For a pastor, grief is a professional hazard and, one might assume, a professional skill set. Hospital visits and listening to loss and officiating funerals are part of the job. They come with the territory. I dislike hospitals and funerals, but I also love the people who end up there and so have figured out how to be present for other people in times of illness and loss.
(Here is my legit, sincere offer: if someone you love dies and you/they do not have a pastor, I am available to officiate the funeral. If you’re willing to spend a couple hours telling me stories about the deceased, I’m willing to do a non-awful service. A bad funeral is one of the absolute worst things in the world.)
I can feel my way through shocking phone calls and hallway weeping, be the heavy in grief-soaked family disputes, act as a buffer for grieving people overwhelmed with well-intentioned casseroles, or be the casserole deliverer, myself. I have done all these things. The outline of what happens when someone dies – mortuary, graveside, visitation, obituary, death certificates, all the feelings held at bay while you take care of all those details swarming you when they’re finished – is familiar. It has to be, in order to do my job.
This year, though, death ran up against my professional barriers and breached them. My tiny congregation lost two powerful women – both on our Coordinating Council, both faithful, consistent, pillars of the ways our tiny community existed. Melissa died in January and Nancy died in June. Then my Mammaw, who we had just moved from her own home to an assisted living facility, died rather suddenly in July. And in October, my JoJo wound up in the hospital with several infections, including Covid, and died immediately upon discharge to the same facility where Mammaw died three months before.
I can talk or listen to you about grief and its details for a long stretch, but I am really not sure how to start talking about my own grief at all. It has plowed me under. Every one of those deaths included some traumatic element – I suppose most deaths do. Circumstances are not all mine to share, but sorting through what-ifs and how-comes and good-god-this-world-is-awfuls feels like an additional layer of loss and confusion. Each one of these women was a powerful, influential presence in my life, and each loss has left a hole in my heart.
This year has been so strange and covid-soaked that I’m still regularly surprised when I remember that one of these people is dead. Like, I’ll be wondering what Melissa would say about our new worship arrangement, and then am shocked to remember that I will never know. Or what advice Nancy would give us as we try to plan for next year’s budget, forgetting that next year’s budget is complicated precisely because Nancy – who was our long-time treasurer – is not here. I went to Roanoke for Thanksgiving and didn’t quite know what to do with myself, since I couldn’t make my regular grandma visits, which I tried to do every time I was in town. I keep expecting JoJo to comment on my latest Instagram post, or think maybe I could ask Mammaw to tell me that story I love one more time to be sure that I get it right, and none of that is possible anymore.
Grief is a universal experience – if you live, you grieve. I know this. I also know that the last two years have been so full of grief and loss that no one has been left unaffected. I know that I live a privileged life that leaves me reeling after a year that served up only four intimate deaths. I know all that, and I am aware of coping strategies, and the old aphorism that everybody grieves differently and grief has no timeline, and I trust my heart to feel what it needs to feel when it needs to feel it.
And I am also writing all this here as part of that process, part confession and part remembrance, an unprofessional and uber-human admission that I have no idea what I’m doing or what comes next. Melissa, Nancy, Mammaw, JoJo: I loved each one of these women, and I know – because they told me – that they loved me, too. And they’re just…gone.
I know so many of you are grieving losses like these, too. I preached Romans 8 no fewer than 5 times this year, and it is pretty much all I’ve got right now:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I am convinced, Paul says, as if it took some work. As if he had done some grieving, himself. As if in the midst of this life that repeatedly separates us from the people and places and work and routines and assumptions and certainties we love, Paul hit rock bottom and found that it was made up of one sure and certain thing: the love of the one that created it all. That love never ends. That we can get separated from all manner of things, but never cut off from the source of it all.
I believe that’s true, even though sometimes, some days, some years, it is a struggle to be convinced.