With the death of my grandmother last month, I suppose I should be in the throws of grieving, and feel a little bit guilty that I am not. My attitude is one like David’s after his first son by Bathsheba died:
Then on the seventh day it came to pass that the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead. For they said, “Indeed, while the child was alive, we spoke to him [David] and he would not heed our voice. How can we tell him that the child is dead? He may do some harm!” When David saw that his servants were whispering, David perceived that the child was dead. Therefore David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?’ And they said, ‘He is dead.” So David arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then he went to his own house; and when he requested, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive, but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” And he [David] said, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, “Who can tell whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”
(2 Samuel 12:18-23)
In many ways, my grief began several years ago, when she could no longer live on her own. Until she died, I had been praying often that she would receive the LORD, but it is not really clear that she ever did. Circumstances inhibited my wife and I from being able to attend the funeral of my grandmother last month, but we had a good visit with her in August when we were in Maine, and for me, anyways, that was sufficient closure.
When we visited my family at the end of December, Mom told me that they had a “Celebration of Life” service for my grandmother (and separately, one for my aunt as well who passed away the same week). I have to say, I’m not big on “Celebration of Life” services, even though they are in vogue now. These services seem to be going to great lengths to avoid saying the obvious, namely that the deceased is, well, dead. The Christian view–at least historically–has been that death is not simply a phase in the Cycle of Life, but is a curse on the race for the sin of Adam. Death is not they way things are supposed to be and the Christian hope is that in Christ and following the pattern of His resurrection, death is overcome for all eternity.
“Celebration of Life” services also seem to me to be just a tad misleading. The “Celebration of Life” services that I have been to have extolled the virtues of the dearly departed: their quirky interests; how they were well loved by family, friends and co-workers; how they always made a positive impact on everyone with whom they came into contact; and how they are now “in a better place.” You would think that they never did anything wrong–and shouldn’t that make you think about the spin job that is going on? Nobody is perfect, save Christ alone. I know that funerals are not necessarily the place to be speaking ill of the departed, but the real impact of a person’s life is summed up by the stories people tell outside of the funeral service. And those aren’t always so glowing.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not harbor a grudge against my grandmother, and I do have many positive memories of her. But the fact of the matter is that her life would not be adequately summed up by saying that she had artistic qualities or that she had several friends or that we have many happy memories of her. Yes, my grandmother did have artistic qualities in her ceramics and paintings, but much of her potential was unrealized. Yes, she did have friends, but she was unforgiving of many of them when they tried to help her in her later years, and she effectively pushed them all away before she died. Yes, we do have some happy memories of her, but at the same time, my grandmother also was absent at every life milestone in the lives of my sister and I: our graduations from high school, our college commencements, our weddings. And she didn’t want to be there because she didn’t want to be at anything where her ex-husband, my grandfather, might be. He was there on those occasions and there for us. She wasn’t.
As we have pieced together over the years the story of her life, the picture that emerges is one of a life marked by pride and bitterness: bitterness over the loss of her mother when she was just a child, bitterness in being forced to marry a man she did not want to marry, bitterness over the loss of her father, bitterness shaped by a couple decades of an unhappy marriage, followed by divorce and rejection (at a time when divorce was still stigmatized). That bitterness was ameliorated a bit in her second marriage, to my step-grandfather, but returned after his death and only hardened over the years until dementia at the end of her life erased the memories she had been holding onto that justified her bitterness in the first place. Like Marley’s ghost, she formed chains in this life, link-by-link, that she would carry into the next life. That is tragedy, not a “Celebration of Life.” What I grieve is not so much the loss of my grandmother, but how much different and better things could have been for her and for all of us if she had given up the bitterness that she harbored, trusted Christ, and had Him take her burdens. Besides some positive memories, what I take away from her life is a negative example: I know that I can be as proud, as stubborn, and as self-pitying as she could be–after all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But I don’t want to end up bitter, crippled by prideful self-reliance, and pushing people away–and the only way that I can avoid doing that is to daily turn to Christ, trust on Him and be transformed by the renewing of the Holy Spirit. May He increase and I decrease. Amen and amen.