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Let Us Grieve

By October 25, 2014 2 Comments

With my mother’s memorial service just one week past, I hope you’ll accept one more post about encountering the end of life. Next time a different topic, I promise.

My biggest surprise in this whole passage has been the degree to which I’ve been surprised. When you’ve watched someone decline over a nine-year period—quite gradually at first, then accelerating, finally leaving very little of the person you once knew—you come to think (well, I came to think) that the last step would be rather small. I seem to have anticipated a process like a sunset over Lake Michigan. The sun drops slowly toward the horizon, then touches it, then is a quarter below the surface, a half, three-quarters, only a tiny slice left, and then entirely gone. Just a wee slipping away with no visible change in the light around us on the shore. So it went with my mom, only that last little dip brought on instant midnight. Or, to use another analogy, I suddenly found myself in a boat out of sight of land, twilight descending, wind rising, not quite sure where I was except alone.

“Of course,” kind friends say when I relate this experience, “it was your Mom! Doesn’t matter whether she’s 53, 73, or 93, she’s still your Mom.” Truth be told, it does matter some, even a ton, those age differences. Saying goodbye to a parent “old and well-stricken in years,” in the chiseled prose of King James, is not nearly as harsh as parting forty or even twenty years earlier. But, if better, it’s still not good. It’s a parting, a tearing away from the past, the loss of a center—even, one older friend said, the loss of a big chunk of yourself.

So why did this come as such a surprise? Was it the slow drip beforehand habituating me to separation by increment rather than by shock? Was a pastor right to observe, “Jim, you think you live in your brain?” Yes, to both, with a rueful laugh to the latter. But maybe you simply can’t know until it happens to you. Know about it, but not know it. Exceptions possible for those in hospice nursing and pastoral care, but for the rest of us, a shock it will be.

My niece and fellow 12-Blogger Jessica Bratt delivered an eloquent, poignant, hope-filled homily at my Mom’s—her Grandma’s—memorial service. To me the most powerful statement came about halfway through, when she acknowledged the real grief of the occasion. Yes, a 93-year-old woman who had passed a long, rich, blessed life and now had been delivered from all debility—yes, we still do, must, mourn the loss of her; we name and claim the pain of her absence. Yes, even though it could have been so much worse, even though Mom’s in a better place, even though it’s better this way. Jessica did not voice these “even thoughs,” nor did anyone else say them in my hearing the whole weekend. They did echo in my head from years gone by, but apparently some strong pastoral work in Reformed networks has been going on to good effect. No wonderful plan for our lives, no (one of my Mom’s favorites, truth be told) “God’s waiting room.” Plenteous words of grace, plenty of sympathy, plenty of stated permission to grieve and to mourn. Even though….

I used to deride the whole therapeutic lexicon of processing and giving permission and owning your feelings along life’s (gulp!) journey. I wonder if that was because it was often a woman speaking the words. Or maybe because of that house—retreat?—in my brain. Well, mark me up for discovering one’s inner woman, and join along in the Dylan hymn-sing: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” The kid grieving the passing of his last living parent, and doing better for doing it out loud. Lord, teach us how to grieve for that is the measure of love, and the doorway to grace.


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • jim schaap says:

    You may continue to write about your mother's death, James B. I, for one, am greatly thankful.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Jim. You are blessing us all simply by telling the truth about grief. You honor your mom by grieving well.

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