Saturday, December 21, 2013

Long Lives and Loss

A friend of mine posted this article on FB this morning, which prompted me to write the following:

In the first weeks after Josh died, one of the multitude of horrors I faced was the recognition that I might have to live for a long, long time without my child.  I was fifty-five years old, and my grandmother had died only a few years earlier at the age of 100.  What if I had to live for forty-five more years?  What if I had to live for forty-five more days?

(My father made a similar reference at least once during that time period.  It took awhile for me to register that he had been surviving that torment for forty-eight years, since my mother and youngest brother had died.  Through three subsequent marriages, seven step-children, one more biological child, multiple life successes and failures, a vast appreciation of music and nature . . .  always, always, always, those early losses loomed large, and sometimes they nearly undid him.)

The other day I went to visit one of my parishoners at New Church, a lady who will turn ninety-five a few days after Christmas. Vigorous, intelligent, and articulate, living in her own beautiful home with her widowed daughter-in-law. Unknown to me until after I arrived, that day was her son's birthday, her son who would have been 67 had he not died three years ago. 

Prominently displayed among her photographs is the only one ever taken of her stunningly wide-eyed infant daughter, who died at five months, after several visits from a neighborhood boy who had been entranced by the baby, but who also had undiagnosed whopping cough.

Husband, son, daughter, all gone.  As she sat there in her large and lovely home, Christmas decorations in place, every room meticulously cared for, and volunteering to do whatever she could to help with church events, I thought to myself, I have wondered how I would survive if I live to be very old.  I guess this is how it's done.

I imagine that she knows about my Josh; I mentioned him briefly, as I did all of my family members, in the short bio I wrote for the church bulletin the week before I arrived.  I didn't raise the issue of knowing something about loss; I think that I probably exude that knowledge, whether someone recognizes what they are seeing and hearing or not.

She told me that she survives by believing that God must have wanted her loved ones for a reason.  I was silent, that not being any part of my belief system.  She repeated her words a few minutes later, adding tentatively that perhaps she was wrong.  I noted that it is clear that her beliefs have brought  her great strength, and she nodded.  I added that perhaps this is part of God's plan for her, that she serve as a witness of strength to others. 

I was thinking of myself, who needs women like her, and of my grandmother, who was a similar beacon of strength.  My grandmother grew up with a mentally ill mother, nursed her husband through an emotional collapse, lost her father when she was still a young woman, lost three daughters-in-law and a grandchild,  and eventually lost her own hearing and sight.  She also graduated from a Seven Sisters college with highest honors,  maintained the warmest of homes, knew all about music and birds and art and literature, and zipped around the entire planet in her sixties and seventies.   I think she knew quite a bit about Buddhism as well, though she wasn't one to talk about her spiritual life.

As far as God's plan ~ I don't think much about that.  I've come to use the language sometimes where it seems helpful to people, but I don't believe God walks around planning to wreck our lives so that we can help others with their wrecked lives.  That reasoning is a bit too circular to satisfy me.  God does, however, offer gifts of compassion and resilience in the face of catastrophe.

There is a woman in Small Rural Church, ninety years old, widowed twice after wonderful marriages, and living elegantly and courageously in assisted living. (When she came home from the hospital last year and lounged around in a velour sweatsuit for a few days, make-up and jewelry worn with her usual care, she still looked classier than most of the rest of us do on our best days!) The two women share a first name.  It is such an honor and grace to know them a little as their pastor.


  1. Your parishioners are blessed to have a pastor who feels honoured to know them. It is a real grace to have a pastor who loves her/his people. Blessings to you for all that you do for your people.

  2. "God does, however, offer gifts of compassion and resilience in the face of catastrophe." It is an unfortunate fact that much of life is about loss. Death is a part of life, and there are many ways for a soul to depart from its body, not all of them beautiful or even bearable to those left behind. Illness, war, pain and death exist in the world, and we navigate our lives through that reality. The Divine is the entity from which flow the love, strength, faith, resilience and hope that make it possible to walk through that minefield...

  3. The other night we were with a group of friends whom we've gathered with weekly for more than a decade. We always end our time together with prayer. This week I felt like they were all speaking a different language when they prayed. A language I used to know but don't anymore. The things I was so sure of but am not now. I love how you were with the woman who looked at her losses like she did. What grace it takes to do that.