It had been an exhausting and emotional week spent in Nebraska for my 90 year old father-in-law’s funeral. After a week in hotel beds we decided to drive the seven and 1/2 hours home without stopping.
Both of us were lost in our own thoughts. We drove in silence, too tired for conversation.
However, the events leading up to grandpa’s death – the whispers, the half-told stories, the secrets, the conflict with siblings, encounters with relatives, some I knew, some I’d just met, and some not seen for decades – clanged around in my mind like the pots and pans that fell to the floor from Grandma’s disorganized cupboard when we women cooked that week.
I’m not sure which made the most noise? Was it the memorial tribute gone awry – the one that demoralized the 90 year old father in front of his family and community? Or was it the sermon that missed by a mile – so out of touch with the family in the pews that we wondered if the preacher even knew the one lying in the casket.
My mind was a mess. My thoughts jumbled together. How long would it take to untangle the events of the past weeks, months, and years into any semblance of order?
I was familiar with the toll of loss, both parents having died in their fifties three weeks from their cancer diagnoses. But losing a figure as forceful and large as my father-in-law, at 90 years of age, however, is a loss unto its own. It will leave a gaping hole, much like that left after a tornado tears the mighty oak from where it has stood for generations.
Funerals are perfect for stories. Most of the time we rehearse the good parts, skirting round the stories behind the scars. This was the case with my parent’s funerals. And if truth be told, most of us narrate the losses in order to carry forth pieces that we hope will bring peace in the days and months that follow.
Funerals are also perfect for white lies. I recall visiting with friends at my father’s interment. I bit my lips when accolade upon accolade flowed from their lips. How I longed for someone to dare speak the truth about my father, to acknowledge what they had known all along, and promise they would be there to help put the pieces together. After my mother’s funeral, one of her sisters, my favorite aunt, told me bluntly that the message given was a pack of lies – this was not the sister she knew. I chose to believe the message, at least for a while.
When beholding the body of my father-in-law lying silent in the casket, it dawned on me again how very, very, human we are. Humans are terminal. Don’t get me wrong – living is wonderful. And thank goodness, through Christ, Life beats Death hands down every time.
But, life is also fragile and challenging. Winds blow, beating our hearts, bending our bodies, bruising our minds. Storms come out of nowhere, trauma upon trauma strewn in the aftermath. Much of the beating, the bending, the bruising – although hidden and invisible to others – is manifested in our behaviors with one another, to our children, our spouses, to good or to ill, whether we recognize it or not.
I’m reminded of a verse from Proverbs 14:10, “The heart knows its own bitterness [its own grief, its own misery, its own brokenness, its own losses] and no stranger shares its joy.” The ancients knew there was a limit to our fully knowing one another. We each deal with the ebbs and flows of life in our own unique way. What breaks one, strengthens another. What brings joy to one brings pain to another. There’s no understanding as to why.
Standing in front of the casket that Friday morning is when I realized funerals give us ample opportunities to forgive.
I know this sounds trite, but I am comforted by the thought that our Creator knows those we love better than we know them. God knows their heart, what caused their bitterness and trauma, what brought them joy, and knows that they, as well as the rest of us, are frail and prone to stumbling. Come unto me and I will give you rest, Jesus says. Let me bind your skinned knees. Let me wipe away your tears. Let me heal your battered heart as I raise your bent and broken body. Let me restore your bruised mind and emotions. Let me heal you and make you whole.
Funerals are perfect for forgiving, not in the sense of pardoning a wrong, but more like giving grace and space and ample room for our loved one to become all they are meant to be.
This man of 90 years weathered many storms. Some I’m aware of, but much is unknown. But this I do know – if there is Life after this life, and if the Scriptures are true – then this 90 year old father of my husband is forgiven and free.
It will take time to process the weeks and months that led up to Grandpa’s death. It will take time for the gaping hole to heal. But at least for now, the clanging in my head is quieted. It will take time to sort and organize and to get things back to normal.
That’s the thing about funerals and death, life always goes on.