair, was the inclusion of the Lord’s prayer. By sheer coincidence I had been visiting a Salvation Army service a couple of days before and we had said the Lord’s prayer. I then briefly sojourned at an Anglican convent where we shared the Lord’s prayer, and the following day I found myself repeating it again at a Pentecostal funeral. These were three very different places, yet we had this beautiful gift in common – a gift straight from Christ Himself:
“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.”
Matthew 6:7,8 (The Message)
It got me wondering about the nature of faith – how it can be so different, and yet flow from the same source. I don’t mean to imply that all roads lead to heaven, or all journeys end up in the same place. Jesus was quite clear that He is the only way to God (John 14:6). But God expresses Himself in myriad beautiful ways in each and every life and in each and every death of those who love Him. Sometimes I think the true nature of a person is revealed in their death, certainly in their dying.
Grace was (I was told) upbeat and positive right to the end, such was the nature of her faith. Of course she didn’t want to die so young, and I doubt she was anything other than sad when she left behind a loving mother, brother and wonderful husband, but she knew that her eternal home was with Jesus. How do I know? Because Grace’s life may have burned for a short time, but it burned so brightly that it was clear to everyone she met that somehow – she was different. She had a light that glowed from within. You can’t make that. You can’t pretend. It’s there or it isn’t. This is faith; this is what makes the Church – not the building, not the denomination, not the theology or doctrine or ‘good works’… it’s that very special glow that only comes from Jesus. The other stuff? Secondary. I’m glad to have known Grace. She taught me a lot.