The Long Road to Grief


June’s Story:

My mother died twenty years ago, yet I never grieved for her properly until recently. I got stuck obsessing over which exact moment she died and never moved on to the grieving. I witnessed the moment of my mom’s passing, and yet I missed it, or so I thought, because I didn’t realize it happened.

Mom fought for three years to beat the golf-ball-sized malignant tumor in her brain. She went through a couple of surgeries plus a few rounds of chemotherapy, but each time the tumor returned—my mother and the tumor in her both just as stubborn and aggressive. My mom spent the last few months of her life in hospice, and mostly slept through the last few weeks. I don’t remember the last time I spoke to her; I didn’t know she would fall asleep and not wake again this side of eternity.

The night she died, we gathered around her bedside—my dad, my two older sisters, my mom’s older and younger brothers, and me. We expected her to go any minute, but she held on for hours. One after another, my sisters and my mom’s brothers left, promising to come back in the morning after they had taken care of their families.

At two in the morning, my dad had retired to the adjoining room for a rest. I alone remained at my mom’s bedside. She looked restful, lying on her side, yet somewhat alien and remote. I gazed into her face, remembering her pre-cancer, when she was the mom I knew. Then she sputtered and a gob of saliva drooled from her mouth. I reached for the nearest tissue and cleaned her up, but no sooner had I done that when another torrent of spit spewed out. I used up all available tissues within reach. I rushed to the sink, grabbed a hand towel, wiped her as best I could, and still saliva expelled from her relaxed body. I ran back to the sink, washed the towel, ready for another round of cleaning.

When I got back to her side, my dad had come into the room and stood at the foot of the bed of his wife of forty years. He peered over and simply said, “She’s no more.”

I glared at him and barked, “Can you do something more useful than say that? Can’t you see she needs help?”

Just about then, a nurse came in. She took one look at my mom, shooed us away, closed the curtains. At some point, someone told me my mom had gone. I can’t tell you when it happened. But she died right in front of me, and I missed it.

For two decades, I obsessed over getting hypnotized so I could pinpoint the exact moment my mom died. Although I cried and dreamed of her in the years after, I grieved and moved on—or so I thought. But I never got over not knowing the exact moment. It consumed all my thoughts about my mom’s death, instead of facing the actual loss of my mother from this world.

A few months ago, I wrestled with the whole experience again. And Jesus painted in my mind a picture of the evening of his crucifixion. Aside from the horror of the day, much had to be done before Sabbath. The women at the cross had little time to pause and weep or get over the shock of seeing their friend and son brutally murdered. Perhaps they too rushed around, shouting out orders at one another to get the burial spices and shroud cloths ready. Washing and cleaning up the bloodied and muddied body of Jesus, as bodily fluids flowed out of him.

The women ministered to their friend, as I ministered to my mom when she needed it. So what if I had noticed the exact moment of her passing and stopped to stare and weep and mourn? Instead, I had noticed the indignity of my mom’s bodily fluids expelling out of her as her body gave up her spirit to pass into Jesus’s presence. And I loved her the best I knew how, giving her what care I could.

I never understood before how our past could be redeemed by Jesus. Now I begin to see. The painful and bewildering business of death does not come in a neat, tidy package, ready for us to consume how and when we please. Jesus redeemed for me the exact moment of my mom’s death with his tremendous gift of grace. Now I can grieve.

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