Empty Grief

My mother died last Friday. I’m not exactly in shock, though I feel a kind of disorienting grief. In truth, shock reached out and gripped my life when late one Friday afternoon almost two years ago her doctor called with the diagnosis – Alzheimer’s disease. I’d seen the signs and symptoms for more than two years – my father died of the same disease – but to hear the actual words upended my mind and heart. I knew immediately what was to come – a slow, grinding decline and ultimately death. And even though my mother lived a long, generally healthy life, it’s hard, very hard, to see the circle of life close with so many ragged edges.

Over the past two weeks I stood by helplessly watching certain death become the reality of her daily life. As I kept the final vigil,I realized I’ve been paused and poised for this eventuality longer than I even care to remember. My life has been more or less on hold. I’ve waited – not always patiently – ready to spring into action at any moment, very much my way of being and doing in the world. But really there was nothing I could do except to be there with love, presence, and faithfulness. And even though the love part was complicated and chaotic, it’s all I could give to assure her dying soul and spirit.

What many of us experience is that this bedside time is a chronos world away from life beyond the four walls of a room. As hours creep by suddenly three o’clock becomes twilight and then midnight. The clock ticks away in its usual order, but we who are physically in the present are lost in a surreal time and space that has little to do with the rest of the world. I’ve experienced this now three times in nine years and find again that in these moments of high tension and expectation my thoughts are an odd admixture of  escapism – a human longing for what’s normal, everything that’s “out there” – and total immersion in the past, with absolutely no vision for anything beyond the moment of death.

As I sat there in yet another uncomfortable bedside chair I listened to my thoughts. What I heard was a loud, precise recital of our life's history. This mental discourse started with childhood and included every chapter of our sometimes fractured relationship. Heavy thoughts left me in pain. I hurt for what was not and had never been, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18 NRSV). All I could do was release the past to God’s infinite wisdom and understanding and leave it there.

And now I’m struggling to untangle the complex emotions at the heart of a complicated grief. I realize that what I’m really feeling is empty. Objectively I need to attribute at least some of the void to physical exhaustion and the overwhelming sense of being drained by this ordeal of illness and death. It’s not wrong to feel any of these emotions - it’s what makes grief so personal and individual. Everyone grieves differently and not every grief is from a heart broken by belovedness. In some relationships our heartbreak is from what our mind says should have been our reality but our heart knows was not.

When we grieve it's a gift to our soul's woundedness to rely on the spiritual strength of others and allow their prayers to carry us for a while. And throughout this life-changing experience of life and death I’ve savored moments of perfect peace when the power of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness have been unmistakably present to my heart and soul. God’s presence is always with us, sometimes we’re just less attuned. There is refuge and comfort in God’s everlasting arms - always and forever.  

For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

Isaiah 49:13b NRSV

Keep me this day, O God, in the perfect peace of your care. Amen.