I want to look at death through the eyes of the survivors.
I took my grandniece, Aubree, with me to the cemetery to decorate the graves one Christmas when she was maybe seven or eight. We laid wreaths on my parents’ graves and my sister, Gale’s. I told her that was her Daddy’s mother’s grave. “Grandma,” she said happily, as she laid the wreath. On the way back, she was very quiet. When we got out of the car, she started crying. I asked her what was the matter. She said, “I miss Grandma.” She missed the Grandmother she had never known. She missed the place that her Grandmother would have had in her life, the role she would have played.
Death through the eyes of the survivors
Aubree also had a young woman named Tina who often took care of her, who died of an overdose. She told me one time that Jesus had made Tina her guardian angel. She felt the need for Tina to still watch over her, to still take care of her, to still play the role in her life she had played before. Like the Grandmother she had never known, it was the place in her life that Tina played that mattered to her. That is what death means to us. It robs us of the role someone played in our life.
Another example comes to mind. I visited another cemetery at Easter to decorate the grave of a friend of my son’s who had taken his life. I noticed another grave with an Easter basket. I went over to look at it. As expected, it was for a little girl who had died when she was four. What surprised me was that she had died some forty years before. Someone, presumably the parents, were still grieving for the little girl they had lost. They were still bringing her her Easter basket. She was still playing the role she had always played in their lives. They were still trying to overcome the loss that death had brought them.
That is why holidays are so hard on us. We remember the people who ought to be there, who ought to be taking part in the celebration.
I remember one Christmas at my sister Jan’s when I could swear that I heard my sister Gale’s voice in the kitchen coming in from the cold. She should have been there. It wasn’t right to celebrate Christmas without her. When Gale died, Jan wrote a poem “To My Sister” that said there was a place where they would meet again. It was a beautiful image of riding horseback over the clouds in a world without care. That is how she needed to envision her sister back in her life.
We all grieve in our own way
When I was young, I had a little cousin who died of leukemia when he was two and a half. My aunt, his mother, told me that one day when she and her parents were going to go out to the cemetery, Granddad said, “We’re going to visit Billy.” She said she didn’t think of it that way. For Granddad, that was how he was bringing his grandson back into his life. For her, it didn’t work that way. As the saying goes, we all grieve in our own way. We all recover roles we have lost in our lives in our own way, too. Whether it’s taking an Easter basket to a grave, or visiting your grandson there, or riding over clouds with your sister, we keep memories alive as best we can.
Rev. Barbara Prose shares about the recent death of her father in Death: Hating, Accepting, and finding Love.