spare me words like “homegoing,” “graduation,” or “life celebration”

If you have been reading Eat With Joy for a while you’ll know of my fondness for two very old friends of mine, whom I’ve referred to here as Mr. and Mrs. S.

That’s them on their wedding day in 1949–after Edie (Mrs. S.) had served as an Army nurse on a psychiatric unit and after Jack (Mr. S.) had spent nearly four years in military hospitals following a serious injury sustained to his leg on Iwo Jima.

{They were married in the Episcopal church, a three minute walk from my home, and I was always amused when Jack got to the part in the story of their wedding where the rector asked them to kneel. His leg had fused into one long bone–no knee–after his injury, and so he couldn’t kneel. “Can’t kneel,” he said. So they just skipped that bit.}

There is so much I could say about these people. About their kindness and courage and virtue. About how my parents loved them as if they were their own parents; about how they were grandparents to me from the time I was 7. About how my tiny son, undaunted by Jack’s blindness and skin afflictions, climbed up to plant a big kiss on his lips during one of our Saturday breakfasts (which later turned into Saturday dinners.)

About how two weeks from now will mark 92 years since his birth.

And about how, on Friday, he died in the nursing home, holding Edie’s hand.

This kind of death–when a person is very old, when they’ve been very sick and in great pain, when they share our faith and belief in the resurrection of the dead–this kind of death is sometimes shrugged off:

“At least they’re not suffering.”

“He had a good, long life.”

“We will see him again.”

Even when such observations express some truth, they irk me for the following reasons:

1. Death is an enemy, not a friend

Don’t know about you, but I’ve attended too many Christian funerals that leapfrogged over the horror of death to get to the promise of the resurrection. (“I’m happy for brother so and so that he’s with Jesus!”)

Have you noticed that in these contexts, old, sturdy, and thoroughly appropriate words like “death” and “funeral” are conveniently left out in favor of “passed away,” “went to be with the Lord,” “homegoing,” and (my most-hated) “graduation”?

Sorry, but even a tradition that holds fast to the hope of the resurrection shouldn’t shy away from calling death what it is–what the Bible calls it, for goodness’ sake–an enemy, an evil, a wicked and grievous thing.

2. Grieving a death thoroughly is not un-Christian

I have never had the chance to be at a funeral that was primarily attended by people of African-American heritage, but I’m told that keeningcrying out and wailing–is an important part of the funeral in this tradition, and this sounds good to me. It isn’t “grieving without hope.” It isn’t denying the resurrection. It’s a practice that gives full outward expression to grief–”real emotions in real time,” as my dad puts it–and that’s a healthy thing. Where on earth did we get the notion that the ‘Christian’ thing to do is put on a happy face for funerals (excuse me, “homegoings”) and pretend like it’s no big deal, ’cause we’ll catch up with ‘ol Jack at the End of All Things? 

3. Losing people you love hurts.

Doesn’t matter if they were old, or sick, or in pain; if the death was peaceful, painless, expected. Death ends our ability to commune with our beloved ones, and trusting in the promise of Resurrection doesn’t erase that loss–they have still gone, as Shakespeare wrote, to that “undiscovered country from whose bourn [border] no traveler returns.”

Plus, love doesn’t listen to stupid reasons.

I keep thinking of this interview I heard with Jean Vanier, who helped found the L’Arche communities. He tells of a woman who was severely disabled–blind, unable to speak, incontinent, needing to be fed, dressed, everything. And she had been a part of their community for 30 years and was in her 70s. One day a woman visited the house and asked:

” ‘Oh, what is the point of keeping Françoise alive?’ And the leader of the little house said, ‘But madam, I love her.‘ “

And I loved Jack. So I will mourn, not without hope, but still I will mourn.

What about you? What place does mourning and grief have in your experiences of faith and life–and death?

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

14 thoughts on “spare me words like “homegoing,” “graduation,” or “life celebration”

  1. Sad to hear this news, as your stories of Mr. and Mrs. S. have always been my favorite columns here. And I appreciate your wisdom on death. I feel similarly when Christians start to theologize about the greater meaning of illness and disability, about how it’s something to be grateful for because it forces us to learn important things about God and who we are. I’m sorry, but serious illness and disability stink (just like death). Jesus’s life and ministry was ultimately about the defeat of death, as well as all those things that limit human flourishing, including blindness and lameness and deafness and imprisonment and sin. As the theologian David B. Hart has written: “Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”

    Blessings on you and Mrs. S. in this time of mourning.

  2. Oh I so agree with you here. If death is sanitised so it is no longer an enemy, then the cross is belittled to the point of becoming almost unnecessary. I think your third point is particularly relevant – death ruptures relationships and God has demonstrated that there is nothing that grieves him more than this. Of course we have a ‘sure and certain hope’ in the resurrection but while we wait for it, anger and mourning are entirely appropriate. May God bless you and your family as you work through this painful time.

  3. I know just how you feel, Rachel. I’ve always loved what Ransom says to the lady in Lewis’s “Perelandra,” when Weston has been trying to tell her that death is a good thing: “It is not like that. It is horrible. It has a foul smell. [Christ] Himself wept when He saw it.”

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend.

  4. So sorry to hear about mr. S’s death Rachel! I know he meant a lot to you. I can’t imagine th loss mrs s is feeling right now.

    Loved your post – it reminded me of when stephen’s grandmother died several years ago. She was in her 90′s and many things were said along the lines of what you posted here. After her death he wrote an article for our church newsletter in which he was expressing a similar sentiment. He stated that the act of destroying life (death) is diametrically opposed to God who is the giver of life (I’m sure he was much more eloquent than my paraphrase). It’s true, no matter the circumstance, death is always our enemy and although we do not grieve without hope, we still grieve nonetheless. Death is a horrible, horrible thing. Again, sorry for your loss.


  5. Oh, dear Mr. S – what a great loss! I’m so sorry. I’m thankful that Mrs. S was right by his side, as always, and I’m thankful for the love you and your mom showed him through your meals. Your posts about cooking for them are truly beautiful. I will pray for Mrs. S and for your family, that God would support you as you support one another in this time of grief. And I don’t think I will ever eat a steak again without thinking of Mr. S and his life well-lived!

  6. Oh, Rachel, I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. I will pray for you and your family, and for his wife and family. My heartfelt agreement with your post. I know from experience that it’s very painful to go through a funeral and not have the opportunity to truly mourn. It feels like one has been stunted. My thoughts are with you in this time of grief. Thank you for sharing these thoughts and all the stories of visiting your dear friends.

  7. Rachel our hearts go out to you and your family and we thank you for all of the support ,prayers , comfort, love and the good food that you prepared for Mr.S so that he could enjoy a home cooked meal. You touched him in a very special way and he really appreciated that. Mr.S loved to dine and he loved his steak. You have been so kind to the both of them.

  8. Thank you for posting this today and the reminder of taking time to grieve. My grandmother died today. She was an army nurse for WWII and a gentle, southern, Godly woman.

  9. I am struck that the rise of such euphemisms seems to coincide with the loss of any sense of obligation to minister to the sick and dying. It’s a bit difficult to speak of death in such cheery terms when you’re right there seeing– and usually smelling– the relentless decrepitude.

    Many gladly accept a certain amount of aging, as though people were fine wine or cheese, but when they begin to turn, so to speak, promptly dispose of them.

    And then, without a trace of shame, they will speak of having simply not been “able to bear” seeing so-and-so “in such a condition,” as if we were supposed to feel compassion for their sensitivity instead of anger at their willingness to toss their neighbor on the compost pile and forget him.

    Thank you for swimming against the tide. By dining with Jack in the nursing home you helped him live while he was still alive.

    • Some cogent observations there, Tom. Another of my friends commented in a different context about our increasing distance from what she called “death’s rawness.” In a different time or place, who among us would not have had the experience of caring for someone dying, and then, caring for someone’s dead body? As with birth, we’ve removed death from our home and handed it over to the professionals, and, without romanticizing either, we lose some of the experience when we do so–believing that it’s doctors, not women, that bring forth babies, and that it’s institutions, not families, that are responsible for the dying.

  10. Rachel, thank you for sharing this. I have always thought about how people talk about death. When my mom died it changed my view of death and grieving entirely. It changed my whole view of the world. I felt so off balanced for a while. It wasn’t that I didn’t love God. I did and still do. It was just such a shock and such a loss that I didn’t know what to do. So many people reminded me that I would see her again one day but that is not what I wanted to hear. It didn’t bring me comfort the first few years because I missed her and wanted to be able to share life with her now. I am grateful that I will be able to see her again one day but it will different. I remember hating to say “passed away” but using it because I thought it made other people “feel better” or handle it better. But I needed to hear the words “she’s dead” to fully understand that she was gone. Two weeks ago there was an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where one of the surgeons asks another surgeon to say it, say her husband had died because without hearing it, it was not real. I have felt the same way. My mom’s death was a shock, unexpected (she was hit by a car while crossing the street) and occurred right before Christmas, one of my favorite holidays. How could I not feel sad, angry, and look at it as “she is in a better place”??? I couldn’t see it that way and I felt all those things….but it was a process and God was with me the entire way…He allowed me to grieve and through it all I learned so much and have come to the place where I see God’s hand in it all and love Him still. Thank you again for bringing this issue to light. I am so sorry to hear about this important friend in your life dying. I am sure you will miss him and shed tears but doesn’t that just mean he was well loved? :) God bless.

    • Thank you, Claudia, for sharing this part of your story. I did not know that your mom had died so suddenly and tragically. I think you are right–that, especially when a death is a shocking, sudden loss, no one is ready to say “hey, it’s all OK because they’re with Jesus” or “you’ll see them again.” These statements kind of run counter to our lived experience–which is that when people die, they are gone from us–even if we fully expect and look forward to the resurrection. I take comfort that Jesus mourned his friend, and that Scripture speaks of death as an ‘enemy.’ Thank you again for reading, and for sharing your story. XO.

  11. Thank you for sharing this, and I am so sorry for your loss. Death is the enemy — not that we need to fear it, but it isn’t *right*. Over the past couple of years I’ve lived abroad while all three of my remaining grandparents died — the last one was the hardest for me, because it meant an entire generation of my family was gone. I came to this realization about Christians and mourning: When God looked out over his creation and saw that it was good, he created life. Death was never the plan. When we mourn, we share with God the anguish for a broken world.

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