It was a cold morning in February that began like all the rest before. I woke about 5:30 and went to make the coffee. I scanned email, blogs, social media, and the news that took place overnight and was now ready to face the day. After dressing, I returned downstairs, where my wife was on the phone. That phone call would change the direction of my life.
My parents were in their 80’s and living not far from my wife and me. They had the usual health problems of 80-year-olds but were in otherwise good health. Both had been in and out of hospital on various occasions over the last year or so.
The night before my mother woke in the middle of the night not feeling well. The ambulance was called, and she was transported to the hospital to be checked out. During her examination it was determined that the aneurism in her stomach was about to rupture, and she would need emergency surgery.
As the medical staff was preparing her for surgery the aneurism ruptured; and she died. It happened quickly. The phone call my wife received was my sister-in-law calling to give us the news of my mother’s death.
It is hard to gauge how a person will react to grief as everyone responds differently. In Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, she outlined five stages of the grief process. This was the first work that outlined the grief process, showing the various stages one would move through to heal from their grief. However, each person moves through the grief process differently. The process is not straightforward and follows no logical path.
After my wife told me my mother was dead I experienced a wave of emotions. Emotions that I had never before experienced. I came close to collapsing on the floor, tears came to my eyes, and my mind went blank. There is nothing that can prepare you for that news. Intellectually I knew that one day this would happen. But when that day arrived, I did not see it coming.
But then it was as if a switch was thrown and I went into “minister mode.” Certain details needed attention. Arrangements would have to be made. People would have to be informed. And, we had my father to take care of. My grief would come later; right now, there was work to be done.
Grief is a deeply personal experience. As I have already said, no two people experience grief in the same way. The uniqueness of the grief experience comes in part from the uniqueness of our relationship with the one we have lost.
I had a very close relationship with my mother. She was my rock and my biggest supporter. She always told me what she thought and challenged me when I made a significant life decision. I talked with her almost every day and she was usually the first one I would call when I heard news, like the news of her death.
The first stage of the Kubler-Ross method is acceptance of the death. I moved relatively quickly through this stage. My family gathered at the hospital with my father. The staff asked if we wanted to go and see her. At first, I was not sure, but I am glad that I did. Other than the tube in her mouth, she looked peaceful and at rest. The doctor came in and spoke with us. He reassured us that her death was quick and painless. We sat for some time in silence, just sitting and thinking.
I mentioned that I was in “Minister Mode.” I was busying myself with the thousands of details that had to be taken care of. This is a self-preservation mode that helped me “keep it all together.” I guess it comes from the idea that I am supposed to look at death from a professional point of view as a minister. I am the one that sits with families when they receive this news. Sometimes I am the one who helps them get started on all that has to be done. Now, it is my turn, and the switch just flipped, and I went on autopilot.
We set about making the arrangements and getting the word out. I have cousins that live all over the country, and if they were going to make arrangements to be present at the funeral, those plans would have to be made quickly. Then, there was the funeral home and all of those arrangements. We were looking through 80 years of pictures to select just the right ones and pick out what she wore in the casket. There was a lot to do, and I was happy for the distraction.
My mother’s priest was away on vacation, so I asked a priest-friend to preside at her funeral mass. I had decided that I would give the sermon/eulogy at the funeral, and I began to work on what I would say. I am not usually “preachy” at funerals. I would rather talk about the life of the person we are there to remember and leave the theology of the resurrection for another day. No one comes to a funeral to be “saved” or to hear about the resurrection. People are grieving and are looking for comfort.
Looking back on my process, I realize that putting my thoughts down on paper helped me process my feelings and grief. I am a manuscript preacher, so I write my sermons out. I don’t just read the words I have written, but the manuscript gives a road map of where I am going and keeps me on track. My words were mixed with emotion, thanksgiving for the life of my mother, and some humor. Funerals are a celebration of life, and laughter is a great way to celebrate.
In their book “Grief Work: Healing from Loss,” Fran Zamore and Ester Leutenberg write about grief as a journey that does not happen in a straight line but more like a meandering path. Like the Kubler-Ross Method, the Healing Pathway is a way to assist and make some sense out of the grief process. Although I had begun to process my grief, my real grief had not hit.
The grief journey came crashing down on me several months after my mother’s death. I am prone to depression, and I spent many a day curled up on the sofa watching Netflix. I had good days, and I had bad days. Days when the world seemed clear and days when the fog would set in. I was able to accomplish most tasks, but nothing seemed to bring me any real joy.
For many years, my family would attend an event in the mountains of New Hampshire. The New Hampshire Scottish Highland Games was an event that we looked forward to all year. We rented a condo, spent time together, and just had a good time. As that event approached, my grief started to intensify, and the night before we were supposed to leave, it hit me like a ton of bricks.
For those last several months, I had been holding back and distracting myself from the reality of my grief, but that night, the reality of my grief set in. I recalled all of the good times we had over the years and how different it would be without her this year. There was something about going back to the mountain that was a trigger event for me, and I broke down. I could not take that journey because my grief journey was not complete.
I prefer the image of the Healing Pathway or the Grief Journey, although I don’t think you ever really recover or heal from grief. There comes the point when the grief becomes less raw, and you adapt to life without the other person. My mother has been gone almost four years, but there are times when I pick up the phone to call her.
It has taken years to get to the point where I can write these words. I have good days, and I have bad days, and my journey continues.