One week ago, I was sitting in my mother's living room in Hawley, Pennsylvania with my family to help plan the funeral of my stepfather, The. Rev. Martin L. Cox, Jr. I blogged about that experience here.
Time is a funny thing when someone close to us dies - it seems to move both faster and slower at the same time. Since last Saturday we've made a return trip to Massachusetts, and then back to Pennsylvania for calling hours, burial, memorial service - and now we're back home again. The past week has been packed full of tears and laughter. There have been lots of stories and memories shared. People have seen rainbows and spotted cardinals and all the rest! (I think we mostly agree that these "outward and visible signs" are probably always around us, but when death comes close, we tend to be more attuned to these signs of God's presence.) How to stay in tune as life returns to normal, or finds a new normal?
A week later, I am filled with gratitude. I realize that while I have a lot of experience with death and dying as a pastor, it's been some time since I stood in a receiving line for hours on end, or gathered at the graveside to commend someone to God not as the officiant but as someone who needed to be ministered to.
I've been thinking of all the ways that my family and I have been ministered to in the past week and for those who "don't know what to say or do" when someone is grieving, here are a few thoughts I'd like to share.
1. Show up. It doesn't matter what you say, or if you have any words. There are no words. It's ok to say, "I don't have any words." Give a hug. We got lots of hugs on Thursday night. I was touched by how many people came, from near and far, to pay their respects. People came from California and Ohio and Massachusetts and from all over Pennsylvania. I was moved most deeply, however, by the high school friend of one of my nieces and her dad and two younger sisters who only a couple of months ago lost their wife/mother. Whether we are paying it forward, or back, those who have experienced the presence of others in times of loss know that this is all that is needed - and yet sometimes it is costly. Being present may re-open old wounds, or fresh ones, for us. We should be gentle with those who cannot find it in them, but we must celebrate the courage of those who do. (By the way, this showing up extends to both before and after calling hours or a funeral. My family is so grateful for those who visited Marty in the hospital and who drove my mother back and forth to New York City in the months leading up to his death.)
2. Bring food. I must admit as a long-time pastor I've sometimes teased the casserole brigade. Never, ever again - even in jest - will I do that. My family loves to cook and to eat and we are normally pretty self-reliant. But time stands still (or speeds up; again I'm not certain) in times of grief and there doesn't seem to be time to shop and cut and dice and cook. So someone shows up with lasagnas or a cold cut platter or fried chicken or cake or cookies or corn chowder or ham and scalloped potatoes or Swedish meatballs - and it is more than a gesture. It's daily bread. It's manna from heaven! I mean this. We have a big extended family - but we have not gone hungry this past week. Far from it.
3. Write a note and/or send a card. Sometimes people cannot be present, for a whole host of reasons. And some people just don't cook. Most of us can share a memory, however, and find a card. I got home today to find a mailbox full of cards and notes from friends. What a gift! Usually our mailbox has only bills and junk mail in it! I confess I'm not so good at sending cards as I want to be, but I find myself inspired to do better. My mother got so many more notes and cards, of course - but the one that touched me the most was from a quiet student of Marty's in an ethics class, who knew him not as pastor but professor. A student who said not once but twice that while she was too shy to speak up in class she wished she had done so - and that the class had left a mark on her.
All of these are outward and visible signs of faith in action. All of us live busy lives. But death reminds us we don't have all the time in the world. These sacramental acts of kindness and love are a kind of prayer, maybe the most important kind. So yes, we can and should pray for those who have died and for those who mourn their loss. But prayer isn't just between us and God. And sometimes God responds, go be with them, bake some bread, write a note - in my name.
Prayer is a way of life, and a living faith needs to be acted upon in small and large ways. Today I am offering prayers of thanksgiving for these many, many blessings in a time of loss - a loss made more bearable and meaningful because of these outward signs of a in inward and spiritual grace, and as reminders of a life well lived, that touched so many.