Grief is a difficult and unpredictable beast.
There is no “right way” to grieve, but there is much to learn from the traditions of others. I think Christians have missed out on some wonderful and useful traditions when it comes to dealing with grief. We tend to quickly pull together a funeral or memorial service, but after that? Nothing. Grief is a longer process than just a memorial service or a funeral.
Carmi has written so poignantly about life and death and saying goodbye to his father. He has shared about the Jewish customs after death (e.g., Sitting Shivah, Unveiling). The more I learn about the Jewish customs that relate to death and the grieving process, the more I wish they were universal, because they provide a form — a frame — a ritual — within which to understand and acknowledge the emotional journey we undergo when a loved one dies.
One of the most moving homilies I’ve ever heard was at my step-father’s memorial service when the minister spoke about how we need to say goodbye. With my step-father, there was no chance to say goodbye in person. He took a sudden turn for the worse and died within hours; I was living far away. I had to find a different way to say goodbye after his death.
Now, my mother is undergoing a long process of saying goodbye. She continues to weaken as she loses weight, and she has lost a lot of weight. There is noticeable difference between her now-fragile frame and her distended abdomen; there is a growing mass in her abdomen — growing despite chemotherapy — a mass that wasn’t there 2 months ago during surgery. Hospice can’t be that far off (although she does not acknowledge this, I know it to be true). She doesn’t want to talk about “the end” being in her immediate future; she is still trying to believe that this new chemo will stem the tide and hold off the inevitable. I, however, am facing reality. I’m sifting through the layers of my heart, mind, and soul, searching for the things that need to be said and discarding those things that don’t really matter anymore. It’s a cleansing sort of internal decluttering.
I suppose the ultimate goal is one that Cricket writes about in his moving post The Long Goodbye. (Thanks to Hilary for bringing this beauty to my attention as a Post of the Week.) Go ahead and read it. I’ll still be here when you are done.
A long, drawn-out ending is painful but it does give us multiple opportunities to say goodbye; a sudden and unexpectedly early death can leave us with words unsaid.