Today, I attended the funeral of a woman who died far too early, and quite unexpectedly, at age 51, leaving a loving husband and two wonderful sons, extended family, and a wide network of friends.
An untimely death can bring more sorrow, anger and more urgent “why’s” , in contrast to the expected passing of an aged relative who “had a good long life”.
During the service, I struggled to remain open to the classic passage from Ecclesiastes:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted….
I struggled because this passage is so commonplace that it threatens to become pablum, a “let me help you put this in perspective” Hallmark card for the newly sorrowful. How can the 3 men she left behind even begin to hear these words through the shock blast of a premature death? More to the point, how can I hear these words in a way that allows them some traction?
Grief is blinding…I have experienced this, years ago. The sense that all that is before me is loss. A void; a vacuum. Until, the day came when I got myself into a church because, well, where else does one go on one’s lunch hour to unload buckets of tears – Starbucks? Banana Republic? Maybe Bed Bath and Beyond, where one can find oneself alone for a moment amidst vertical displays of window treatments.
It was only then, safely ensconced in the dark, in a pew toward the rear, that I asked for my sight back. For the ability to see beyond my grief, beyond the void, to whatever was coming next. Or frankly, to whatever was right in front of me that I might be discounting.
This, I think, years later, might be the essence of gratitude….the gift of counting, not dis-counting, all that is in front of me. And, all that has passed as well. But I wasn’t ready to be grateful until I was ready to be less grief-stricken.
Which brings me back to Ecclesiastes. It doesn’t suggest that we hurry through our grief; or that we put it on the shelf before we’re done. Or that we beat our breasts for being ungrateful when all seems lost. No. What Ecclesiastes suggests to me, and seems true from my own lived experience, is that everything (especially the bigger life events) has its (sometimes unfathomable) cycle.
The comings and goings follow patterns we don’t set, or timetables we don’t understand and sometimes chafe under. Which implies that we can surrender or fight. And by surrender, I don’t mean check out. Rather, to act as if the only way out is “through”. Through the grief, and eventually, to the gratitude.
Through the blindness, to sight.
Through the littler deaths, to the resurrections.
And, as Ecclesiastes suggests, from the mourning, to the dancing.
…When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom; taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
From When Death Comes, by Mary Oliver