I have been a minister for over 30 years. I have served as a Minister of Youth, a pastor, a hospital chaplain. I know that side. I know what is expected, what to do. I know what tragedy looks like from that side.
I often said that for many years I never did a “normal” funeral. As a youth minister the only funerals I ever did were either those where a person had once been a member of our congregation, moved away and had now returned for their funeral.
But the others……
They were tragedies! One of my first funerals was for Chris Finwall, a vivacious red headed teenage girl who brought energy to any room she entered. She had been on the Search Committee that had brought me to Lenoir, NC. The week before beginning her Senior year of high school she was involved in car wreck that eventually took her life. As a hospital chaplain I have had to make a phone call asking family members to come to the hospital for a conversation with a doctor that will forever change their lives. I have been called to rooms to baptize a stillborn baby, passing them from the hands of loving parents into the hands of a loving God.
I know life from that side. I know what to do on that side of the border!
But until that week……
Saturday night our daughter announced that her labor pains had begun. The nine months of anticipation were about to come to reality! We went to bed knowing that the next day was going to be the greatest day of our lives as we welcomed our granddaughter to the world, our first grandchild.
This child had been anticipated not only by her parents, her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, but a globe of people who had heard our excitement, our thrill, our joy. Our congregation in Nova Scotia had met our daughter on her visit, had heard me talk about this child who was going to call me Grandfather with a British accent! They had sent us off for American Thanksgiving with an outfit for her! Friends in England, South Africa, Bali were all anticipating her arrival.
That was our expectation! That was my expectation.
Our daughter and son in law left for the hospital as we prepared to join them. But then came the text. “They can’t find her. Come!”
Surely this was not right! A faulty piece of equipment, a novice nurse. This wasn’t real! Did they not understand that this was the greatest day of our lives????
Within an hour the greatest day became the worst. Suddenly I was an immigrant in an unwanted land.
Even though I had studied this land, I didn’t know it! I didn’t know how numbing it could be, how confusing, how soul sucking. I didn’t know how dark it could be.
How does one live in this place, as if living is even the word? How do you exist might be better? How do you get up in the morning? How do you gingerly walk through the minefield of emotions, knowing that at any moment a text, a call, a thought might open up the floodgates of tears?
I had helped people walk through this valley of shadows, comforted by the memories of times they had spent together—no matter how short. But how do you grieve hoped-for-memories, those things that you had imagined you would do together but will never get the chance to do? Building a snowman on her winter visit to Nova Scotia; walking on the beach; making pancakes on Saturday morning; teaching her the way to sing the Wake Forest fight song. How do you rearrange your life plans? Anita and I had been talking about where we might retire—all depending on how close we could be so we could go and see her school events. I don’t remember anyone talking about how to grieve dreams that will never be.
There is so much I don’t know about this unwanted land.
But I am having to learn.
I am having to learning about what it means to be dependent on others. I had seen it happen before…to others. The food being delivered, the cards and notes, the visits by friends. Before it was just the ritual of grief observed. But now….it is life itself. The texts sent by friends while I was walking down the hall in the hospital nearly brought me to my knees. The Facebook notes from people saying that even though they were far away we were being held in their love became the very thing that held me up. The food brought by strangers was the literal sustenance I needed. I might pretend to be self sufficient, but the truth is I so need others. I need others to hold me, to teach me about this new world.
I knew about this world, from the side of a minister. I had sought to try to bring some light to the darkness, to give some words of hope in hopeless situations. But now, those words came back to me. Several people wrote to remind me of things I had said in their time of grief. One sent the entire service I had done when they had lost a child prematurely. One sent a note reminding me of what I had said to her the night her teenage son had been killed in a car accident. They were words shared at Ada’s service by our dear friend Amy Mears. They were the words of William Sloan Coffin after his son’s death.
The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
My heart was broken, but so was God’s. I had shared that story, that quote with others. But do I really believe it? I have believed that in my head for so long. In this new world, I am trying to.
On Sunday as I held Ada for the last time, trying to tell her all the things that I had planned to tell her throughout a lifetime, I did something so very un-Baptist, but something I had done as a chaplain. Licking my finger I made the sign of the cross on her forehead, then handed her back to her mother. And even more handed her into the loving arms of God, whose heart was also breaking.
It was what I do as a minister. It was the only thing I knew to do as a grandfather.