On an anniversary

I’m surprised how much it’s bothering me, a woman told me after worship. But I guess I don’t need to tell you that. She had been leaving church in a hustle, and tried to offer me a quick apology for how she had cried throughout worship. I let the apology pass. Even I – who proclaim Brene Brown’s gospel of vulnerability – still find myself ashamed of my crying. I just invited her to share more. As it turned out, this past week had been her mother’s death anniversary.

I’m surprised how much it’s bothering me, she said. But I guess I don’t need to tell you that.

It’s a hazard of the role. Many folks assume that pastors understand grief better than other people, because we deal with it in a professional capacity. I can’t speak for other clergy, but for me – who, in the year my grandmother died officiated no fewer than 16 other funerals – I do not find this to be true. What I learn in accompanying others in their hour of despair offers little insight to my own personal grieving. For the loss of someone close to me, it as if I am learning about grief for the first time.

A confession: Yesterday, I found it impossible to get out of bed. And off the couch. All I wanted to do was eat cookies and watch TV. It was difficult even to find the energy to pray. In short, I demonstrated the very antithesis of what I had hoped for my Lenten discipline. I knew that my friend’s one-year death anniversary was tomorrow (now today), but I was surprised how much it was bothering me. Why should I be this upset, just because it was 366 days later?

Today, my mind is clearer. It has been a year since she died. It has been a year since I spent the night on the floor of her apartment. Since the hospice nurse came to take care of both of us. Since I heard her breathing shallow. Since I kept watch over her body while drinking the last Guinness from her fridge.

It has only been a year, and also, a lifetime has passed. Now, when I happen to ride or drive past her apartment complex, I no longer think, “I should ask if she needs anything.” Now, when I see a chicken randomly in the street, I no longer think, “I should take a picture for her.” Now, when I read a comic strip that exudes exceptionally dark humor, I no longer think to send it along. While I do a double-take sometimes when I see a white-haired woman in a mobility scooter, I no longer expect to see her. It is its own loss: The loss not only of the beloved dead, but of the bodily memory that used to remind us we were once connected to them.

The past year has felt like a lifetime. So many things have happened that my friend and I would have discussed at length while sitting among the succulents on her front porch. This is why a death anniversary is hard. Not only because we grieve the loss of someone, but because we grieve every way in which they will not be part of our lives in the future. We grieve not only what has passed, but also everything that could have been, but isn’t. And never shall be. Yesterday, I did not have the words to remember such grief.

But this morning, thank God, somebody told me. Somebody reminded me that marking a death anniversary is sacred work, so it is okay if no other work gets done today. It is enough just to go out on a hike, and to bring along some of her favorite foods. It is enough just to sit and eat under the old oak tree where I buried her ashes. It is enough to crack open a Guinness, and say, The world has been different since you passed on and I’m so glad that you were here.

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