Grief, Complexity, and Honor
By Charles Rush
November 28, 2010
(mp3, 7.5Mb) ]
saw a fascinating television show about Crows. They are unlike most species of birds. They are much more socially sophisticated, which is probably why they have been revered in traditional societies as people have seen qualities in them quite like our own.
things, they exist as part of an extended Clan or Tribe. They mate for life and they know who they are
related to and they don’t forget it their whole life. When one of them dies, a
call goes out. And Crows have something like 250 distinct calls that scientists
have identified a very rich vocabulary if you are a bird… The call goes out
that a relative has died.
One by one, all
of the relatives get the word and they all fly to the same tree and they sit there in solidarity in the face of death. We can be
talking about a couple hundred birds all lining the branches of a tree,
mourning together. It is pretty moving.
know that all higher mammals have quite similar emotional responses to death.
One that I found so recognizable was a video of elephants traveling across
Kenya when researchers filmed them coming on a corpse of another elephant. The
Matriarch of the tribe of Elephants went to investigate and recognized the
corpse as a good friend of hers. The Matriarch lets out this cry that you just
instantly recognize as the pain of grief for your beloved. She blows dust all
over herself, the exact same ritual humans used up until about 2000 years ago.
All of the other elephants surrounded her and basically hugged her up.
walking people through death now for thirty years and I’ve seen so many different
faces of it over the years. Grief is just such a complex phenomenon. Certainly,
there is often just plain sadness, sometimes so great that it just spills over
I remember one
funeral when a 45 year old man lost his wife. They had the coffin in the middle
of the aisle and the family was walking up. He gets to the coffin and leans
over and hugs it and keeps hugging it. I thought for a minute we’d have to pry
him loose but I get that sadness. I often say that it is the price we pay for
the privilege of love.
One time, we
had a friend that died way too young, probably at 40. The guy was a genius,
funny, broad minded. Everyone loved him. Then This terrible accident… A life
cut short. We are all at the graveside and it started to pour out of nowhere.
Hardly anyone had an umbrella, so we were all just getting soaked. The Minister
said ‘Amen’, they lowered the coffin into the ground, everyone
is standing around the edge. One of his best friends, just so full of upset,
kicked some of the dirt into the grave. Then another friend did the same. Then
another one reached down his hands and pushed a big hunk of mud. Then everyone
joined in. It went on for a bit until the grave was filled. And everyone stood
there tears mixing with rain, suits completely ruined, skirts smeared with
clay, complete messes. It was a spontaneous purge and everyone was on the same
page with it. Odd as it seems, it was perfect. In that moment, liturgy
But it is a lot
more than that too. Fairly often, there is a component of anger that we rarely
acknowledge. I got a helpful glimpse of that when I was very young. My first
church out of college was a rural congregation when I had just started going to
seminary. I learned a lot from country people. They are reserved but they also
had an emotional bluntness that was a lot less polite and a lot more honest
than the world I grew up in. I was out
writing a sermon at the Church when I saw one of the Matriarchs of the church
pull up in a pick up truck. She got out of the truck, reached in the bed of the
truck, got a pitchfork, walked over to the graveyard, and stabbed that thing in
the ground with some real force.
She walked back
to her truck and sat in the front seat for a while. She got out of the truck,
walked back to the grave, pulled that pitchfork out of the ground and stabbed
the earth three or four more times for good measure and drove off. It left an
indelible impression on me. It is not always what it seems. In fact, it is
usually not what it seems and love is able to hold a lot of contradictory
emotions together at one time. That is what makes love ‘love’ in fact.
regularity, there is a dark humor that attends death. We had a woman that died
from cancer in her thirties. She was vibrant, involved, and a public figure. So
her funeral had a lot of public people there. The family decided that they
wanted to do something a bit more private as well.
About a year
later, they decided to get together at the beach, and spread her ashes in the
ocean down near the family beach house that she loved so much. Her husband,
some of her friends, her parents and some other relatives met at the beach
house, toasted her honor, brought her dogs with them
as they went to the beach. They said a few things Oceanside and then a couple
of them waded out into the water which was much colder than they thought it was
going to be, and they tossed all of the flower out into the waves. I’m sure
they envisioned a misty moment right about now.
Of course, the
dogs- Did I mention that they brought her
dogs?- being dogs, ran headlong into the waves and retrieved the flowers.
Reprimanded they tossed the flowers again but the moment they let the dogs off
the leash, they retrieved the flowers again. They tried it a couple more times
to no avail, so they gave up.
decided to just spread the ashes instead. Again, a few of them are out in the
water knee deep and frigid. They say a farewell, open
the lid on the urn of ashes. At just that moment, big gust of wind from off
shore sweeps in. At the very moment they toss the ashes in the air, it gusts,
and the ashes cover a whole bunch of the people there, not quite exactly what
they’d planned. Everyone was laughing and crying at the same time. The woman
they were honoring had a great sense of humor and it was something of a fitting
tribute to her in an offbeat way.
it can just be overwhelmingly lonely. We lost a young woman in her early
thirties. Among other things, she had been a volunteer at the Raptor Trust out
in the Great Swamp in New Vernon. A few weeks after the funeral was over, her immediate family and friends gathered out in
the field near the raptor trust, with a beautiful Red Shouldered Hawk that had
been healed of a broken bone. And now they were ready to release it.
We said some
prayers on behalf of the deceased woman. And then a man uncovered the bird,
held it on his arm, and let it fly away. The huge hawk started flying in
circles, higher and higher, higher and higher, so graceful and elegant. It was
a touching and beautiful moment. I’m sitting there watching the bird in all of
its majesty and then I keep watching her parents, her mother in particular. She
is surrounded by the strength of all those friends and relatives around her and
she needs it because letting go of your child is as lonely and soulful a
challenge as we have in human existence. That is as tough as it gets.
Sometimes death can
seem like a marathon. Several years ago, I got a call from a son. He had been
to visit his mother in Florida where she was retired. The son had a rather
halting conversation but the upshot of it was that his Mother was dating a man
that he’d recently met on a visit. It was obvious that they were involved. The
son thought it was too soon after his Dad had died and was, I suppose, calling
me for some guidelines on what is the appropriate time-span for grief, perhaps
hoping that I would talk to his Mother so that he didn’t have too. I don’t make
those calls, so he was disappointed if that is what he hoped.
went by, I happened to run into his Mother at a fundraising event in New York.
Somehow the subject came up rather naturally, so I made the comment to her that
her son had been concerned about this. She rolled her eyes and said “My children, bless them… The truth is, he’s been the best thing
that has happened to me in a long time, let me tell you. My kids knew that
their Dad was dying but they live in San Francisco and Chicago. My beloved
husband was dying for a year and a half. They have no idea what it was like day
in and day out to live with that. There comes a time when you’ve just had
enough. I need someone to hug me too.” I understand that completely.
it is just a shock. My first close encounter with death, I was 13. I was in
Eighth Grade in the suburbs north of Chicago. I was walking to school one day
with the other 3 guys from the football team that I always walked to school
with. My best friend at the time was behind us and somehow stepped out in the
street and was hit by an oncoming car.
I just remember
the quarterback for our team yelling out emergency commands like he was calling
a play and all of us getting my friend covered and warm, even though it was
completely obvious that he was dead. Then we were standing around with the
police and the authorities, each of us wondering how it was that grown men
would respond to something like this, trying to assume a persona.
we had to go to school that day, and the principal came on the loud speaker
right before the bell at the end of the day and announced that my friend was,
indeed, dead. All day long, I never could figure out how a grown man would
respond. I just remember running out of the school with supernatural speed and
I kept running and running all the way home and I got under the covers and my
Mom hugged me.
Death and grief
is all of these things… and more. It is a very complex reality. It is just part
of human existence, an integral, if difficult part of human existence. And you
know, it is in the midst of this grief and sadness
that the hope of the season is expressed.
Our texts in
this season are so elevated, so rich because they speak to the deepest longing
of the human heart in our sorrow and tragedy. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon
me, because the Lord has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news to the
oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives…
to comfort those who mourn; to give them a garland instead of ashes, the mantle
of praise in the place of fear. They will be called Oaks of righteousness. They
will build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up
the devastations of many generations.”
healing in the midst of brokenness. As sure as death is part of the natural
order of our world, so is redemption and healing part of the transcendent order
of our God. As the old spiritual puts it, “There is a balm in Gilead”.
Everything can’t all be cured or we would live forever… But we can be healed.
We can make it better.
When I was a
child, if something really bad happened- for that matter, if something really
good happened- I wanted to be near my Grandmother, Nana. She was old school
even for the World War 2 Generation. Her hair fell down to her waist but she
always kept it up in a bun, except in front of her husband and her
If I would get
scared in the middle of the night, she would come next to my bed in a nightgown
that was flowing to the ground, silver hair flowing down to her waist. She’d
pick me up and put my head on her chest and rock me and kiss me on the head. I
don’t care what is was, I got better. She would just
pour the love into me. Bruce Springsteen calls it “The place you can’t
remember…. And you can’t forget”.
God is like
that. When people met Jesus, they called him ‘The Christ’ because they
experienced something like that. They got stronger and less afraid. They knew
healing. They were loved. What those early Christians came to realize is that
this love is so strong, it transcends death. It doesn’t abnegate death or
cancel it, but it does transcend it.
We still have a
relationship with those loved ones that went before us,
it is just not a relationship with a living person anymore. But those people
that loved us, who gave us the confidence and the freedom to do something
daring so that we could find our way, such as it is, we can still honor them,
with our lives, the way we love down the next generation. We can heal others
and bless them and make them stronger. At the end of our brief sojourn on this
planet, you come to realize that we are no more, but no less, than conduits for
God’s grace, healing, and love. So we can look to the past, remember those that
shaped us, for better and worse, and on our more mature days to realize that
even the limitations we were given became for
us those places of personal growth, so that even in our overcoming the
past, this is how we became who we are in fact are.
We can see
ourselves as conduits. We can channel the best, filter the worst. And through
this, we find the meaning of honor for our generation and our families, in our
community, in this era. The Gospel of John says of Jesus, “In him was the life
and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and
the darkness does not overcome it.” Sometimes it is just a single candle, just
a flicker of hope. But we add to that other flickers and it is amazing that
collectively we can channel an effulgent presence that is inspiring and humane
in its own beautiful way.
So that is what
we are going to do right now, remember those that have gone before us and in
gratitude and perhaps with a rather wide range of other emotions, we will honor
them. I’ve asked Danny Rufolo to play a meditation for us as we sit in silence.
As you are so moved to light a candle for someone, Rev. Julie will be up front
with votive candles and tapers.
We will start
with those that have lost relatives in the past year. I’ve asked the family of
Bob Franks who died last April to start us off, so after listening to Danny for
a minute, I’m going to walk to the back and get the girls as we light a candle
for their Dad. Add your candles next to theirs when you are ready. Amen.
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