The Privilege of Grief
A few years ago, a person that I had known for about 20 years passed away. It was a shock to her loved ones. She left behind 3 sons, her husband and lots of grandkids. A few months later, her spouse passed away. There was a time, for many years, when she and I were very close friends and I even lived with her for a few months. However, over the years, our relationship changed. Our friendship ended and not in a positive way. My circumstances had changed and I invited her to adjust the friendship to the changed circumstance and she refused. I learned a lot about who I was and who I was not through my relationship and non-relationship with this person. When she passed away, I was eerily calm. It did not affect me much. I was more concerned about her kids and grandkids and how they would navigate life without her. I had made my peace about the change in the relationship a couple of years earlier. I was very concerned about her husband. They had been together for close to 50 years. I reminisced over the friendship but it did not hurt. It felt solemn for a few days. I felt it was important to mourn the lives that she touched but I felt no grief. And I had no problem moving on. After all, how do you grieve for someone with whom you have no intention of a future relationship?
In 2003 and 2007, my father and mother respectively passed away. I miss them and they were a huge part of my life. However, looking back, I think because I had not lived with them, in the same city, since I was 16, I was able to adjust to their absence within a couple of years. When she was alive, I talked to my mother several times a week and even now, I miss those conversations infused with her sharp wit and her amazing intellect. I miss my father’s humor and his larger than life presence. Many times, when they visit my memories, I end up laughing as I remember something funny they said or did. I never realized how funny they were until I discovered that most of my memories were about funny incidents! Sometimes it hurts but usually, I end up laughing.
Today, I have a problem moving on. I do not want to. The woman I call my Godmother recently passed away. She has been my surrogate mother for the last 25 years. When I say “mother” I mean “Mother!” She loved me but she would put me in check in a minute. She would get on my nerves like my own mother would. She would impose on me like any good mother would. And then there were those precious moments when I just got in the bed next to her and we whispered and giggled like two college roommates. Her bed was the safest place in my physical world. It was a sanctuary. When I got in that bed, I knew I was coming home. I was loved and accepted in that moment. Now, she would make me get up 20 times and go get her something, but I was in the space of radical love. She taught me to wear makeup and get dressed up like a true Southern belle. She insisted on high-heeled shoes. I did not. She would share wisdom of marriage and relationships with me. She would talk about her father. Childhood. Money management. Jesus. The Holy Spirit. God, the Creator. Theology. Women in the Bible. Feminism. Our conversations were endless. We would collaborate on which vitamins and herbs were helpful to our health. We would cook with fresh herbs. We both enjoyed delectable and savory aromas emanating from the kitchen.
I miss her like I would miss my right arm if it were missing. A part of me is forever gone. I feel grief as I mourn the loss of my future relationship with my Godmother. I had images of her attending my graduation. I know she will be there in spirit but not in person. I imagined a lively future with her. I miss her. I would not be in seminary if not for her encouragement. She was a self-taught theologian but she was my academic peer, and academic teacher. She taught me about the work Dr. Carol Newsome was doing regarding women in ministry over 15 years ago, long before I came to seminary. She, first hand, taught me about the nature of God and how to intersect faith with the intellect.
A year after her death, the only thing that is diminished in my memories of her is how sick she actually was the entire time that I knew her. Her name was and is Sandra Childs Clements and she and her husband were inseparable after 50 years of marriage. This iconic woman died a “good” death.
In my grief, I have come to realize a few things:
– It is gloriously selfish to grieve. Grief is an affirmation of life. It is important to be selfish about it and indulge in it. Define selfish however you want but what I mean is “paying attention to yourself and making yourself a priority over others.” Selfishness makes me remember that I am human and I have to take care of myself. No one else will. My faith asks me to think of others and take care of them. However, I come first. I am useless if I have not engaged in meaningful and restorative self-care.
– I know she is in a better place. She had been so sick over all her life that she had come to fear needles. She hated being stuck. No more IVs. No more needles. No more pain. No more taking pills. No more going to the doctors. No more diagnoses. No more physical body health care. She is free from all that. This helps me revisit my belief about the unseen world and what I believe about those that transition. Knowing she is in a better place is not a trite statement. It is an affirmation in my belief that I do not know everything and that the Creator is in control. It is an opportunity to remember that I am not in control. I never was. And, I live towards a hopeful future.
– It is a privilege to grieve. It is better that I have known her and loved her than to have not known her and not loved her. Knowing her enhances my life. My life is continuously imprinted by her presence. Love hurts. A lot. When you love someone, you want the person with you always. You want the assurance of their presence and value. We grieve what we value.
We cannot escape this grief because we are human and we will love and others will die and we will miss them. However, I am left with this question: When I die, what will be said about my life? Who would I have impacted? In the words of Dr. Gregory Ellison, II, my Pastoral Care professor: What will it take to die a good death?