by Kathleen Peterson (May-June 2003)
I’ll never forget the night my grandfather died. He’d become so ill, they had to take him to a nursing home. They actually didn’t have to, I found out much later. They’d taken him to the hospital, but my grandfather was a very stubborn old German who had no use for doctors and had made that clear on several occasions to his doctor, by refusing his services. The medical profession was not his favorite institution, and he preferred to suffer on his own.
Well, one afternoon when my mother, who’s a nurse, had gone over to see him, she found him so bad off that she had to rush him to the hospital. They called the doctor, who came in not too pleased to see it was Harvey Dieterich he finally had on his hands.
The doctor proceeded to try to put in a catheter, for some reason I never quite understood. He tried three times, with my grandfather muttering dire invocations on the medical profession under his breath all the while. After the third failure, the doctor’s own hostility erupted, and he washed his hands of my grandfather and shipped him off to a nursing home. Sounds like the Dark Ages, but it was only 1963.
In the nursing home they weren’t too friendly either, and my grandfather was obviously dying. But my mother, who has a knack for saving people’s lives, kept my grandfather alive there herself for many months.
On this particular day, she was going out to see him as usual, and she asked me if I’d like to go with her. I knew she really wanted me to go, and it was a Saturday, so I could have gone, but I had some letters I wanted to write and just didn’t feel like going. I remember sitting on my bed with my box of letters and stationary and saying I’d just as well not go and wondering if she’d press me to go. If she did, I knew I would go. But she didn’t. It was my decision.
She left, and I wrote letters. About 8 o’clock the phone rang; it was my mother. She’d come into my grandfather’s room that afternoon and found him gasping for breath, and she’d called for oxygen. They didn’t bring it. She ran down the hall and told the nurses they had to get oxygen immediately – her father was dying. The nurses there just looked up slowly and said they’d get it in a minute. My mother ran back to the room to do everything she could until it came. Her father was gasping for breath painfully, and she knew it had to come fast.
Ten minutes went by and no oxygen. She ran back to the nurses’ station and yelled at them to get the oxygen, and they just sat there and looked at her, and suddenly she realized they weren’t going to get it! She realized the doctor must have given the “no heroics” order, which means let the person die. He was dying anyway; no temporary rescues.
My mother went in and grabbed the oxygen unit herself and pulled it down the hall, with the nurses now running after her. She got it into the room, only to find it was too late. So she spent the last brief minutes praying with my grandfather as he died.
I found all of that out later. When she called she just said he’d died, and she was coming home. It was a terrible snowy-icy night in March, and her knees were shaking all the way home. The brakes failed on the car coming down Chardin Road Hill, which is more like a mountain than a hill – a horrific thing to try to navigate without brakes! But somehow she made it down and made it home and when she got in, by then it was so late, we were all in bed.
I heard her and got up. But all she said was “He’s dead.” She was still in shock. It was only in the days to come that the grief began to be expressed, and there was grief over so many things.
Grief is so complicated. My grandfather had died, and we knew he would die, but the way he died was hard to take. And our grief was filled, as it always is, with guilt – much guilt.
As usual, my mother had borne the burden for everyone. She was the one who had been there. She was the one who had to do everything. Why hadn’t I been there? Why hadn’t I gone with her? My grandmother was sick at home. But I was 21, young and strong and old enough to know I should have gone that day. If only I’d known how brief the time left to go had been. If only I’d done this or that or the other thing. And there were other kinds of regrets. If only I’d talked to my granfather more while he was alive. He had so much wisdom. He could have told me about the old country, the relatives, the roots of my own family. He could have told me about the old homestead in Westlake, the land he loved so much, his 53 years on the railroad.
All I knew about my grandfather was that he loved the land and trees and to sit in the evening and smoke his pipe and tell us German songs and poems. His favorite was: “You are like a flower, so bright and beautiful and good.” He was a very quiet, patient man, though strong and stubborn in his own way. But I never talked with him much. I guess I thought he’d always be there.
Now, why do I tell you all this? This experience of grief in my own life. Well, I share it with you because I think in many ways our experiences with grief are all the same. We all go through the same stages of shock, denial and guilt.
First we say: “It couldn’t happen.”
Then we say: “It didn’t happen.”
Then we say: “Oh, if only I had . . . Oh, why didnt I. . . . do this or that?” We somehow feel responsible for everything. We take the whole thing on our heads. We even imagine we somehow could have leaped into the breech and changed everything, if only . . .
When an office-holder in Washington, DC died in 1917, a perennial office seeker hurried to the White House to tell President Woodrow Wilson that he would like to “take the deceased’s place.” The President answered, “If it’s all right with the undertaker, it’s all right with me.”
No one can take the place of someone else in their death. But we dont have to. Jesus did it once and for all for all of us.
But no one can take the place of someone else in his life either. And when we experience a loss in our lives and have to go on living ourselves, we experience every emotion we know in that grief: anger, love, fear, hope, insecurity, abandonment – you name it. And we all have our losses. They come in many different forms. They come as separation, children leaving home, moving, conflict, job change, retirement, aging, disappointment. And these are all experiences in which we feel real grief, and all our strong emotions rise up in us and flow over us like the deep waters that Isaiah talks about going through.
And we wonder: If we start to cry, will we ever stop? Or will the flood tide take us with it. We hold back and hide our grief because we imagine that once we begin to really feel it, we won’t be able to bear it.
Many people hide their grief for years, and it gnaws away at them from the inside. Then comes the torrent: 2 months later, 5 years later, 20 years later. But eventually our grief catches up with us, and we know that thing could, and did, happen, and there was nothing we could do about it.
You know the scripture story about Jesus’ dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The 2 sisters had sent word to Jesus that their brother was dying. But Jesus had been busy and couldn’t come immediately. By the time He got there, Lazarus was dead. And as Jesus looked at those people He loved and saw their suffering, He felt all the same things you and I feel when someone we love dies. And He wept. The people said: “See how He loved him.” But others said: “If He loved him so much, why didn’t He save him from this death?” And that’s the question we all ask in that situation: If God loves us, why did He let this happen? Why didn’t He get here sooner? And why wasn’t our love enough to save this person?
“If only I had known,” we say. But do we think Jesus didn’t know? Do we really think the Lord didn’t know all of that? Not a sparrow falls without the Lord knowing it. He knows the number of all our days, and He is there.
Now that doesn’t mean things don’t go wrong or that there will not be evil that effects our lives and our deaths. The Lord has told us that there is evil. But He has also assured us that before it even happens He has already overcome all of it and is able to bring good out of all of it for those who love Him.
He is there before and during and after. “As you pass through the deep waters, I will be with you, and they shall not overwhelm you.” For the person who has died, no matter what the cause, there are green mansions on the other side, where the lawn is not so hard to mow. So let us be clear that when we grieve at the death of someone, we grieve mainly for ourselves, for our loss, because, as Paul said: “For me, to die is gain.”
As we deal with our own pain and anger and guilt at our loss, as we really deal with it and express it, gradually we begin to see that these things separate us from the one we loved as much as the death itself. We have to go through these feelings and come out on the other side before we can again be close to that person. We have to go through these deep waters and let go of the bad grief before we can enter into the good grief.
After the pain and guilt and anger, then there is an awakening – a morning when you remember the good memories that bless and finally no longer burn. There’s a morning when we can let go of all our bad feelings about death and know that life goes on. Then the good memories can flood back into our lives again, stronger and stronger, giving us strength to go on. We can be close to that person again because we let go of the bad grief that was blocking out all the goodness we cherished of that person’s life.
This is so important, but we often have a hard time doing it. I had a friend once who lost her husband quite suddenly of a heart attack in the night. She was young and had a young family and grieved greatly. But she came to the point when she wanted to remember and cherish the good things about her husband’s life. She had all their friends over and wanted to talk about her husband, and she wanted them to share that with her. She would go up to one of his colleagues and say, for instance: “Wes really respected you. He enjoyed working with you so much.” or “Wes always said you were the finest secretary he ever had.” or whatever suited the person. I was with her that evening, and it was so easy to see that she longed for just a word from them about something good about her husband that they could share back with her. But no one there could handle talking about someone who was dead. Not one of them. I know they really cared about him, because I’d seen them, a bunch of builders and contractors all weeping at the funeral. But they avoided talking about him at all cost. They would say, “Oh, yes, and what lovely violets you have here . . .” They just couldn’t seem to help her in coming into her good grief. They wanted to avoid all grief whatsoever.
Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and do you think anyone of us will be any less raised? “If we don’t know where our loved ones are,” Jesus says to us: “How can you not know, when I have told you? I have prepared a place for you, and if it were not so, I would have told you that too, He said.”
For all our “if onlys” the Lord says: “I knew that too, and I can make all things work together for good, if you can only let go of that and leave it in my hands.”
We must weep; it’s very important to express our grief. But then we can allow ourselves to be comforted. After the weeping at my grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother lifted up her hand as they were carrying out the casket and stood up and said in a loud voice: “There goes Harvey! Goodbye Harvey!” I’ll never forget it. Everyone was a bit shocked, that she could face the parting so openly. But to me she leaned down, with a twinkle behind the tears in her eyes and whispered: “He’s not really gone.”
What we will not part with, we have kept. And the Lord has promised that will never be taken from us.
Let me read you a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, that describes the grief process very well:
Home they brought her warrior dead,
She nor swooned nor uttered cry.
All her maidens, watching said:
‘She must weep or she will die.’
Then they praised him, soft and low,
Called him worthy to be loved,
Truest friend and noblest foe;
Yet she neither spoke nor moved.
Stole a maiden from her place,
Lightly to the warrior stepped,
Took the face-cloth from the face;
Yet she neither moved nor wept.
Rose a nurse of ninety years,
Set his child upon her knee –
Like summer tempest came her tears –
‘Sweet my child, I live for thee.’
We only grieve where we have loved. And it is only by rediscovering that love can go on as that woman did with her child. Seeing where we are called to love now, that enables us to live through grief. And one of the very good things about grief is that it teaches us a little better how to treasure and cherish what we love in the short time we’re given.
The hollow in your heart where pain dug so deeply, is the same place where you now have room to receive and truly cherish that much more joy. Those who have deeply grieved know the true depths and heights to which love can go. Blessed are those who mourn, because they shall be comforted and their joy shall be full.
Kathleen Peterson is pastor of Palos Heights United Methodist Church in Palos Heights, IL.