Just before my aunt passed away two years ago, she decided she wanted a party at her funeral.
She and my uncle had returned to their faith in the later years of their life after a long time away; they had thrown themselves into their church life with vigor, teaching and serving as much as they could. She planned her funeral like a “homegoing party”: there was praise music, pictures of her smiling and swimming with dolphins on her beloved cruises, a poem that reminded people to rejoice because she had gone to be with the Lord.
This is not so bad, I thought, looking at the jubilant funeral program and my aunt’s peaceful, prayerful husband. This is how it ought to be.
And then over the weekend, I saw my mother for what is likely the last time.
It was a weekend not without beauties or mercies. We got to talk and laugh and watch football together. My husband was there to reassure her he would look after me and I reassured her I would look after my father. We hugged and cried and hugged some more. We said absolutely everything that needed to be said. And on Sunday, apropos of nothing and with no announcement, her pastor showed up at the house and we all got to share Communion together.
Who could ask for more from a brief earthly parting?
Even so, I cried myself sick for the entire drive home.
Grief (even anticipatory grief), I am learning, is not so much emotion as a process, and a process over which the grieving has no control or authorship. I do not decide I’m sad or need a cry; out of nowhere, and often apropos of nothing, sorrow simply descends on me in sudden fits. I cried a week ago in a Hallmark, spooking the clerks before I fled the store; I cried today at a pond; I cried today when I saw a commercial that had a mom in it. I have lost my appetite. I have weird bodily aches.
Mom is still here, of course. But I also know that, before long, she will move to be with the Lord. It is a comforting knowledge in many ways: she is very at peace, and will be relieved, I think, to come into the presence of her Savior. After all she has suffered, part of me will be relieved for her.
But I don’t feel like throwing a party. I don’t feel like celebrating. And that is okay, I think.
A friend of mine, checking in recently to make sure I was still in one piece, wrote me a text: “I was going to recommend a book on grief that was good bc u like to read but I can’t find a good one :(“
I laughed when I got the text because I have already blazed through multiple books on grief. I am nothing if not a scholar at heart: to the degree that one can study to prepare for life’s heartbreak, I have done so. I have learned that the immune system tends to go downhill when grieving, and so I stocked up on turmeric. I learned that self-care and exercise are important, so every day I try to walk and do some stretching. Support is important, so I’ve reached out to my husband and to my friends. All of this is good and helpful in its measure, but all this reading and prepping—as though for a childbirth, but worse, and opposite—has taught me something critical:
You cannot intellectualize yourself through drinking the cup of sorrow.
Read all you want about taste and texture and how to get it down, learn about the make and craftsmanship of the cup, and how you’ll feel during and after, but at some point even accurate knowledge ceases to be relevant. There is only to drink.
It is strange to say that I can see—dimly, and only barely—that there is a richness in this.
“I am changing,” I blurted out to my husband the other day. “This is changing me.” I can’t even articulate how. But people who walk through sorrow and through grief do transform, I see now, in mysterious ways. The drinking of the cup alters something deeply in a person’s makeup, spiritual and emotional and perhaps even physical. The “me” before I started down this path of losing my mother is not the “me” I am now.
God is doing His work beyond my eyes, beyond my understanding, spinning misery into meaning.
You know, I would have preferred the celebratory homegoing. I always sort of thought it might be that way for every believer, that in the midst of physical pain and suffering and in the midst of grief we would still be able to throw a party and feel good about what was happening. Perhaps some can, and what a blessing that is. I think also that, for some, that is not their portion.
It wasn’t Christ’s.
In all of this sadness I keep thinking only of Jesus in Gethsemane, and of the fact that we know He wanted out if it was at all possible. That, facing down the misery ahead, He quietly asked God if there was another way and wanted to know if the cup might be removed from Him. It is the most wonderful, sympathetic, deeply human thing about Jesus to me. If ever I wondered whether or not God fully understood the human condition, the answer is there in the Garden.
God Himself has experienced the unique and particular grimness of saying, “Please don’t make me drink this cup,” and then, in submission and obedience, having to drain it anyway.
I don’t think, when the phone call comes, I will feel like throwing a party-funeral, and I am grateful that is not what my mother has planned. I don’t think anyone who loves my mother and has been rocked by this ordeal will feel like doing that.
But I do believe that one day I will.
And so I want to end this with a story: my mother’s story that she told me this weekend.
She hasn’t been able to eat any food for two months. For the past eight weeks, she has subsisted solely—and probably miraculously—on a half-cup of chicken broth and a half-cup of water that she keeps down maybe every other day.
My mother has always loved making and eating a good meal. Food is one of her love languages. So this has been doubly hard. Pizza is her favorite food of all time. Stirring on the couch where she sat this past weekend, she told me, “I was sad a couple of weeks ago… I thought to myself, I’ve had pizza for the last time. And I know I’ll eat again at the marriage supper of the Lamb, but I thought—well, don’t be silly, there won’t be pizza at that. So I was a little sad.
But then—and I wasn’t asleep, I wasn’t even stretched out or having my eyes closed, I was wide awake—I felt an arm come around my shoulder. And I looked up and it was Jesus. And He was so beautiful, and He had this little smile—this little grin. And in his other hand He was holding up a plate.”
She started crying. “I couldn’t even look. I knew what was on it.”
I was crying when she told me—and laughing, and smiling too. Because God is, indeed, that sort of God. Because after all the crying and grieving and sadness and cup-drinking, there will be a really, really, phenomenal party. One that I believe each of us will experience in the fullness of communal and individual joy.
Mourning for a night; joy in the morning.
We will, all of us, break through.