I could write for a long time about grief. I have buried too many people. The scar of grief was first carved by my parents’ divorce. I was too young to remember, but I know that my father was there and then he wasn’t. Then we weren’t. There were other griefs; we experience many lost hopes and dreams in childhood – in life. Some are mocked out of us. Others taunt us when we see people enjoying what we cannot have.
There are goodbyes every time we move. I remember five houses before I went off to college and moved again each year until I was 28. At first it seems thrilling, but then you realize that, each time, you leave a piece of yourself behind.
My rabbit died. Died as I was trying desperately to tend it. Died after it made a desperate attempt to escape the cage. And I sobbed. Sobbed over a mere rabbit. But I knew that the tears had been stored up for five years since the grey wintry day we put my brother’s casket into the ground.
It was in fact a nice, sunny September day. But the world was cold and gray to me.
It was (and is) an honor to walk with families in their grief. But it takes its toll. In three years, at the beginning of my ministry, I did seventy-five funerals. But the really tough ones were still to come. Two infants. A young man cleaning his gun. Two young men shot down by a retired cop as they fled his bar. (White ex-cop; black young men; no charges. “Robbery,” he said, though they had jobs and new paychecks in their pocket.) A young man killed the day he got out of prison – he owed his dealer fifty dollars. A matriarch. Many matriarchs. A mean old SOB that everyone was glad was dead. Another abusive crank whose death freed his wife. She hadn’t had communion for twenty years until I knocked on her door as I was going through the neighborhood trying to invite people into the life of our congregation. The young kids from the neighborhood tried to tell this dimwitted white pastor that, “there are no church people on that street.” I didn’t understand they were anxious about the several crack houses on the block – not the little mom and pop crack houses, but serious and dangerous ones. That sweet, frightened lady with the snarly husband first spoke to me only through the mail slot. She was afraid. One of those houses was next door.
Too much death. Too much sorrow. Too much struggle against life’s injustice and tragedies. A vibrant middle-aged man keels over on the golf course. A sweet old lady whose house turned out to be filled with empty wine bottles.
More sweet old ladies, speaking of visions of angels or long departed family in their last minutes. More brutal murders. A cop who burned his wife’s home down around her. Children with cancer burying friends they made in the hospital. Closing the casket lid on my daughter.
It is an awe-filled and holy privilege to perform last rites. But I like the anointing of the sick better when surgery gives them back their life rather than marking the inescapable downward slide.
But even there, a husband’s fiercely insistent and tender homecare of a wife on machines after a stroke. She seemed to recognize his rough, tough, determined hands.
So here we are, stumbling along, bearing burdens we would not choose, but borne ourselves by rough, tough, determined hands – wounded, pierced hands.