During my second semester of seminary, I took a class called “Caring for the Dying and Bereaved.” During our first class, our professor showed a music video from YouTube. Although I can’t remember who the artist was, I can still remember images from the video and how it made me feel. In the video, people who had died, and loved ones still alive, were dancing with each other. The song was upbeat. The overall vibe was one of celebration, happiness, and joy.
I still remember this video to this day because those emotions - joy and happiness - were not emotions I had associated with death up until that point in my life. Up until that point, I had associated death exclusively with sadness and despair. To be fair, though, I didn’t think much about death and dying in general.
Later on in the class I learned that this was pretty typical for an American. In one of the required books for the class, “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande, the author said as much. Gawande wrote about how we in the United States don’t like to talk about death. It’s almost a taboo topic. More often than not we seek ways to prolong life for as long as possible. We often go to extraordinary lengths to save a life. This is not bad in and of itself. It is good to seek to save life. However, death does inevitably come for all of us. When it does come, we aren’t sure what to do or how to act or what to feel.
My Latvian Grandma
Although I didn’t realize it, my Latvian grandma was teaching me a different way to view death. For 20 plus years before she died, whenever anyone in our family would talk about the future, her response would always be “If I’m still alive then.” I never liked that response from her. I did not want to think about her dying some day. I wanted to focus on her life, on her living, and being able to be with her.
When she did finally die, I realized that she was trying to prepare all of us for the inevitable. She was trying to help us start mentally processing when she wouldn’t be physically with us any more. Rather than an annoyance, it was a kindness. She was being realistic.
Pastoring those with Grief
During my first call as a pastor, I walked alongside church members experiencing grief.
I learned a lot about grief from those actually experiencing it.
I learned that there isn't an end-point to grief. A person just eventually learns how to live with it. Yes, the most painful emotions in grief will eventually get less and less. Yes, you eventually go back to living your life, with all of the everyday, mundane activities that go into living. But the sadness and grief never fully go away.
I didn’t fully understand all of this until my grandma, who I was very close to, passed away. Now, all of this theory and second-hand knowledge was happening to me. I would now have first-person experience.
It is a blessing and a curse to know so much about grief. A blessing because I knew what to expect. I knew what could help. This meant no surprises. A curse because I now knew how hard it would be. I knew what wouldn’t help. I knew that my sadness would never fully go away.
At her Celebration of Life a month after she had passed away, I was glad I was able to be present and share my best memories of her. I did not do much celebrating that day, though. I was mostly sad. Nonetheless, it did feel like I could now move into the next phase of grief.
Into the Now
Now almost 2 months out from the passing of my grandma, it’s really sinking in that she is gone. Before she died I saw or spoke with her on the phone about once a month. Two months would have been a long time to not see or call her. I now feel the loss somewhat more, but also less. I no longer tear up when I pass by the exit on the highway where I would usually get off to go visit her.
The ghost of grief does still reveal itself, surprising me at random times. A new song will come on the radio, and for some unknown reason it reminds me of her. A movie I am watching will have a character that dies, and I tear up.
But now, I am grateful for her life. I do have happiness in knowing her, and being able to cherish the memories I have of her.
I still do wish, though, to be able to dance one more time with her.
Peace and blessings,