On my sister's death...

After being forced to take a break from our journey home because of Jersey Shore traffic, we arrived back in the Berkshires safe and sound on Monday. And during an ordinary, evening meeting at church, I received a call on my cell phone from my brother saying that Beth had finally let go and died quietly.  I am grateful that for Beth all suffering and sorrow are over. As our thanksgiving for a life liturgy puts it:

We thank you, Lord, for all that she was to those who loved her. We thank you that for Beth all sickness and sorrow are ended and death itself is past for she has entered the home where all your people gather together in peace. Keep us, we pray, in communion with your faithful people in every time and place, that at last we too may rejoice together in the heavenly family with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever. Amen.

Truth be told, Beth had a wounded and trying life - especially these past 20 years. There is much I might say about fear, addictions, denial and so much more but that would probably do more harm than good. Suffice it to say, from my perspective much of Beth's agony was self inflicted. She is, sadly, not unique in this and I grieve not only for her death but also for the truly horrible choices she made so often in her all too short life.

Some, no doubt, will be shocked that I even offer this much so soon after her death. But for the past 10 years Beth and I had been at odds because of her self-destructive choices. It didn't change our love for one another, but it did make it more complicated as those who have been down this road know all too well.  In so many ways, it was Beth who impelled me to pray the words of the Serenity Prayer and trust them.

On one of the nights that I sat in vigil before her death, I reread these words from Frederick Buechner about the tears Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus - and they struck me as true for my sister and myself.

Jesus wept. It is very east to sentimentalize the scene and very tempting because to sentimentalize something is to look only at the emotion in it and at the emotion it stirs in us rather than the reality of it, which we are always tempted not to look at because reality, truth, silence are all what we are not much good at and avoid when we can. To sentimentalize something is to savor rather than to suffer the sadness of it, it is to sigh over the prettiness of it rather than tremble at the beauty of it, which may make fearsome demands of us or pose fearsome threats.

Not just as preachers but as Christians in general we are particularly given to sentimentalizing our faith as much of Christian art and Christian preaching bear witness - the sermon as tearjerker, the Gospel an urn of long-stemmed roses and baby's breath to brighten up the front of the church, Jesus as Gregory Peck (or in our era let's say Brad Pitt.)

But standing beside the dead body of his dead friend he is not Gregory Peck (or Brad Pitt or even George Clooney.) He has no form or comeliness about him that we should desire him, and as one from whom men and women hide their faces, we turn from him. To see a man weep is not a comely sight, especially this man whom we want to be stronger and braver than a man, and the impulse is to turn from him as we turn from anybody who weeps because the sigh of real tears, painful and disfiguring, forces us to look to their source where we do not choose to look because where his tears come from, our tears also come from...

My deepest grief for Beth, you see, has to do with all the different ways she chose to nourish her fears and wounds rather than be open to the possibilities of life. I don't pretend to understand this process, but it breaks my heart because Beth was so full of life and joy as a child and young woman. Her smile was infectious and her love profound. In San Francisco she helped us take care of Jesse when she was a baby. She joined us and worked for the Farm Workers movement in DC. She cared for many small children and taught them love, manners and integrity in her prime. And then little by little at first, and then in torrents later, she gave up on hope. She quit trying to get better. She didn't go to a doctor so her illnesses just grew worse. She gave in to despair and pain until she was cynical and mean-spirited and defeated. And finally when her body shriveled and withered and simply shut down, it was just ugly and tragic with no possibility for sentimentalizing for any of us.

Fr. Ed Hays once wrote that when we hear about a death we should pause in the presence of the Angel of Death and give thanks to God for yet another invitation to live whatever life remains for us fully, passionately, creatively and with grace. Beth died a hard death that bore witness to her very hard life. I give thanks to God that her sorrow is over now and pray that those who remain might live into this prayer from the liturgy:

O God, whose days are without end and whose mercies cannot be counted:
awaken us to the shortness and uncertainty of human life. By your Holy Spirit, lead us in faithfulfness all our days. And when we have served you in our generation, may we be gathered with those who have gone before, having the testimony of a good conscience, in the communion of your holy church, in the confidence of a certain faith, in the comfort of a saving hope, in favor with you, our God, and at perfect peace with the world; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Some times there are no happy endings, yes? Sometimes all that remains is sadness and relief that for everyone the suffering is over, too. And sometimes we are challenged to choose to wait for the light in the darkness...


Black Pete said…
Time to revisit this wisdom, and know that you are loved.

RJ said…
Amen.... my man

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